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In Papua New Guinea's Sorcery Wars, A Peacemaker Takes On Her Toughest Case

In the Eastern Highlands, the accusation of sorcery is a vigilante's rallying cry. Such accusations often lead to violence and are believed to be responsible for dozens of deaths every year.
At the end of a cease-fire meeting, people plant a tanket, a kind of palm lily, together. The tree that grows is meant to symbolize harmony at the end of the process. Source: Claire Harbage

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

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