Justice (not her real name) plays in Port Moresby. She was rescued by the Papua New Guinea Tribal Foundation after she was accused of sorcery and tortured by people she knew.
Vanessa Kerton

Escaping Papua New Guinea’s Crucible of Sorcery

Justice is 7 years old. She’s besotted with Frozen’s Princess Elsa and knows all the words to the film’s hit song “Let It Go.” Every morning, she collects the frangipani flowers that have fallen into her guardian’s yard in the Papua New Guinea capital Port Moresby and turns them into floral brooches, poking the central stem through each snowy petal. When Justice laughs, which is often, her smile beams so wide it seems to stretch her face to breaking point.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone would consider this little girl the encapsulation of pure evil. Yet in November 2017, the population of her village convinced themselves Justice was a witch. That’s why a mob imprisoned and tortured Justice for five days. It’s why they strung her up by her wrists and ankles and began flaying her with heated machetes. It’s why they screamed at her to recant the black magic they accused her of using to strike down another youngster.

“They came to my house and wanted to kill me,” Justice tells TIME matter-of-factly. “They got a big knife and put it in the fire and then hurt my feet.”

Justice, whose real name TIME agreed not to use for fear of reprisals, was eventually rescued by the Papua New Guinea Tribal Foundation, an NGO based in Port Moresby that provides education, health care and humanitarian assistance in Papa New Guinea’s remotest communities. Justice has since been cared for by the organization’s director of operations, Ruth J. Kissam, who is now her legal guardian. TIME met Justice and Kissam for a playdate in Port Moresby, where she has lived since her flight from Papa New Guinea’s arcane Highlands.

No child should have to describe such heinous cruelty. But Kissam, who became a community activist after being forced to drop out of law school to care for her ailing mother and three younger siblings, has spent her life battling the sorcery-related violence that increasingly blights this southwest Pacific country of 8 million. Kissam allowed TIME to meet with Justice because she says the child will only reconcile her ordeal by talking about it. But there is also a far grimmer reason. “We are talking now to raise awareness because we are seeing a lot more kids just like her coming into our system,” says Kissam, whose work earned her the Westpac Outstanding Woman of 2018 Award, which celebrates Papua New Guinea’s most dedicated female talent.

Belief in sorcery, known locally as sanguma, exists across the Pacific and especially in Papua New Guinea or PNG, a country just off the northern coast of Australia incorporating half the island of Guinea, plus some 600 other islands. Eighty percent of the population live in far-flung villages without access to electricity, running water or health care. Its clans speak over 800 distinct languages.

Many aspects of sanguma are entirely benign, part of a folk religion that stretches back millennia. Hunters may collect a tendon from a dead relative’s body to rub on their bows while hunting, believing the spirit helps guide the arrow home. Colds and other ailments are ascribed to the meddling of capricious spirits. Surprisingly, sanguma and Christianity — introduced mainly by Western missionaries — are often revered side-by-side.

But PNG is experiencing a spike in lynching of suspected witches, as uneven development means ever more people leave their villages looking for work. Without established village chiefs or time-honored tribal justice systems in place for addressing sanguma accusations, these swelling communities of economic migrants become more vulnerable to hotheads instigating violence. And because most people who live in PNG lack education and proper healthcare, when a sudden death or illness strikes — a growing scourge as junk food and drugs make previously unknown conditions like diabetes and HIV/Aids more prevalent — angry mobs often go looking for a scapegoat. “There are people who go to different communities and say, ‘If you pay me 1,000 kina [$300], I’ll tell you who is a sorcerer,” says Gary Bustin, director of the Tribal Foundation.

Neighbors gather near the home of 55-year-old mother-of-two Rachel in the Tsak Vally in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea after she recounts how in April 2017, she was accused of sorcery and tortured by people she knew, on November 20, 2018. (Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images)
Neighbors gather near the home of 55-year-old mother-of-two Rachel in the Tsak Vally in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea after she recounts how in April 2017, she was accused of sorcery and tortured by people she knew, on November 20, 2018.
Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images

Victims are almost exclusively vulnerable women: single mothers, widows, the infirm or mentally ill. The U.N. has estimated that there are 200 killings of “witches” in PNG annually, while local activists estimate up to 50,000 people have been chased from their homes due to sorcery accusations. But sanguma is so secretive, and communities so remote, that experts say the vast majority of incidences slip under the radar. “It’s a really big problem,” says Geejay Milli, a political science lecturer at the University of Papua New Guinea and former crime reporter. “The media is not reporting on it enough.”

