In the United States and other Western nations, children are often taught about the Salem witch trials that saw 19 men and women killed for practicing witchcraft. These trials fell out of favor as society developed, but that’s not the case in other parts of the world.
Across much of sub-Saharan Africa and other places, the hunting and purging of witches and practitioners of the dark arts continues. Not only is it a pervasive problem, but the scale of these operations has only worsened—with thousands of people falling victim to accusations of sorcery.
Here are 10 examples of modern witch hunts that you won’t believe happened so recently.
Much like people in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, modern-day Ghanaians sometimes settle disputes by accusing someone of witchcraft. An accusation can be all that is needed to remove a potential rival from a situation, and it happens far more often in Ghana than seems logical.
As witchcraft is such a perceived threat in the country, the nation has established eight sanctuaries for the victims/prisoners of witch hunts. Many of these sanctuaries are hundreds of years old.
In 2014, it was reported that over 1,100 people languished in these makeshift prisons/sanctuaries across Ghana. Hunts vary throughout the north and south of the country. But they often are instigated by supposed “penis-theft” hysteria, resulting in the accusation and rounding up of purported witches. Usually, these people are killed, though some make their way to the sanctuaries to live out their lives as outcasts.
9 The Gambia
Following an order by President Yahya Jammeh in March 2009, a group of government “witch hunters” went out into the nation of The Gambia and rounded up approximately 1,000 villagers. They were taken to secret government detention centers where they were forced to drink an unidentified hallucinogenic substance.
According to Amnesty International, “a lot of these people who were forced to drink these poisonous herbs developed instant diarrhea and vomiting while they lay helpless.” They were then beaten and forced to confess to being practitioners of witchcraft.
Those captured were rounded up over a five-day period and consisted of young men and women as well as the elderly. Fortunately, of the 1,000 captured and tortured, only two succumbed to the violence. But the violation of human rights is a serious problem throughout the country.
The incident was reported through Amnesty International, but this wasn’t the first time that Jammeh said or did something controversial. In 2007, he claimed to have found an herbal cure for HIV and ordered the execution of any homosexuals found in his country.
The people of Kenya are no stranger to witch hunts, but they seem to come and go in spurts. The history of Kenyan witch hunts dates back centuries, but random acts of intense violence occur somewhat randomly.
In May 2008, it was reported that a mob rounded up and burned to death as many as 11 people accused of practicing witchcraft in the western region of Kisii. In total, eight women and three men between 80–96 years old were dragged from their houses into the street and individually burned.
The mob then burned down each of the victims’ houses with everything they owned still inside. That particular hunt began after someone found an exercise book at a local school containing the minutes of a so-called “witches’ meeting.” It had an accompanying list of people who were to be bewitched in the near future.
All of the victims’ families were forced into hiding. This attack was by no means an isolated incident. Kenyans have long suffered under the threat of witch hunts with no indication that it will end anytime soon.
You might not think India would fall on a list like this one, but certain regions of the country remain deeply enshrouded in a fear of mysticism. From 2001 to 2006, approximately 300 people were rounded up and killed in the northeast state of Assam.
The majority of those rounded up were women, which resulted in an increase in the number of homeless children in the region. The remaining children are often a major issue when it comes to the aftermath of a modern-day witch hunt, but the problem seems to be exacerbated in India.
Further killings took place throughout the country in various regions, usually resulting in as many as 5–35 deaths in each case. A report from 2010 estimated that 150–200 women are hunted down and killed each year throughout India. The estimate included accounts between 1995 and 2009. This puts the total number of women slaughtered in India due to a perceived practice of witchcraft during that period at over 2,500.
A belief in witchcraft is common throughout Nepal, which is why hunting people suspected of practicing witchcraft isn’t as rare as it probably should be. The majority of people targeted in these hunts are low-caste women who are rounded up, beaten, tortured, humiliated in a public forum, and often murdered.
When these hunts occur, the families of the victims are often accused and dealt with in much the same way. In one instance back in 2010, a woman was captured, beaten, and tortured for two days while she was forced to ingest human excrement until she “confessed” to being a witch.
She was targeted by a mob of around 35 people who showed up at her home and took her away. This kind of practice happens almost regularly to low-caste women throughout the country. But unlike other examples, the victim is often released after she confesses.
