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Deadly Skin Trade Preys on African Albinos

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Deadly Skin Trade Preys on African Albinos

LONDON (Nov. 23) -- East Africa's albinos have long suffered because of the color of their skin. Some are abandoned as babies by parents who regard their lack of pigment as a curse. Many more are subjected to taunts of "zeru" (Swahili for ghost) in school and on the street. But now Tanzania and Burundi's 8,000 albinos face a more horrible threat, fueled by a macabre combination of superstition and economics.

Over the past two years -- according to a new report from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies -- at least 56 albinos in the two countries have been murdered, and their body parts used by witch doctors to make charms and potions. The last known killing took place on Oct. 21, when albino hunters attacked 10-year-old Gasper Elikana in northern Tanzania. A gang of men hacked the boy to death in front of his family and neighbors -- who were wounded trying to protect the child -- before fleeing with his severed leg.

Albino children take a break at a school for the blind in East Africa.
In the face of such brutality, thousands of albinos have gone into hiding, including 300 children being sheltered by the Red Cross at police-protected schools. "This is a great source of shame for the region," says Isaac Mwaura, national coordinator for the Albinism Society in neighboring Kenya, and an albino himself. "These are people who lack melanin, who are vulnerable, who nature has not treated so kindly. To then attack them and deprive them of the right to live is simply barbaric."

What sparked this outburst of targeted violence is still unclear. Some have blamed local folklore, which says albinos are endowed with mystical powers. "People think that we don't die and many other things that aren't true," says Mwaura. "Albinos are seen as a cure, because they possess something out of the ordinary."

However, Andrei Engstrand-Neacsu, one of the authors of the Red Cross report, says traditional beliefs aren't solely to blame. He notes that the murders started in 2007, around the time of a mining and fishing boom in northern Tanzania, when many people launched new business ventures. Superstitious entrepreneurs desperate to succeed may have bought "good luck" albino trinkets from witch doctors. "This is mostly an economic activity carried out by criminals who have seized an opportunity," he says. "They have found people sufficiently stupid to believe that by using magic potions made of albino body parts they could become rich or more powerful."

What's certain is that buyers -- most of whom are believed to be Tanzanian -- are willing to pay a high price for these horrific charms. Police have reported albino limbs being sold by witch doctors for $200, while a full "albino kit" -- consisting of limbs, nose, tongue, ears and genitals – costs $75,000. That's an astronomical sum in a country where almost 60% of the population lives on less than $1 a day, and it has led many experts to conclude that the demand for these goods comes from the upper-echelons of Tanzanian society. "Poor people cannot afford to spend so much money on a little concoction from a witch doctor," says the Albinism Society's Mwaura. "The buyers must be wealthy. They are not even trying to strike it rich, they're trying to strike it richer."

Under pressure from campaigners at home and abroad, the Tanzanian government has started to crack down on the grim trade. In January, it revoked all traditional healers' operating licenses. (Many, however, flouted the ban and continued to trade.) In the spring, President Jakaya Kikwete ordered all adults to fill out a form and name anyone who they suspected of killing an albino. The courts have also been getting tough: So far this year, seven people have been handed the death penalty for taking part in albino murders.

Franck Alphonse, director of the Tanzania Albino Center (which cares for 79 albino children), though, argues that these recent cases have failed to unearth the true criminals who ordered the attacks. "The gangs who kill the albinos, who earn $250 for murdering an albino, have been sentenced to death," he says. "But the sentence doesn't touch those wealthy people who sent those criminals to murder the albino in the first place. The source of the crime is still there."

Despite these doubts, there's evidence that this hard-line approach is scaring off some albino hunters. The brutal killing of Gasper Elikana in October was the first reported murder in three months.

However, it's likely that the region's albinos will only feel truly safe when their black-skinned neighbors regard them as ordinary people and not supernatural beings. "What's needed is education," says Engstrand-Neacsu. "We need to make people understand what albinism really is. Ignorance is the origin of discrimination. And ignorance has ultimately led to these crimes."

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