WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
A 6-year-old girl in Papua New Guinea accused of witchcraft and slowly tortured over nine hours by a mob was last week rescued by members of a local charity and a Chilean missionary.
The victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, suffered first-degree burns to most of her body from machetes heated by fire and used to peel away her skin and flesh, according to Gary Bustin of the Papua New Guinea Tribal Foundation - the charity that planned and executed the rescue with Lutheran missionary Anton Lutz.
"The child was in the village when she was attacked," Bustin told news.com.au. "As you can imagine she has been traumatised and will only be seeing family and medical staff."
Despite centuries of efforts by educators and church groups, belief in witchcraft, sorcery or "sanguma", as it is called in the impoverished South Pacific nation, remains hardwired in the national psyche.
"There are more than 800 cultures in PNG and belief in sorcery is pervasive across most of them," said Richard Eves, an anthropologist from the Australian National University in Canberra.
Sorcery-related killings in which angry mobs turn on a scapegoat after an unexplained death or illness like HIV/Aids are not uncommon in PNG. The victims are nearly always female living on the edges of society, with nobody to defend them: single mothers, widows, the elderly or the disabled.
According to rescuer Anton Lutz, six women have been killed after being accused of witchcraft in Enga Province in central PNG in the past two months alone. Reports from other parts of the country describe victims being beheaded, pushed off cliffs, electrocuted, stoned, shot or, in worst-case scenarios, burned alive.
The witch's daughter
The girl tortured last week in Enga Province is the daughter of Leniata Kepari, a 20-year-old woman from the city of Mt Hagen who was accused of witchcraft and abducted by a mob in 2013 after the sudden unexplained death of a child.
The mob stripped her naked, cut and sexually penetrated her with machetes in daylight while hundreds of people looked on. The mob then tossed Kepari on a pile of tyres and set her on fire.
The utterly heinous nature of Kepari's death and consequent global backlash by human rights groups led to the reintroduction of the death penalty in PNG in 2013.
The murder also led to the repeal of the bizarre 1971 Sorcery Act that criminalised sorcery and allowed reduced sentences for vigilantes who claimed their victims were sorcerers.
In a high-profile case heard at Madang National Court this year, 122 men and juveniles, some as young as 10, were successfully prosecuted over a 2014 raid on a neighbouring village where the mob burned down houses and killed seven people accused of sorcery.
The victims included two infant girls snatched from their mothers' arms and hacked to death with machetes.
Nevertheless, prosecutions for sorcery-related killings remain rare in PNG. Despite being photographed by various onlookers at the scene, none of the those responsible for Kepari's immolation in 2013 were brought to justice. And now her daughter, rescuer Bustin says, has paid a horrific price.
"The only way to stop this barbaric behaviour is through arrests and prosecution of those responsible," he says. "Until this happens, PNG will be known as the nation that not only tortures falsely accused witches but now even tortures innocent children."
Investigations and recriminations
However, public outrage in PNG over the age of the most recent victim has forced authorities to take action.
"The girl was accompanied by her father to Tukusanda village when rumours of sanguma started going around," Enga acting provincial police commander Epenes Nili told online news portal Loop PNG.
"And because her mother was the late Leniata Kepari, who was burned alive in 2013 in Mt Hagen due to sorcery accusations, all eyes fell on the little girl.
"When the villagers learned that she was Leniata's daughter they presumed that she may have possessed the sanguma spirit.
"They believe she would kill many of them in the village so they thought it would be proper to terminate her life."
Nili said the mob also ensured the victim's father was unable to call for help.
"They made sure he had no mobile phone; made sure he could not walk out. They were guarding him as well."
Governor of Enga Province Sir Peter Ipatas has appealed to law-abiding citizens to help stamp out the practice of accusing people of sorcery.
"This week alone there have been two more incidences of sanguma accusations in Enga Province and 20 innocent women in the space of the past month have been victims of this accusation-based violence," the governor said.
"I condemn this violence and these false accusations. The accusations must stop now. The torturing and murdering must stop now. Enough is enough."
He added: "I call on communities within and outside our province to co-operate with police to restore law and order. I call on communities not to follow the mob, to not join the masses and say no to this barbaric practice. Speak to your families, clans and village people. Inform them of the law in our country, that accusation-based violence is a crime punishable by death."
Can social media prevent witch hunts?
According to Eves, policing and harsher penalties alone won't bring an end to sorcery-related violence in PNG.
"When you've got an armed mob screaming for blood, there's nothing much a few policemen can do," Eves said.
"And the fact is that police in PNG are just as likely to believe the accused are guilty as charged."
The answer is believed to lie in grassroots initiatives as well as technology. In Simbu Province, the centre of sorcery-related violence in PNG, doctors at Kundiawa Hospital are helping relatives of dead people understand the true medical cause of their deaths to prevent calls for payback killings from taking root.
Missionaries like Lutz are also training volunteers to douse sorcery accusations at funerals and raise the alarm via text messaging or social media when a witch hunt is imminent.
Last month in Lae, PNG's second-largest city, witnesses posted photos on Facebook of an alleged witch being attacked by a mob. Police were alerted and rescued the woman before she was more seriously harmed.
Leads can also be taken from Africa. In Tanzania's Sukumaland, witch hunts were reduced by 90 per cent in 2009 by educating villagers about ageing and gender issues through songs and plays. And in South Africa, killings of alleged witches dropped after pensions were introduced for elderly women considered burdensome and vulnerable to witch hunts initiated by relatives seeking early inheritance of their property.
Eves also recommends standardising financial penalties to discourage accusations of sorcery, explaining that not all of PNG's many cultures respond to the belief with violence: "In New Ireland Province, I learned that accusations of sorcery are very rare because people are very fearful of being taken to village courts and sued for libel."