Nes was spending the holidays with my family when, a few days after Christmas, I handed her a piece of paper. It was a plea for help from a missionary in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Following a measles outbreak, an ‘expert witch hunter’ called Lakimon from Nes’ home village of Wanakipa accused four women at Fiyawena of being responsible for the deaths there. Nes’ father Mark accompanied Lakimon to Fiyawena as her bodyguard.
‘This is really bad news,’ Nes explained, ‘Our grandparents taught that pisai or evil spirits in certain people come out and kill the rest of us, and that the pisai can get passed from mother to daughter. The only way people can be safe is to kill those who have evil spirits.’
Nes described the murders she had witnessed, and said some of her friends were under a death sentence in Wanakipa. ‘The boys shot my friend Koela with so many arrows that her body was held up off the ground. And for what? The arrows must not kill anyone else!’
That night, Nes found out more about her father’s time at Fiyawena, as well as the harrowing seven-day hike back to Wanakipa.
Mark and Lakimon had been threatened, intimidated and, in the end, bribed to point the finger at 4 women and their 13 children.
Seventeen people would be murdered at Fiyawena… soon.
Nes asked me to book her an MAF flight to Wanakipa.
Back in Wanakipa, Nes walked to the market and told the community that the days of killing each other because of evil spirits were over.
‘A new time has come in which this behaviour will not be passed on to the next generation,’ she explained. Some laughed. Some warned Nes that it was dangerous to say these things.
But many agreed. Her brothers and her cousin Josely Kaipas stood behind her. Josely’s stepmother had been accused and brutally murdered, and he didn’t want his stepsisters to be next.
Gradually, Nes’ speeches began to take effect. Eventually, some weeks later, a crowd gathered by the airstrip fence to witness the arrival of an intervention team led by the Deputy Police Commander of Enga Province.
‘What have I done?’
A week earlier, Lakimon had visited Nes at dawn, weeping. ‘What have I done?’ she cried. ‘I have accused others since I was a teenager, but I was only trying to keep from being killed. I have no idea who is a pisai person and who isn’t. I make it up! I need to take back the accusations against the people at Fiyawena. I don’t want them to die.’
Lakimon, who was standing near the MAF plane, called out, ‘I say “No” to accusations. I say “No” to killing. I am returning all the bribes, the cash, everything! And I am turning over this stone.’
Three young men came forward, ‘Today, we too make our choice. We will not kill people anymore.’ They broke their arrows, throwing the pieces on to the overturned stone. Pastor Saki gave the young men a Bible to show that the community’s decision had been taken before God.
Against the law
Then Deputy Police Commander Nili spoke. ‘I commend the Wanakipa community for taking a stand, but need to clarify the law. Taking the law into your own hands and killing pisai suspects is wilful murder. You will face the full force of the law!’ Later, a team of 18 people, including 8 Christians, arrived at Fiyawena to speak to the families there. ‘Let the heavens open,’ they prayed, ‘and the Holy Spirit move in this place.’
The following afternoon, the intrepid delegation from Wanakipa addressed the Fiyawena villagers. Nes was nervous, but gradually gained confidence.
‘I used to believe the pisai were the reason we became sick and died. Today, I know this is not true. It was just measles. You pressured Lakimon to point out who needs to die. But Lakimon made it all up.
‘You all saw her statement for yourselves on the video we showed you. She has turned over the stone and won’t accuse anyone again. We are returning your gifts and bribes. We retract all the accusations.’
As Nes concluded her speech, her cousin Josely stepped forward with the Bible presented to them at Wanakipa. ‘Let us abandon the accusations and murders, let us follow the way of God. Take this Bible and make the promise with us.’
The village leader hesitated. ‘I won’t accept the Bible unless the Fiyawena people themselves agree that this is the path they will follow.’
Then Deputy Nili spoke up. ‘Dreams and last words are not a legal basis to kill anyone. You think you are doing something good, but you are not! If I hear so much as a rumour that you are trying to hurt these four women or anyone else, I will return. This time, we came to help you – next time, we will come in full force!’
He then asked the Christians to pray over the community. Nes joined hands with the team as Deputy Nili led the village in a prayer of repentance: ‘Today, we repent before God and apologise to our victims. Today, we admit we were wrong and fall on our knees and pray for mercy.’
When the MAF plane landed at Fiyawena the next morning, Deputy Nili encouraged the villagers to remain true to the Word of God, meet together regularly, and help each other.
Nes was satisfied and relieved. ‘It is a good seed that we have planted here,’ she mused, ‘May God keep it safe and grow it into a full harvest of peace.’
The battle continues
Sadly, although this intervention was successful, news later reached Anton that Misila, one of the four accused women, had been axed to death (by a group from outside Wanakipa). ‘Her family was helpless to do anything and she died,’ he said. ‘They are hoping that the police will be able to apprehend the killers and seek justice another way.’
Pray that the cycle of fear and violence associated with witchcraft in the area will be broken once and for all.