Social media is compounding the problem. The West is all too aware how a torrent of fake news leads to arguments, hate-filled identity politics and polarization, even influencing democratic elections. But the sudden proliferation of smartphones and platforms like Facebook is even more unsettling across the developing world, where tech neophytes are less discerning consumers.

Conspiracy-laden social media posts played a role in the genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority. In India and Mexico, rumors of shady figures kidnapping children and selling their organs have led to multiple lynchings. In PNG, accusations against suspected witches spread with alarming speed. In one case, a woman who had been accused of being a witch but rescued and relocated to a faraway community was attacked and mutilated after she was recognized from viral Facebook posts.

In a statement to TIME, Facebook said it proactively meets with external experts, NGOs, government officials and organizations with culture-specific knowledge to keep people safe. “We treat threats of violence or physical harm very seriously and will remove this content as soon as we become aware of it,” said a spokesperson, highlighting that Facebook removed 4 million posts containing hate speech globally in the first quarter of 2019.

Development brings other pressures. Resource-rich PNG lies at the center of the geopolitical battleground in the Pacific between the U.S. and key allies like Japan and Australia on one hand, and China on the other. China has pledged some $5.9 billion on more than 200 projects in the region since 2011, according to Australian think tank the Lowy Institute. Analyst and social workers fear social problems like the spread of sanguma-related violence may go untreated as China’s footprint grows, given the Asian superpower’s no-strings-attached investment model, where money is typically funneled to central government without well-defined social deliverables attached. This opacity allows graft to thrive; PNG ranks 138 out of 180 nations on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2018. While it is too early to put the blame of the current spike in sorcery-related violence at Beijing’s door, “China’s lack of concern about human rights, and track record in that regard, is worrying,” says Adam Everill, cofounder of Equal Playing Field, an NGO that works to stem gender-based violence in PNG.

‘If you kill her, so be it.’

Justice’s ordeal began long before the mob arrived. In 2013, when she was just an infant, her mother was accused of being a witch in PNG’s second largest city of Mount Hagen following the unexplained death of a local child. She was stripped naked, attacked with machetes and finally burned alive on a pile of tires. Hundreds watched the grisly scene unfold right opposite the church where Kissam’s father was formerly pastor.

After her mother’s murder, Justice was quietly placed under the care of an uncle some 100 miles away in Tukusanda village, known for growing sweet potatoes and strawberries for export. But whispers about her mother’s fate followed and Justice was always treated as a pariah, according to Kissam, who has researched her case closely. Even months after her rescue, Justice seemed uncomfortable unless regularly scolded, and would act out in order to feel that familiar rebuke.

“She would taunt us to discipline her,” says Kissam of Justice’s rehabilitation in Port Morseby. “She would push the boundaries, and I thought something is just not right here.”

Justice (not her real name) plays in Port Moresby after being rescued by the Papua New Guinea Tribal Foundation. (Vanessa Kerton)
Justice (not her real name) plays in Port Moresby after being rescued by the Papua New Guinea Tribal Foundation.
Vanessa Kerton

When a cousin, Nancy, fell ill, the girl’s brothers came straight for Justice. They marched her into the uncle’s wood and thatch hut. Fearing for his own children’s lives, he left Justice alone with the baying mob. “If you kill her, so be it,” he told them, according to Kissam. “Maybe he believed the rumors a little himself,” she says with a shrug.

They tied up Justice and began their torture. Believing the girl had stolen her cousin’s heart and devoured it, they would bellow “give Nancy back her heart.” All the time Nancy lay nearby groaning, Justice recalls. When they hurt Justice, Nancy would momentarily recover; when they stopped, her condition seemed to worsen. Even today, Justice is angrier with her cousin and former friend, whom she accuses of faking her ailment to get attention, than her torturers. “She said that I took her heart, but she’s a liar,” Justice says bitterly.

Justice was tortured until 5 a.m. the next morning. Afterward, her captors kept her bound for five more days while they observed Nancy’s condition. Were she to worsen or die, then Justice’s fate would be sealed. But during that time word spread about what was happening and reached Kissam, who was sitting at her desk in her Port Morseby office.

Kissam was well known in Justice’s village after helping sorcery victims before, so it was deemed too dangerous for her to travel there personally. Villagers have cut down trees to block her escape in similar situations. So instead, a missionary colleague, Iowa-born Anton Lutz, went to meet Justice’s captors. “Anton told them that if they didn’t release her we would send in the army and police,” says Kissam.

