Ten minutes. That’s all I would have. Rain was beating the windshield of the small airplane and black storm clouds restricted visibility in every direction so the pilot told me that after landing in Fiy we would have to quickly take off again to head to the town of Hagen before the weather made flight impossible.
My stomach was in knots. “Lord, what should I say? I’m so frustrated and angry and disgusted at the harsh reality of the tribal way of thinking.”
The two passengers in the seat behind me were Judges; men who were appointed by the government to preside over court cases in towns and villages this province of Papua New Guinea. My Hewa friends had requested the high ranking judges come to Fiy because the Paiela men who had moved there had been making accusations, claiming many Hewa women, who were supposedly possessed by evil spirits, had caused a rash of recent illnesses and deaths. They were making demands for money and pigs to pay for the deaths, or the women would be murdered. Simple as that. It wasn’t just one man making demands, and they weren’t targeting only one woman. The Paiela men had banded together and brought their guns and other weapons to the Hewa village of Fiyawena and were making their intentions clear. “If you don’t give money and pigs now, the ladies will die.”
Now that I had met the judges as we boarded the airplane together at the airport in Kai my mind suddenly went into a tail spin as I realized their presence in the village would not guarantee justice for the plight of the women and children. In our short time of greeting and introducing ourselves as we were getting seated, I discovered there was a terrible conflict of interest that would not be favorable for the lives of the women and in our brief chat the judges admitted to me they also held the conviction that certain women were possessed by evil spirits.
“What do you think about the accusations that Hewa women are possessed with spirits that are causing deaths in the villages?” I had asked, hoping the question was direct enough that they could easily confirm their desire to support the rights of the accused.
The older and senior judge answered quickly. “We don’t really know.”
I groaned inwardly as I had heard that answer a million times. It was the politically correct way to say, “I don’t want to disclose my position at this time.”
Then the judge continued. “Two women were recently murdered in Pela for causing death.”
“You mean the ones who were burned to death in a house in the village of Kom last month?” I asked.
“You heard about that?”
“So, do you think they should have been killed?”
The senior official again answered quickly in behalf of them both. “We don’t know and that is the reason we are coming to Fiy now, to investigate into the accusations of the women there. Our ancestors believed in spirit possessed people in Paiela and in Hewa, but especially in Hewa.”
Suddenly I was disturbed. No, that wasn’t the right word. I was mad. I was fed up with the many officials of the law I had crossed paths with over my years in Hewa who also feared women could cause sickness and death because of a supposed spirit inside of them. These women weren’t the kind to stir huge boiling cauldrons of secret concoctions, chanting incantations to cause death in unsuspecting victims. They were regular ordinary women who planted gardens to raise food for their families and who nursed and loved on their babies just like woman of any other country. When I had objected in the past to the accusations, pointing out that there were no visible signs that the women were possessed by evil spirits the men always answered the same. “You don’t understand,” they would say, with straight faces that betrayed their convictions. “They appear normal in the daytime, but at night when they are sleeping the spirits leave their bodies and roam through the villages looking for someone to eat. If the spirit eats a person’s insides then he will get sick and then die.”
I was just about to say something to the two judges when I was interrupted by the pilot who gave instructions about airplane exits, fire extinguishers and vomit bags. As soon as he was done he dropped to his seat, fired up the bird and we were off; the small aircraft was far too noisy to allow us to continue our previous conversation.
I had a few minutes of flight time to think about how to respond to the two judges. “Lord, what do I say? Help me not to spew rash opinions from anger but instead give me words that reflect your thoughts.” Anger welled up inside me through the flight and I continued to discuss it with God. The problem was that after we landed we would only have a few minutes, ten minutes at the most, since the thunderheads were already covering the mountain peaks and the scattered rain showers would soon choke out visibility making air travel impossible.
As soon as the plane landed on the rain soaked grass airstrip in Fiy I turned to face the two court judges before they had a chance to disembark. “Can we please talk for a few minutes here beside the airplane before I leave for Hagen,” I said. “I have been living with the Hewa people for 14 years and have learned their practices and seen their plight. Can I please tell you what has been happening here over these last years?”
“Sure, the younger one answered.”
We dropped to the ground, but already the oldest judge was being greeted by many smiling Paiela men, one of whom was motioning for him to come away from the plane.
“Please,” I said again, frustrated that the judge was friends with the very men who were condemning the women to death, “Can you please stand here under the shelter of the wing with me to hear what I have to say?”
They both consented so we stood there as men rushed over to the plane and opened the cargo doors to unload bags of rice and other store goods.
“When I first built a house here and started learning the language of the Hewa I didn’t know about the ancestor practice of killing women and children. Soon though I learned of many recent killings and was surprised when a teenage boy named Anton was later murdered in a village just over that hill,” I said pointing past the foot of the airstrip. “After careful investigation I found that Hewa men often killed Hewa women believing they were spirit possessed and the Pela killed Pela for the same reason. Soon after that though, I discovered the Paiela men had shifted their focus to killing Hewa women so they could steal Hewa land, pushing the Hewa off their ancestral territory. By killing or threatening to kill Hewa women for supposedly being possessed by evil spirits they were able to steal the Hewa village of Ali and then Mai and are now also in possession of Bal. They have come here to Fiy with the same intent, to kill off the women and to scare the rest of us away so they can take our land. While I have been living here the Paiela men decided the village of Fiy was full of spirit possessed families so they called the place a spirit camp and then made repeated raids there until they murdered everyone, except for the few that fled into the jungle.
About that time Susan and I discovered that two sisters were going to be murdered here in Fiy so we tried to help them find a place to escape. We were able to rush Defo away to be adopted by a pastor’s family in Wewak but while we were in that town, men murdered Niti, the other sister. They tied her arms with dog chains and hacked her body with axes less than 50 meters from my house.
The two judges were listening but the older kept turning away to watch the bags of rice and other goods being offloaded from the plane.
“Here’s the deal,” I continued. “I am so glad you are here because you can help bring law and order to this village, but please don’t listen to the accusations of the Pela men who are threatening to kill the women here. I realize they are your relatives but please think about how to keep the ladies safe rather than cave to the pressure of their demands.”
I wasn’t sure how to proceed so I said, “I can tell that you are men who attend church.”
They both nodded.
“When Jesus saw someone who had an evil spirit, what did He do?”
They didn’t answer.
“Did he tell his disciples to get their axes and go at night to surround the house where the accused person was sleeping to murder her quickly before she could run away?”
The older man looked at me with dropped jaw and furrowed brow.
“No,” the other answered. “He didn’t tell his men to kill them.”
“I know,” I said, “Instead Jesus grabbed his shotgun and told the disciples to stand watch while he shot the spirit possessed women, right?”
Both of them answered with a resounding, “No!”
“Jesus didn’t kill women or allow them to be killed and nor can you,” I said. “Even if you think a woman may have an evil spirit it is your job as court officials to protect them, despite other men accusing them of causing deaths.”
I wanted to say more but that’s when I noticed the pilot pacing back and forth near the open door of the airplane, waiting for me to climb aboard. I quickly shook hands with the two judges and waved to the others as I jumped up the ladder into the plane. “Lord, please rescue the accused women. Lord please do miracles in the hearts of these people so they can see the truth. Please rise up Godly men who will stand for righteousness rather than yield to the brutality of their ancestral belief system.”
Please pray right now for the court sessions that are being held in Fiy. Please call for others to pray for the lives of the many women who are now being accused.