Albinos in Malawi have long faced the threat of abduction, attacks and even death, with criminals seeking to sell albino body parts for witchcraft. Now, a fresh wave of violence has prompted a new government order: shoot anyone caught attacking albinos.
“Shoot every criminal who is violent when caught red-handed abducting people with albinism,” Malawi’s inspector general of police, Lexen Kachama, said, Reuters news agency reported. “We cannot just watch while our friends with albinism are being killed like animals every day.”
A surge of recent attacks against albinos throughout several East African countries has sparked international concern, with at least 15 albinos having been kidnapped, wounded or killed in the past six months, according to the United Nations.
“These attacks are often stunningly vicious, with children in particular being targeted,” U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said last month. “As a result, many people with albinism are living in abject fear. Some no longer dare to go outside, and children with albinism have stopped attending school because of the recent spate of assaults, murders and kidnappings.”
Superstitions and myths about people with albinism have fueled the violence — and the market: Body parts used in rituals can fetch a high price.
“A complete set of albino body parts — including all four limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose” can command as much as $75,000, a 2009 Red Cross report found.
Among the more common and harmful myths in Africa is that potions made with albinos’ body parts bring luck, according to a 2013 U.N. report.
“They are regarded as ghosts and not human beings who can be wiped off the global map,” U.N. human rights experts said in 2013.
At least six people with albinism have been attacked in Malawi during the first 10 weeks of this year, according to the United Nations. In January alone, a 9-year-old girl was abducted while she slept; she’s thought to be dead. A 2-year-old girl also was kidnapped and hasn’t been seen since.
In March, two men in Malawi abducted a 14-year-old girl, who managed to escape, the U.N. reports. The next night, a 2-year-old boy was kidnapped but reunited with his mother after she screamed for help.
Roaming gangs of men hunting for albinos have been reported in southern Malawi. In one case, a man allegedly was offered $6,500 for his niece’s body.
“We do realize that these people are ruthless, have no mercy and, therefore, they need to be treated just like that,” Kachama, the inspector general, said when explaining why he ordered police to use guns.
Kachama said he doesn’t want to “hear of a police officer chasing dangerous criminals, especially those abducting albinos, carrying tear gas or any other soft weapon,” AFP reported. “That is why I am ordering the police to use weapons in proportion to the gravity of the offence. We need to be secure from criminals.”
In March, the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council created a watchdog position to investigate attacks on albinos, which are also on the rise in Tanzania.
At least eight people have been attacked in that country since August. In Tanzania, an estimated one in 1,400 people has albinism, a World Health Organization study found; worldwide, about one in 20,000 people are albino. In a bid to stop the attacks, Tanzania recently banned witch doctors.
Some religious leaders voiced concerns that the ban could inadvertently affect traditional healers. “A lot of people, including senior politicians, visit these witch doctors,” the Rev. Leonard Mtaita, a retired general secretary of the Christian Council in Tanzania, said at the time. “I think the best approach would be to educate the communities about these issues.”
Upcoming Tanzanian elections have been cited as one possible reason for the increase in attacks, with politicians in the country consulting witch doctors and engaging in rituals that use the body parts of albino people.
As for Malawi’s shoot-attackers-on-the-spot policy, critics worry that the approach won’t actually stem the tide of violence as criminals may risk getting shot if the potential reward for body parts remains high. And while advocates want people with albinism to have protection, they want to ensure victims have justice, as well.
“We have to remember that all those goons caught red-handed … are small fish — agents and executors of the big sharks out there,” Vicky Ntetema, executive director of Canadian nonprofit Under the Same Sun, told Reuters. “Killing them on the spot is not going to help us catch the inducers, those with money to hire these gangs who continue to terrorize innocent people with albinism and their families.”