In East Africa, where albinism is prevalent, people born without pigment in their skin are thought to possess special powers, but not in a good way. Superstitions feed myths that albinos are ghosts, sorcerers or demons who have been cursed and, when hunted and killed for body parts, bring good luck to others.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, announced Thursday that attacks against albinos have spiked this year in East Africa, especially in Malawi and Tanzania.
“As a result, many people with albinism are living in abject fear,” he said in a statement cited by the Associated Press. “Some no longer dare to go outside, and children with albinism have stopped attending school.”
Albinos in Tanzania are at an increased risk. Already this year, some have been kidnapped, dismembered and turned over to witch doctors. Young vigilantes have armed themselves with machetes, axes and knives. They hacked and burned to death a 58-year-old woman they believed was using albinos for their perceived powers. The Tanzanian government has cracked down, banning witch doctors and making their crime punishable by death.
But some suspect it may only get worse.
In October, Tanzania will elect a new president as well as members of parliament and local governments. The United Nations believes the recent surge in attacks may be associated with the upcoming elections, as politicians have been known to seek out seers who use albinos’ body parts to predict the future, USA Today reported. They think it will improve their chances on election day.
Erick Kabendera, a well-known Tanzanian journalist who has reported on the ritual killings for years, told National Geographic in 2013 that, in the past, politicians have been suspected of playing a part in the murders.
“If a politician needs to win an election, they will consult a witch doctor, but then politicians will blame the fishermen” for murdered albinos, he said.
The top U.N. official in Tanzania, Alvaro Rodriguez, warned albinos about it last month.
“This is the year of elections in Tanzania, and, as some analysts have suggested, it could be a dangerous year for people living with albinism,” he told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
Other theories for the rise in violence have been attributed to an increase in food prices, among other things.
A complete set of body parts from an albino, including “all four limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose,” can bring in up to $75,000 on the black market, according to a 2009 report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Albinism is a rare genetic condition in which people are born without pigmentation in their hair, skin and eyes. Many who have it are visually impaired and more vulnerable to sunlight, putting them at greater risk for developing skin cancer.
For years, superstitions have incited ritual attacks against albinos. Witch doctors use their body parts in potions to bring good fortune to those who are willing to pay for it, according to a 2013 report (PDF) from the U.N. Human Rights Council.
“Some even believe that the witchcraft ritual is more powerful if the victim screams during the amputation, so body parts are often cut from live victims, especially children,” the report said. “The use of children is likely linked to the pursuit of innocence which, it is believed, enhances the potency of the witchcraft ritual. Moreover, children are more vulnerable to attacks as they are easy to find and capture and do not have the physical strength to fend off attackers.”
In Malawi, an 11-year-old girl was kidnapped in January by her uncle, who was told he could get $6,500 for her body, according to the U.N. commission. That same month, two other albino children were abducted, and a 68-year-old woman was found dead and dismembered. Six attacks have been reported this year in the country.
Eight attacks have been reported in Tanzania since last fall. In December, a young albino girl went missing and was never found. In February, a 1-year-old albino boy was taken from his home and, days later, local police found his body with the arms and legs severed. Earlier this month, police reported a 6-year-old was attacked in his home while he was sleeping. His mother was hacked with machetes, and the boy’s hand was cut off, police told the AFP.
More than 200 similar cases have been reported to the United Nations from 2000 to 2013, the Human Rights Council said in its 2013 report.
“The attacks involved dismembering the victim’s limbs and resulted in death,” the report said. “In a few other cases, the victims were beheaded; genitals, ears and bits of skin were removed; tongues were cut out and the eyes and the heart gouged out.”
Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete has called the attacks a “disgusting and big embarrassment for the nation.”
The country made such attacks against albinos a crime punishable by death late last year. As part of the crackdown on albino killings, Tanzanian police detained 32 witch doctors last week, BBC News reported. Across the country, 225 unlicensed healers have been arrested.
In the buildup to Tanzania’s elections, one activist said, officials have expressed fears about the further attacks.
“It is true that there is a link between elections and a rise in attacks on persons with albinism,” Ernest Kimaya, chairman of the Tanzania Albinism Society, told Reuters. “It is something that we are aware of.”