It was a scene out of the 15th century. A naked woman was tied to a tree amid a crowd chanting for the name of the ‘witch’ by a fire glowing with the branding irons which would soon be used to torture her.
After that, they planned to burn her alive.
The crowd had worked itself up into a frenzy, part fuelled by the potent local cannabis and a home brew called ‘steam’, and partly by the fervent belief the woman was a witch who feasted at night on corpses and had used sorcery to make a villager die.
The incident happened in 21st century Papua New Guinea (PNG), in the highlands of the large Pacific island which lies 150kms off the northern tip of Australia.
Witch burning, torture and sorcery are still common in PNG, where primitive beliefs and a local form of voodoo endure amid a gold boom, in a place where tribesman might have mobile phones, but still believe in black magic, called ‘sanguma’
Around 80 per cent of the country’s seven million people live in remote farming communities, including the richly fertile mountains and river valleys which make up the highlands, where men still carry spears and bows and arrows.
New Guinea’s witch hunt victims can be either sex, but most are women.
Throughout history, accused witches have been hanged, drowned and burned at the stake, the practice usually dying out in modern times.
But according to a report by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, progress in New Guinea has actually brought an explosion in witch hunts, as a sinister culture has taken hold among dirt poor villagers living amid a resources plunder by mining companies.
Village gravediggers told Russian photographer Vlad Sokhin they guarded cemeteries by night with machetes and homemade guns against ‘the sanguma’ who came after dark to feast on the innards of freshly buried corpses.
An estimated 200 suspected witches were killed in one year in Simbu province in the central highlands, the victims ‘thrown from cliffs, tortured, dragged behind cars, burnt, or buried alive’.
‘Unexpected hardship or bad luck, sudden and incurable diseases, all can be accounted to the actions of evil people, to magical forces,’ the UNHCR report said.
‘The diagnosis of witchcraft opens up the possibility of combating the causes of hardship’.
Health crises, such HIV/AIDS in PNG have spurred on witchcraft.
The woman tied to the tree in a central highlands village in August 2012 was seized by a gang who blamed her for the recent deaths of two young men.
Aged in her late 40s, and the mother of a small boy, the woman had no husband or male family, making her fair game as the scapegoat when a death occurred.
Accusations of witchcraft – known in the local Pidgin language as ‘mekim poisen’ (make him poison), a kind of voodoo – against the woman quickly escalated.
The mob of drunk and drugged young men rounded her up. She was stripped, blindfolded, slashed with knives and sat on a length of corrugated roofing iron for her ‘trial’ amid a crowd which chanted ‘kolim nem, kolim nem’ (call the name), demanding she give up the identity of the real witch to save herself.
Days later, surrounded by a group of 600 men, women and children huddled under umbrellas against a seasonal highland downpour, she was tied, spread-eagled to a rough wooden frame beside a fire in a nearby metal drum, in which iron rods heated to a red glow.
Months earlier, the woman’s accusors are believed to have attacked another woman with hot irons, leaving her genitals burned and fused beyond repair.
In a further case in Simbu province in 2011, a woman called Dini Korul was accused of using black magic to kill her son, Bobby, 22, who died from a stomach infection.
His friends dragged Dini, who is aged in her early 50s, to a pigsty, where she was tortured with bush knives and hot iron bars.
Afterwards, she spent more than 10 months in hospital and received no help from local authorities, her daughter paying 900 Kina (£213) for her treatment.
A year ago, Papua New Guineans woke to the headline ‘Burnt Alive!’ and pictures of a large crowd, including school children, watching as flames engulfed the body of a young woman.
It happened in the provincial capital of Mount Hagen, in the country’s centre, considered the most dangerous city not only in Papua New Guinea, but in the whole Pacific region.
Kepari Leniata, a 20-year-old mother of two, was accused of witchcraft after a six-year-old village boy died in a local hospital.
Relatives of the boy made Leniata confess to sorcery, after which she was dragged from her hut, stripped naked and tortured with hot iron rods.
Witnesses claimed the crowd blocked police officers and firefighters who tried to intervene.
Afterward, the country’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill swore to bring the killers to justice, saying ‘no one commits such a despicable act in the society that all of us, including Kepari, belong to’.
O’Neill decried ‘barbaric killings connected with alleged sorcery’ and ‘violence against women because of this belief that sorcery kills’.
‘These are becoming all too common in certain parts of the country,’ he said.
‘It is reprehensible that women, the old and the weak in our society should be targeted for alleged sorcery or wrongs that they actually have nothing to do with.’
The mother and uncle of the dead boy, Janet Ware, 28, and Andrew Watea, 33, were charged with Ms Leniata’s murder, but local missionaries and welfare workers say few are brought to justice and the practice of killing ‘sanguma’ is escalating.
Rapid development has occurred as multinational companies mine gold, copper and natural gas, promising unprecedented wealth for the nation, but which in reality brings little to an increasingly disaffected PNG youth and their villages in the rugged and remote highland terrain.
As pipelines and roads are laid, schools and the health system have been neglected, and a burgeoning cash culture has sparked rivalries and jealousies in a society which has a tradition of ‘pay back’.
Gangs called ‘Raskols’ have turned sadistic, with 98 per cent of women in some highland areas reporting some form of sexual abuse.
‘I have been in PNG since 1969,’ said a Swiss nun, Sister Gaudentia, who works in the Southern Highlands, ‘we always had sanguma, but not to the extreme, not like it is now.’
A New Zealand-born missionary, who has lived in PNG for 40 years, told The Global Mail attacks had become more brutal since the early days when villagers would simply sacrifice a pig to appease bad spirits.
‘It used to be that they would push someone over a cliff, something like that.’ he said.
‘They still ended up dead, but it wasn’t the torture, like now.
‘This interrogation, this public stuff, with the kids watching, it becomes a spectacle.’
One woman from the violence-ridden Simbu Province was accused by her own sons of using sorcery to kill her husband.
The sons burned Emate with red-hot iron bars and beat her with hatchets, hammers and knives in front of their fellow villagers.
Emate survived, but had to pay for her own hospital treatment. The PNG government has no aid programme for victims of sorcery-related violence, nor does it provide shelter for these women, who are thereafter banished from their villages and homeless.
And amid the breathtaking beauty of the highlands scenery, where every male old enough to walk carries a machete or an axe, potent superstitions endure.
Jokar ‘Skull’, a 28-year-old gravedigger at the Mount Hagen cemetery, is a night guard of recently dug graves against the ‘sanguma’.
Young men like Skull believe witches disguise themselves and use their supernatural powers to take bodies from the ground and feast on their entrails.
Armed with machetes and homemade guns, Skull and his fellow grave guards attack any moving target after dark, including animals, believing that witches use them to get close to the graves.