Things were going terribly wrong. Ato Boropi could feel it.
Dozens of villagers had squeezed next to each other on the floor of a one-room church perched on a mountain in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Several more huddled along the walls outside, as rain pummeled the corrugated metal roof.
Boropi had helped to arrange the meeting. Leaders of two clans had promised her they would formally end the violence between them that had forced 160 people into hiding, fearing for their lives. In the church, she prayed they would keep their promise. A police order to formalize the peace agreement had not yet been issued.
Boropi's unease deepened as she noticed clusters of young men in heated conversations on the periphery. Most alarmingly, members of a third clan not involved in the initial violence were there as allies of the group that perpetrated the attack. Some of them were her relatives by marriage.
"I saw something was wrong," recalled Boropi, 43, and a co-founder of a local advocacy group called the Kafe Urban Settlers Women's Association. "But because all the eyes were on me, I felt it was not easy to tell."
Just after the new year, residents of the small farming community of Johogave had blamed a member of another clan for the deaths of three of their relatives. They claimed that the man — a coffee farmer and father of 10 — had used a form of sorcery known as "poison" to kill them.
In the Eastern Highlands, the accusation of sorcery is a vigilante's rallying cry. Nationally, such accusations are believed to be responsible for dozens of deaths every year.
Armed with machetes, a group zeroed in on their target and hacked the coffee farmer to death in his garden, setting fire to the thatch-roofed homes where his extended family lived. His relatives fled — to a nearby churchyard, to a police station, into the bush. For six weeks, they could not return to their village, terrified that they too would be attacked.
Two months later, in mid-March, the two clans were facing each other on opposite sides of the tiny church overlooking the town of Henganofi. From the back of the room, Boropi watched police officers remind the crowd that killing someone over a sorcery accusation is illegal, and that the perpetrators of an attack would be prosecuted. The principal of the school called for peace, so school-age children from the displaced clan could return to the classroom.
Preventing tribal war
These meetings, known as cease-fires, are a last-ditch attempt to stop the escalation of violence sparked by a sorcery accusation. If opposing parties continue to retaliate against each other, it can turn into a full-scale conflict.
Law enforcement and researchers alike say there are no reliable sources to determine exactly how many people are killed each year in attacks against those accused of sorcery, or even if the number is going up or down. An analysis of newspaper records and court filings led by the Papua New Guinea National Research Institute, a public policy think tank, found an annual average of 30 killings from 1996 to 2016. Some government estimates put the number even higher — up to 500 deaths a year.
After several hours, members from both clans stood around a table with two leafy stalks of a palm lily known as tanket, a ceremonial plant with roots so deep, it keeps growing even if it's cut down. In the highlands, it's used to mark boundaries, seal marriages and make amends.
Clan leaders were invited to say their last words.
"Lives were lost, we couldn't get people from outside to come and solve these problems for us, so we had to get people to solve it ourselves," one young man said in Tok Pisin, a colonial-era language based on English, German and tribal languages.
"Whatever has happened has happened," said another. "We'll live as brothers and I won't take revenge."
Afterward, the displaced residents returned to their homes. Namax Roy, a member of the clan that initiated the attack, said he was relieved.
"I'm happy this has taken place. We have the freedom to live a normal life again," Roy said. "Now, I'm at peace."
But Boropi wasn't. Her unease only deepened as she rode back to her home in Goroka, sitting in the back of a police van. She had organized four cease-fire ceremonies this spring. She wasn't confident this one would hold.
A historical practice
With a population of 8 million, Papua New Guinea covers the eastern half of the second-largest island in the world after Greenland. (The western half is an Indonesian province). Think of someplace the size of two Californias crisscrossed with mountains, ringed with tiny tropical islands and plopped into the ocean just north of Australia.
Humans have lived here for about 50,000 years, according to archaeologists — some believe agriculture developed here before just about anywhere else. The island is home to some 800 languages, spoken to this day.
For many tribes, sorcery is an ancient practice that has played an integral role in village life. Distinct traditions and names — poison, kumo (a demon thought to take the form of an animal to kill someone), sanguma (sorcery or black magic) — can be found throughout the country. Generally, the practices were used for traditional healing, to improve crops and in times of war.
Historically, residents say, people accused of using this power to hurt another might be banished from a community or killed in the dead of night. But in recent decades, accused sorcerers have been tortured and killed — sometimes publicly — including in places where such attacks didn't happen in the past.
Somu Nosi, a resident of the valley trading town of Goroka, the Eastern Highlands provincial capital, said her father used to tell her stories about her late grandfather, who practiced the form of sorcery known as poison at the beginning of the last century. As a young girl, it made her uncomfortable to think about the people her grandfather may or may not have killed. As an adult, she sees it differently.
