Earlier this month in Tanzania, three men armed with machetes hacked a 15-year-old girl’s arm off just below her elbow. The reason: The girl is an albino and witch doctors in the country were willing to pay as much as $600 for an albino’s severed limb.
Later that day, the men attacked the girl’s uncle, who is also albino. He was able to escape.
Less than two weeks later, according to Vice News, the body of an albino man was found on the outskirts of a nearby town. Pictures of the man’s body revealed that a large patch of skin had been removed from his torso and a hole drilled in his abdomen. Two days after the grisly discovery, armed men severed the lower portion of a 35-year-old albino woman’s arm.
The recent spate of attacks — five in less than two weeks — in Tanzania has, again, highlighted a brutal practice with ties to witchcraft and prejudice against those with albinism.
Albinism is a genetic, melanin pigmentation deficiency that typically results from a recessive gene carried by a person’s parents. People with albinism generally have extremely pale skin and hair, and their eyes are typically a light shade of blue.
In Africa, those suffering from the condition face increased risk of skin cancer and possible sight problems. They also face alienating stigmatization because of superstitions that reinforce beliefs that sufferers are either ghosts or somehow cursed.
The recent mutilations likely resulted from a belief among some practitioners of witchcraft that albino body parts carry mystical or magical powers. It’s not a new problem, said Peter Ash, head of the albinism-rights group Under the Same Sun.
A rash of killings and mutilations last year prompted a response from the United Nations, although it seems little progress has been made in stopping the attacks.
The U.N. human rights chief, Navi Pillay, issued a statement last March after four attacks on albinos in 16 days. She urged the Tanzanian government to do more to protect its albino citizens.
“These crimes are abhorrent. People with albinism have the right to start living, like anyone else, without fear of being killed or dismembered,” Pillay said, according to the BBC. ”I am deeply alarmed by the general discrimination and social exclusion many people with albinism suffer, as a result of their skin color, not just in Tanzania but in other countries as well.”
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, also made a statement about that same time with the startling revelation that victims are intentionally left alive during the attacks.
"Some people believe the magic is stronger if the victim screams when the attacks take place, and obviously if you kill a person first they don’t scream,” Colville told Voice of America last year. “It would explain why you get these people having limbs cut off while they are still alive, which is what happened in I think three of these recent cases.”
Alicia Londono, a U.N. human rights official who recently visited Tanzania, said it will take a good deal of work to undo generations of prejudice and superstition against albinos.
"They are rejected by their families and communities, they don't have access to health services or education," she said. "It's a vicious cycle of discrimination and poverty.”
Activists, U.N. officials, and members of Under the Same Sun continue efforts in the region to educate the public about albinism, and ensure that sufferers of the condition are treated fairly and have access to support.
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