Tortured for witchcraft in Papua New Guinea


Papua New Guinea’s stunning landscape belies the brutal reality of life for women and girls in the region.
© Vlad Sokhin

With sorcery-related killings in Papua New Guinea making news around the world, photographer and recent Amnesty International Media Awards nominee Vlad Sokhin finds the heroes behind the headlines.

I came to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for the first time at the beginning of 2012. Shocked by the horrible statistics on domestic violence, and surprised by the lack of visual information, I decided to start a photographic project on the issue. I called it “Crying Meri”, “meri” meaning woman in Pidgin – the language spoken in PNG.

I went to PNG four times during 2012-13. I covered several angles of gender-based violence. I photographed victims of domestic violence, interviewed members of the street gangs (called “raskols”), went to prisons and police stations to document how the authorities are tackling this type of crime. I spoke to perpetrators, and to survivors in shelters, with social workers and nurses – trying to build the big picture.

I was particularly concerned about the safety of the women and children I interviewed. I didn’t want to put them in any danger because of my images. Before I photographed any of them I wanted to be sure that they understood what I was doing, and how and where their images would be used. I carefully explained why I was doing this project, all the time with the help of someone from the community: social workers, doctors or nurses, women advocates, people from NGOs, parents of abused children.

Shocking brutality

While working in theHighlandsregion of PNG, I witnessed the aftermath of sorcery attacks – the most shocking thing I have ever seen in my life.

In remote villages of Simbu and Jiwaka provinces I met survivors of sorcery-related violence, usually elderly women, who had been accused of using black magic to kill people. Brutally tortured, and left with mutilated limbs, these women were “lucky” to have survived, because many others haven’t.

The women I met were hiding from their tormentors in places far from their own homes. They will never be able to return to their villages to see their relatives.

Despite widespread violence, the PNG government does not have a programme to help victims of sorcery-related attacks nor is it providing any shelter to these women. Such cases are rarely brought to court. Sometimes even the police are involved in witch-hunts, supporting the perpetrators rather than the victims.

In the Highlands region I worked closely with Monica Paulus, who helps people accused of sorcery. Without any support from the government, she provides shelter for survivors of such attacks, often risking her life. You never hear about people like her in the news, but I think that she is one of the real heroes for doing such dangerous and important work.

Visual diary

While doing my project, I made a visual diary. With words and Polaroid images I kept a record of my thoughts and impressions, writing down conversations with victims and perpetrators, and otherwise capturing the moments and events that surrounded me every day. Here are some of the posts I made during my last trip to PNG in February 2013.

Hellen lost her leg during a fight with her drunk husband, Alai, in 2005. © Vlad Sokhin

“He was drunk and chopped off my leg with a bush knife in front of my children. They ran to the street crying for help… Ambulance came. They took me to the hospital, but forgot my leg on the floor… Nurse sent my kids back to the house to bring the leg. They walked with it through the whole town…” - Hellen

Emate with her youngest son Dikon. She was accused of using sorcery to kill her husband. She survived the brutal attack that followed, but had to pay for her own treatment. © Vlad Sokhin

First time I met Emate at the hospital, three days after the attack. Bandages all over her body, she was barely talking… She says that she was tortured by four men – her relatives. Later Emate admitted that three of those men were her own sons. They never said sorry to her. After [leaving] the hospital she grabbed her younge st boy and left her village for good. She never saw her elder sons again. I wonder how it is to live in such pain, knowing that your own flesh and blood wanted you dead? Human cruelty truly knows no bounds. – From Vlad’s diary

Julie’s prosthetic leg. Her father chopped off her leg when she was 9 months old. © Vlad Sokhin

“I don’t remember it myself, but people say that my father had a fight with my mother and he chopped off my leg during that fight. Mum brought me to the hospital and never came back. When I was 17 I went to Lae hospital to make a new false leg. Raskols attacked me on the street and raped me… I got pregnant then… I love my son, he is everything I have…” – Julie

All these people became close to me. Each time I visit the country I try to meet them again, sharing news, giving them photos.

In November 2012, “Crying Meri” was exhibited in the capital, Port Moresby, during the Human Rights Film Festival. For me it was very important to have this project displayed in PNG. In fact, it was the best way to receive feedback from those who live in the country. And I was happy to know that a lot of people support my work and use it to raise more awareness.

Women’s advocate Monica Paulus (left), Vlad Sokhin (centre) and Dini, who survived a sorcery-related attack in the Highlands region in May 2011. © Benjamin Chesterton


Demand an end to sorcery killings by signing our petition. (If you live outside Australia, please only enter your name and email address).

Read more

“Toxic brew”, Wire (May-June 2013), pp. 12-13.

Vlad’s project “Crying Meri, nominated for an Amnesty Media Award 2013.

Posted in Papua New Guinea | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

  1. Matthew Tamule says:

    Sorcery Killing must be stopped,,, respective governments and thier responsible departmental agencies must do something to stop it and save lives.

    • Yannick Madika says:

      Those backward social practices have historical roots. Pretending to solve this problem through JUSTICE and even through EDUCATION solely won’t work. The correct approach to the issue is ECONOMIC development which will induce CHANGES in the current way of living of these people and then judiciary mesures and education can contribute to gradual eradication of those outdated cosmogony. I myself living in a country where such practices are still alive.

  2. To be the world find solutions to me the victims of torture in the world to impose compensation from the unjust and oppressive governments

  3. Amelia says:

    Vlad Sokhin’s photos are some of the most sensitive and provocative images I have ever seen on this issue. I worked in PNG for nearly 2 years doing outreach on national radio to end violence against women, it is an incredibly complex issue. I salute the courage of all the women who participated in this project. Thank you Vlad.

  4. Ashleigh Yardy says:

    Matthew Tamule, I agree government has an important role in prosecuting perpetrators of gender based violence but it is the intangible effects that really worry me; the psychological effects these attacks have on the women, the children and the entire community. Great blog!

  5. Sashiprava Bindhani says:

    I am from a district called Mayurbhanj in Odisha. Mayurbhanj is the last princely state which was merged into Government of India after independence.
    I have witnessed many cases of witch hunting in the district from my childhood. Mostly;seeing person surrendering before police with a chopped off head of women and rarely a man. Later on it was too much to read full page news on such killing in early May of 2011. I filed a case in June 2011 in the Odisha High Court to frame such law in the absence to curb such crime mostly against women in the state of Odisha. Now branding a women or a person getting very common in the context that if they are vocal, politically disagreed, are threat to some vested interest group, such as; an escaped girl/women from trafficker who may reveal the identity of trafficker, apart from a single women, issueless women , widow or from marginalized community. Every month there is at least one such case in Odisha. Government is in the process of preparing such legislation after the direction of High Court.

    Ms. Sashiprava Bindhani

    Below the link of New papers on filing case on witch hunting

  6. Mrs. Manira Chisti says:

    Fight for injustice &brutal activities.

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