After securing Justice’s freedom, Lutz took her to meet Kissam a few towns over. They then drove on dirt roads through the night across three different provinces to ensure her erstwhile captors didn’t follow. Justice was unable to even sit down without severe pain due to her wounds. Eventually, they reached a local airstrip and boarded a flight to Port Moresby. “Justice asked me, ‘Can we leave this place and never come back?’” says Kissam. “I simply replied, ‘Sure.’”

Justice’s physical injuries included a knife wound that passed almost completely through her left leg at the knee and first-degree burns over much of her body. Because of PNG’s woeful health care, Kissam was forced to administer the simplest of homespun remedies—oil and honey—on these serious lacerations. Today, Justice still bears the scars of her leg wound.

A poster warns of sorcery and domestic violence at the police station in the town of Wabag in the highlands province of Enga, Papua New Guinea on November 20, 2018. (Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images)
A poster warns of sorcery and domestic violence at the police station in the town of Wabag in the highlands province of Enga, Papua New Guinea on November 20, 2018.
Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images

The mental scarring persists too. For months, Justice clung to Kissam, retreating in terror whenever strangers approached. Kissam tried to explain that Justice was only harmed because her village had no police to protect her. Then Kissam got her large family of brothers and nephews — many police officers themselves — to come to her home. Justice inspected their striking uniforms and steely guns. They brought their own daughters to play with Justice. “I told her, ‘Now you have your very own policemen, so nothing bad will ever happen to you again,’” says Kissam. Slowly, Justice began to feel secure.

Lots of children have passed through Kissam’s hands over the years. But she felt compelled to adopt Justice as she was instrumental in claiming back the charred remains of Justice’s murdered mother and giving her a proper burial. After Justice’s rescue, the Foundation tracked down her biological father, but he quickly renounced all rights over her, believing that her “bad luck” might follow him, too.

Today, Justice seems like any other child. In her village, there was no school, and Justice couldn’t even speak Tok Pisin, PNG’s Creole-like lingua franca. A year on and she speaks and writes English and is frequently at the top of her class. The future holds huge challenges, of course. For one, Justice still doesn’t fully understand what happened to her mother and will eventually have to reckon with that. PNG doesn’t have a single specialist youth counselor so the Tribal Foundation is making preparations for Justice to receive therapy in neighboring Australia.

Challenging beliefs

Kissam’s quest is now to prevent more victims like Justice. The 2013 murder of the girl’s mother prompted PNG’s Parliament to take steps to crack down on sorcery-related violence. It reintroduced the death penalty for murder and repealed the controversial 1971 Sorcery Act, which allowed murderers to use the allegation of witchcraft as a legitimate defense. Peter O’Neill, PNG prime minister from 2011 until his resignation in May 2019, described sanguma as “absolute rubbish” whose believers are “cowards who are looking for someone to blame because of their own failure in life.”

But criminal prosecutions remain scarce. To date, no one has been held accountable for the murder of Justice’s mother nor for her own torture, despite Justice identifying her attackers from photographs. Some $3 million of government funds allocated for an intensive sanguma awareness program has been frittered away, say activists, who insist that foreign assistance must be tied to tackling social ills like gender-based violence and improving access to health care. This raises more questions about the influx of Chinese investment, however, which is based on “a very exploitative model,” says prominent PNG political blogger Martyn Namarong. “We are all concerned that Chinese money will erode democracy in Papua New Guinea.”

Much has been left to NGOs like the Tribal Foundation, which rather than challenging belief in sanguma wholesale, simply undercut the violence-related aspects. Rescue and repatriation is not a sustainable solution, and Kissam has found deriding beliefs in the occult is often counterproductive, given their long cultural roots. Try telling the illiterate mother of a child who died of sudden infant death syndrome that the true cause of death was an unfathomable medical phenomenon rather than, as her village elders say, the nefarious spirit of a crow she saw lurking the previous evening. “When we disapprove of beliefs, we experience a lot of confrontation and pushback,” says Kissam.

So while the foundation does educate villagers about the true causes of aliments, the priority is to engender respect for rule of law and human rights. Genetic studies show that inhabitants of New Guinea Island evolved independently from rest of the world for much of the last 50,000 years, and preserving that kaleidoscope of cultures and traditions is vital. But that instinct shouldn’t have to compete with the need to protect society’s most vulnerable. “Dependent on how you look at it, PNG could be an anthropological paradise or hell,” says Kissam. Justice has been through one already. No others should have to follow.

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com.