Murders do occur. But in many cases, the victim is released after being tortured for an extended period of time. That isn’t to say that the practice isn’t brutal and needs to be stopped, but the death toll in Nepal is significantly lower than some of the other examples on this list.
5 Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may be one of the richest nations on the planet, but its society still lives in fear of sorcery. The majority of Muslims believe in the practice of sorcery and witchcraft, which may be why the country defines its practice as a legitimate criminal offense.
Not only can someone accuse another person of practicing witchcraft in Saudi Arabia, they can then be tried by the government for committing said crime. If the person is found guilty, the punishment is death.
Reporting on the total number of these cases doesn’t get outside the country often. But several high-profile cases resulted in imprisonment and death at the hands of the Saudi government, which was accused by Human Rights Watch in 2009 of “sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police.”
Numerous cases indicate that the punishment is beheading. In fact, that sentence was carried out as recently as June 19, 2012, on Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri, a man accused of practicing witchcraft and sorcery in the Najran province of southern Saudi Arabia.
For 31 years, the people of Indonesia suffered under the rule of Suharto. But that all came to an end in 1998 when the militaristic dictator resigned.
On the surface, Suharto’s resignation was a positive move forward for the country. But his leaving office caused widespread unrest, a severe financial crisis, and for some reason, an intense witch hunt resulting in the deaths of some 400 people. These hunts consisted of a series of brutal killings throughout many parts of the island nation, though many were likely called witch hunts to cover up murders.
In September 2000, a mob in West Java rounded up a 70-year-old woman who was accused of casting spells that made local residents ill. She was decapitated, her eyes were gouged out, and her limbs were torn from her body and tossed into the street.
The anger and hatred toward purported witches in the country often led to the brutal death and dismemberment of anyone accused of witchcraft. This is why Indonesia’s post-Suharto witch purge is one of the more brutal examples on this list.
3 Papua New Guinea
Interestingly, Papua New Guinea allows a legal practice called “white” magic, which is used for faith healing and other benign practices. In the 1970s, the nation passed a law called the Sorcery Act, which imposed a two-year prison sentence on anyone found engaging in “black” magic. As the country outlawed the negative aspect of using magic, the nation saw a rise in violence and extrajudicial torture committed against alleged practitioners of “black” magic.
As recently as 2013, four women were accused of witchcraft because their familial home was made of wood. All four women were tortured, and one was beheaded. That incident occurred not because the women were practicing magic but because they were economically better off than their accusers.
Similar crimes have been committed throughout the country, typically against young women who are tortured and often beaten to death. Fortunately, the country repealed the Sorcery Act in 2013 and defined the killing of accused witches as murder.
Fortunately, not all witch hunts end in the brutal deaths of purported practitioners. When it came time for the mob to launch a witch hunt in the city of Buea, Cameroon, in January 2014, the unleashed fury only resulted in property damage.
Residents of the southern Cameroonian town rioted and destroyed the homes and vehicles of several people identified as witches. The rioters claimed that the victims were members of a cult responsible for some recent deaths in the region. Blogger and reporter Mathias Mouende Ngamo said, “16 homes and 10 shops were destroyed. There were also the shells of burned-out cars on the streets.”
In another incident in the 1970s, a child witchcraft scare spread throughout part of the country which resulted in the rounding up of several children believed to be witches. Fortunately, the children were not terribly harmed. After they were forced to confess, they were “rewarded” with large amounts of meat meant to induce a purifying vomit and were released to their families.
Of all these examples, Tanzania is by far the worst. In the 21st century alone, it is believed that an estimated 20,000 people have been rounded up and slaughtered for practicing witchcraft.
But these witch hunts aren’t strictly limited to the practice of the dark arts. In addition to denouncing people for witchcraft, Tanzania has targeted and slaughtered homosexuals or people accused of being homosexual.
Between January and June 2017, the Legal and Human Rights Center reported 479 deaths from so-called “mob justice” throughout the country. These deaths included mainly elderly women accused of witchcraft as well as government-sanctioned murders of homosexuals.
Many murders have been carried out under the direction of local governors, while others were the result of a mob frenzy. Regardless of their reasoning, Tanzania is the deadliest place to live for anyone accused of practicing witchcraft in the 21st century.