AFRICA

Tanzanian gangs hack off limbs of albinos for traditional rituals

Albinos in Tanzania attacked, their limbs hacked off for traditional rites, with at least 74 dead in a decade

The last time Esther Bahati saw her 1-year-old son Yohana was in the early hours of Sunday, when several men broke into her house, slashed her face and arms with machetes, grabbed Yohana and fled.

The boy, an albino, was found dead in a forest two days later, his limbs hacked off apparently for use in traditional medicine or witchcraft, even as Bahati lay in a hospital recovering from her wounds. Yohana’s albino sister, who was not at their home in the Chato district during the attack, is now under police protection.

Tanzania's government last month banned traditional healers and soothsayers in an effort to prevent the killings of albinos. However, United Nations human rights chief Zeid Raad Hussein on Thursday urged the government to do more after three incidents in two months, including the abduction of a 4-year-old girl from her home by armed men in December. She is feared dead.

At least 74 albinos have been killed in Tanzania in the last decade, according to the United Nations. Dozens more have been attacked and many have had limbs cut off. One hacked-off limb can be sold for $600 in Tanzania, according to the U.N., while a body is worth up to $75,000.

Albinos face attack in many parts of Africa, but kidnappings, attacks and killings are more common in Tanzania. (In many other parts of Africa, children -- not necessarily with albinism -- are abducted and hacked to death for body parts used in traditional magic rituals, often to bring fortune or success.)

In Tanzania, family members, including fathers and uncles, are sometimes complicit in attacks on albino children, who are seen as a curse on the family, said Tanzanian lawmaker Al-Shaymaa Kwegyir in a phone interview Thursday. Kwegyir said she had faced a lifetime of discrimination as an albino.

“They used to attack 14- and 15-year-olds and hack off their limbs,” she said. “Girls were attacked. Aged people were attacked. Now they have come to babies. It’s terrible, really terrible.”

Unless action was taken to protect people with albinism, she warned, the number of attacks was likely to grow sharply in the lead-up to elections due later this year.

“If action won’t be taken the problem will be worse, because they need those body parts, because they believe those body parts will bring them positions and will make them rich,” she said.

But banning traditional healers wouldn’t stop the practice, she said, because of the determination of the criminals involved.

The ban put in place by Home Affairs Minister Mathias Chikawe “doesn’t help because these killers learn so many tricks on attacks on people with albinism,” she said. “These cases are very difficult to solve.”

Albinism is a rare genetic condition found in all ethnic groups. People with albinism lack pigmentation in their skin and hair due to a lack of melanin, are often sensitive to the sun and face a higher than average risk of skin cancer. Those with albinism are often visually impaired.

The condition affects 1 in 2,000 Tanzanians, according to UNICEF. It’s common for more than one child in a family to be born with albinism.

According to Under the Same Sun, a Canadian group that campaigns for the rights of albinos, Tanzania accounts for half of the attacks in Africa against those with the condition.

“Violence and discrimination against people with albinism must be halted,” Hussein, the U.N. rights chief, said Thursday. “I call on the Tanzanian authorities to swiftly investigate and prosecute perpetrators of this terrible crime and to strengthen its protection measures for people with albinism.”

Despite her position as a prominent lawmaker, Kwegyir said she was careful never to go anywhere alone.

“At the moment, I’m afraid to walk alone, because anything could happen to me,” she said.

Follow @robyndixonLAT on Twitter for news out of Africa

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
72°