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.
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.
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.
“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
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
“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.