A report released last Tuesday by Amnesty International exposes the horrific reality of people with albinism being killed for their body parts in the Southern African country Malawi. According to the report, at least 69 crimes against and 18 murders of albinos have been reported since November 2014. In April itself, four people were murdered, including a baby. The figures are however, likely to be much higher because of lack of reporting from rural areas.
The barbaric demand for body parts is fueled by a superstition that they bring good luck and fortune. They are also used in medicines, charms and potions by witch doctors. There is also a belief that having sex with a person with albinism can cure HIV infections and AIDS thus women and children are more vulnerable to potential molestation and attack.
“Societal misunderstanding of albinism in Malawi has endangered the lives of this population group. It has created insecurity and widespread discrimination. In everyday life people with albinism are frequently treated as less than human,” Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for southern Africa, said. People with the condition live with the constant fear of being butchered like animals leading to death or dismemberment. Often limbs are cut off, organs ripped out and bodies abandoned after the killings.
To give a case in example, 17-year-old Davis Fletcher Machinjiri, was abducted by “about four men who trafficked him to Mozambique and killed him.” Describing his gruesome death, police say “the men chopped off both his arms and legs and removed bones. They then buried the rest of his body in a shallow grave.”
Amnesty says “thousands of people with albinism are at severe risk of abduction and killing by individuals and criminal gangs.” The United Nations has warned that Malawi’s albinos are at risk of “total extinction.”
“The macabre trade is also fueled by a belief that the bones of people with albinism contain gold.” Thus even the buried bones of albinos are not spared. They are dug out to be sold in Malawi and Mozambique. Evidence suggests that there is an organised trade in the body parts fuelling the murders.
According to the Association of People with Albinism in Malawi around 7,000 to 10,000 people are born with a genetic lack of or absence of melanin pigment in their skin, eyes and hair. They “live in fear of losing their lives to criminal gangs, who, in some instances, include close family members,” Amnesty said.
According to Bonface Massah, head of the Association of People with Albinism in Malawi, “Some parents or relatives don’t really value a child with albinism. They get tempted by the offer of money.”
It is unclear what has triggered the recent surge of killings but mass unemployment and drought could be part of the reason, Simeon Mawanza, lead researcher of the Amnesty report, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The images that you see, where they hack off their hands, their feet, it’s so difficult to understand what goes on in such a mind to commit such a heinous crime against an innocent human being, merely because they look different,” Mawanza said.
Malawian police said that after neighboring Tanzania imposed tough measures against the trade in January 2015, the violence in Malawi against albinos has increased.
President Peter Mutharika publicly condemned the killings and established a committee to look into the issue further. However, police rue the fact that they lack enough officers in rural areas, where the majority of attacks take place.
“That anybody could think that you can be rich by using bones or something like that because some witch doctors have said so. … That’s stupidity,” Mutharika remarked at a political rally on June 1.
Albinos are now being registered by the Malawi police in a bid to protect them. Spokesperson at the National Police Headquarters Nicholas Gondwa said the process of registration of the people with albinism is going on well.
“We are yet to finish the registration exercise. As you might be aware this was ordered by our commander in chief His Excellency the President,” he said.
Gondwa said this means the police will now be using community policing structures to protect people with albinism.
Attacks against people with albinism have also been reported from other countries in southern and eastern Africa, including Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Burundi.
The Amnesty report comes a few days ahead of International Albinism Awareness Day on June 13. Albinism affects between one in 5,000 and one in 15,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa. It affects about one in 20,000 people in Europe and North America.