"We have these negative impressions that these people are murderers or killers," said Nosi, 34, as she sipped a cup of tea in a grocery store deli. "But during those times, it was something the community saw as a skill or an asset."
Nosi, who has also worked as an interpreter for NPR, explains that even the language used to describe her late grandfather's role hints at its history. In Tok Pisin, her grandfather would be known as a "poison man." But in her tribe's native language, the term is "tusa man" — which is closer to his other role as a village healer.
"Tusa means herbs, or to make it all right," she says. "Aside from being a warrior, carrying bows and arrows, this was another skill added to what the community had. To us it was a skill, a possession, our prized specialty."
Poison gave the tribe something that others feared. During times of war, that fear protected them. For thousands of years, it was part of the delicate balance of power that made survival possible in the highlands.
When Australian colonists and Christian missionaries arrived at the start of the 20th century, they pressed residents to abandon their beliefs. Sorcery was considered the work of the devil and became a crime punishable by six months of imprisonment.
"They said this is not true, this is devil power, this is no good," said Charlie Kumo, who gives cultural presentations to the Christian missionaries who continue to come through Goroka each year. "Even our traditional things like monuments, sacred things, they were all destroyed as well ... so we got baptized and we are Christians."
A struggle to deter violence
In the years that followed Papua New Guinea's independence from Australia in 1975, reports started to surface of a new type of violence. Mobs targeted people accused of practicing sorcery in public killings. Instead of occurring in areas with long traditions of sorcery, these attacks took place in cities, among informal squatter settlements and in districts where residents did not historically share beliefs about sorcery.
"What exactly caused that change, I don't know. But [violence related to] sorcery became more of a public affair," says Charlotte Kakebeeke, the Papua New Guinea program director of Oxfam, an international aid group that provides funding to the Kafe Women's Association.
Law enforcement struggled to deter the violence. The Sorcery Act of 1971, a national law, criminalized both the practice of sorcery and making false accusations of sorcery. But it also made it possible for murderers to be let off if their victims were practicing sorcery. This put many police officers in an untenable position, unsure of how to intervene or whom they should arrest in cases of assault where, under the law, victims and attackers were both subject to prosecution.
In February 2013, the Sorcery Act was repealed after photographs spread through social media of a 20-year-old woman stripped, doused in gasoline and burned to death in the highlands city of Mount Hagen. Kepari Leniata, a new mother, had been accused of witchcraft following the death of a local boy.
Leniata's death drew global attention and Papua New Guinea's parliament repealed the Sorcery Act just three months later. Accusing someone of sorcery would no longer be a plausible defense in a murder trial. But the sorcery accusations and killings continue.
Fiona Hukula, a senior researcher for the National Research Institute in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea's capital, has enlisted a network of volunteers to report attacks on people accused of sorcery to a national database, in the hopes of getting an accurate measure of the violence on a national scale for the first time.
So far, her research has identified hot spots of reported sorcery-accusation killings in the highlands and the autonomous region of Bougainville, an island that went through a decade-long civil war that ended in 1998. Elsewhere, it is less common.
"The belief in sorcery is quite widespread in this country. But the violence we are seeing is not happening everywhere," Hukula said. "Some provinces have had ways to deal with this for a long time that isn't violent."
To truly deter attacks, she said, perpetrators must be arrested and prosecuted for their crimes. Many sorcery-accusation killings go uninvestigated by local police, emboldening perpetrators and inspiring violent retaliation when relatives of the victim take justice into their own hands. Under current law, people accused of sorcery can bring a defamation case against their accusers in a local court. If brought before a judge, violence based on a sorcery accusation is treated as an assault or homicide case.
Earlier this year, 97 people were convicted of the murder of seven in the coastal province of Madang — a sign of progress, Hukula says.
In the meantime, preventing violence against those accused of sorcery remains an arduous task. To intervene in a killing carries the risk not only of bodily harm, but also the weight of questioning a widely shared belief system. Local law enforcement is often too far away, too under-resourced or simply unwilling to stop an attack. Increasingly, the role falls not to police and local governments, but to civilians, missionaries and local aid workers like Boropi.
Filling a peacemaking role
Boropi married young — her parents couldn't afford to send her to school after the 10th grade. While living in her husband's village, one of her own relatives was accused of sorcery. Fearing that she would be attacked as well, Boropi left and returned home to Goroka with her 8-month-old son. Her husband did not follow her until much later.
In 2003, after stints selling food in local markets, Boropi and her neighbors in the Goroka squatter settlement of Banana Bloc applied for grants from international aid groups to help victims of violence, an experience many of them shared. The Kafe Women's Association was born.
