The recent killing of two albino Swazi children within a few days of each other is raising fears that the practice of murdering people with the genetically inherited condition to sell their body parts for “muti” (medicine) is migrating southwards.
Incidents of albinos being dismembered have been well-documented in Tanzania and Burundi, among other countries, in a trade driven by the belief that those suffering from albinism - caused by the body's inability to produce the melanin pigment that helps the skin protect itself from the sun's damaging ultra violet rays - have a special potency when included in concoctions that claim to bestow almost everything from political power and wealth to curing HIV/AIDS.
Last week Banele Nxumalo, 11, was shot and carried away by a group of masked gunmen next to the Siguduma River in southern Swaziland's Shisweleni Region, in front of 20 adults and children. Her decapitated body was discovered a few hours later. The killing came a few days after another albino child of similar age was found murdered and mutilated in the same region.
The child's father, Luke Nxumalo, told local media, "I wonder why albinos are targeted, because they are just humans like us, and a gift from God."
Constance Dube, a child welfare councillor based in Manzini, Swaziland's second city, told IRIN: "We have never had these ritual killings specific to albino persons before, but we've never had an AIDS epidemic causing so much panic either."
One in four Swazis between the ages of 15 and 49 is living with HIV - at 26.1 percent the world's highest prevalence - in a population of about 1 million, of which about two-thirds are in a state of chronic poverty.
No longer exempt from albino killings
The government and NGOs have embarked on HIV/AIDS education programmes, but many people still have deep-seated superstitions. Muti murders of children are not uncommon, and various theories explain the rise of child rapes, such as that sex with a virgin cleanses one of HIV/AIDS, but the recent targeting of albino children has opened a new chapter in the mountain kingdom.
Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, an NGO opposing the sexual abuse of women and children, said in a statement that the country could no longer claim immunity from the "ritual killings" most common in East Africa.
|Swaziland is clearly no longer exempt of this type of crime, where young albinos are being targeted|
"Swaziland, therefore - which has been identified as a destination, source and transit point for human trafficking, which also occurs for trade in body parts - is clearly no longer exempt of this type of crime, where young albinos are being targeted," the statement said.
Thembile Msibi, a traditional healer in Hhelehele, a village about 30km from Manzini, told IRIN that the blood and body parts of albinos were believed to cure HIV/AIDS. "[The killers] probably went after these poor children because they are easier to kill than adults, but the power of the muti made from them is very strong," she said.
Between 2007 and 2009 at least 70 African albinos were killed in Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania; according to recent reports, a Tanzanian police officer estimated that a "complete set of albino body parts" - including all four limbs, genitals, ears, nose and tongue - can sell for about US$75,000.
Trading in body parts
Under the Same Sun (USS), a Canadian faith-based NGO advocating the rights and protection of people with albinism, put unofficial estimates of the number of albinos killed in Tanzania and Burundi at more than 200 in the past two years, excluding others who have survived the hacking-off of limbs.
Earlier this month Tanzanian police arrested a 28-year-old Kenyan man in a sting operation near Mwanza, capital of the northeastern Mwanza Region, for attempting to sell a 20-year-old albino man for US$250,000.
Peter Ash, founder of USS, told the Vancouver Sun newspaper in a recent interview that the practice of killing albinos had only begun in the last decade, and "the killing of albinos and trafficking in body parts appears to be centred ... in and around the city of Mwanza."
The United States, the European Union and other nations and civil society groups have condemned muti killings. In the ensuing outcry, Tanzania has so far sentenced seven people to death for the murder of albinos, according to reports. A Swazi police officer, who declined to be named, said the increased awareness of these killings may have forced the perpetrators to move to other states to "harvest" people.
There have been no reports of discrimination against albinos in Swaziland, but there is also no reliable data on their numbers, or any registered associations catering for their needs.
Since the two Swazi children were murdered, however, police have received requests from the parents and guardians of albino children for protection.