Boropi rose to become second-in-command and chief finance officer. She learned how to do the finances during a two-week bookkeeping class. Learning how to negotiate a peace deal came on the job.
That everyday people like Boropi must help fill a peacemaking role more suited to law enforcement and legal professionals weighs on Ruth Kissam, the director of the Papua New Guinea Tribal Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Port Moresby.
Recently, Kissam flew to the highlands to sit in a hospital with a 6-year-old girl, a daughter of Kepari Leniata, the woman killed in 2013. The girl, known publicly as Justice, had been accused of sorcery and was tortured and burned by a mob. Kissam kept vigil in the hospital while the child recovered, and found a family for her to stay with safely.
"Sometimes you just don't have a choice. Someone calls you up and tells you this is what's happening to a child," Kissam said. "We might totally look out of place in a setting like that, but who would fit, you know? If not you, then who?"
"When our life is improved, other people become jealous"
Jim Maris, 27, is the brother of the coffee farmer who was killed in Johogave. When asked why his brother may have been targeted, he says he sees the situation pretty plainly. Maris and his brother had begun to grow and sell dried coffee beans together, a lucrative business for small-scale farmers in the highlands. The other clan wanted a share of the profits.
"It's jealousy," he told an interpreter in Tok Pisin in the weeks after his brother's death.
Maris was exhausted. During six weeks of displacement, he had shuttled between scattered families to check on the children — his own and others' — while scraping together odd jobs so he could buy food. A week before the cease-fire ceremony, his infant daughter had fallen ill and died while the family was in hiding at the church.
"We tried, we work hard and get money to try and improve our lives," Maris said. "When our life is improved, other people become jealous, attack us and accuse us."
Though societies in Papua New Guinea are extremely diverse and impossible to generalize, many are characterized by a fierce egalitarianism and deep loyalty to family ties. Entire villages chip in to pay traditional bride prices for newlywed couples. Younger relatives who move to a city for high-paying jobs are expected to send money back to their families.
Some researchers suggest that modern sorcery attacks may be a particularly brutal way to redistribute power, if a successful member of the community is not seen to have shared his or her wealth appropriately.
"Sorcery accusation-related violence... represents a means through which individuals who feel disenfranchised can attempt to enhance their power through enrolling community disapproval," writes Mark Evenhuis, who studied sorcery attacks in Bougainville as a human rights adviser and consultant.
Other times, victims are among the most vulnerable, plucked from the margins of a community — widows, orphans, people living with mental illnesses.
After witnessing a sorcery attack in the city of Lae 10 years ago, Monica Paulus decided to devote the rest of her career confronting the issue. She works with a human rights organization called Kup Women for Peace in Simbu Province, just west of the Eastern Highlands.
Paulus has sat across the table from accusers and asked: Why are you doing this?
The answers she's received reflect jealousy, greed and a need for revenge. Childless widows might be accused of sorcery so their family members or neighbors can take control of their land. If a woman is accused, she says, "Their sons and nephews wait for their turn to come. If there's another death in the area, it's their turn now to accuse the family ... so they go and do the payback because they lost their mother or auntie."
A short-lived cease-fire
A week after the March cease-fire ceremony in the church on the mountain in Johogave, relatives of the slain coffee farmer attacked five people in retaliation and set fire to several homes. Two of the five victims died.
For Boropi, this attack brought the conflict close to home. The men who were killed were her husband's younger brothers. They were members of the third clan that had sided with the coffee farmer's killers.
"I was in the office when I got a phone call, they told me [my brother-in-law] is dead. I was shocked," Boropi said. He was the one she was closer to, she said. "He wasn't the cause of the problem."
She turned over the past months in her mind, trying to pinpoint what went wrong. Did the police fail to file a restraining order in time? Did the community rush the reconciliation?
"It's not a leader's decision for reconciliation, it's the people. They must take their position from the heart," Boropi says. "I don't know what's behind their mind."
Soon after that phone call, one victim's widow — Boropi's sister-in-law — showed up at her doorstep in Goroka, with her two young children in tow. In the evenings, the young woman sat shell-shocked in the yard, her 2-year-old daughter cuddled in her lap.
Boropi said that her only hope is that the killers of her brothers-in-law are brought to justice in a court of law. Another retaliatory killing would be too much to bear.
A few weeks later, the Kafe Women's Association decided to retreat from Johogave. Now if the clans want to make peace, Boropi said, they'll have to initiate it themselves.
In this case, she said, it was too risky for her group to go any further.
Durrie Bouscaren spent six weeks reporting in Papua New Guinea as NPR's Above the Fray fellow. Additional reporting and translations were provided by Agnes Mek and Somu Nosi. The fellowship is sponsored by the John Alexander Project, which supports foreign reporting in undercovered parts of the world.
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.