Hunters stalk albinos in Malawi
Criminal gangs nicknamed "albino hunters" and armed with machetes, knives and axes are striking fear into people living with albinism in Malawi, abducting and often killing their victims in broad daylight and in the dead of night, prompting police to announce a shoot-to-kill policy.
The latest victim of the brutal attacks is a nine-year old boy with albinism from Malawi's eastern district of Machinga. His mother Edna Cedrick tried to rescue her son when two attackers abducted him last Friday.
A police officer from Machinga district, Isaac Ndala, confirmed the abduction, adding that the kidnappers injured the boy's mother.
The abduction happened while her husband was away on a fishing errand at the nearby Lake Chilwa. There have been no reports of the boy being found.
The audacious kidnapping is not an isolated case, as abductions, attempted killings and brutal murders have prompted some police authorities to brand albinos an "endangered species" in Malawi.
According to the police, by now about 50 criminal offences have been committed against albinos and the number might even be higher than as some incidents may not have been reported to police.
"The latest statistics we have are of last year, 2015," Malawi police spokesperson Nicholas Gondwa told News24.
"Over 30 criminal cases were reported that included killings, abductions, and being found with bones of persons with albinism. Just imagine, there are even some daredevils who go to cemeteries to dig graves where people with albinism were buried. All that is done in the name of hunting for the body parts or bones of albinos," he said.
Police figures show that as of January this year, at least 11 people with albinism were killed while 34 others were attacked with some of them suffering body mutilations.
Besides the use of violence, the police say all sorts of tricks are used by criminals involved in a syndicate that is hunting for albino body parts in Malawi, including the use of parents and relatives to catch their prey.
The police cited an example of a 53-year-old woman with albinism, Eunice Phiri, who was found dead in Kasungu National Park in January.
According to the police Phiri was tricked by three men, including her brother, into accompanying them on a trip to the neighbouring Zambia. When they were on their way to Zambia she was killed and her body was dismembered.
Her brother was allegedly paid money to lure her.
Another incident also happened in central Malawi's district of Dedza where Collin Zulu abducted his own son, who he wanted to sell to three "human hunters". Police arrested him before the sale was concluded.
Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (Apam) executive director Boniface Massa agreed with the police that the official figures of albinos killed or abducted is an underestimate.
"Some victims are abducted or even killed without trace. Some of those who are abducted have never been seen again. Some such incidents are never reported to police," he said.
Massah blamed witchdoctors who were taking advantage of poor people's ignorance by creating the misconception that body parts of albinos are potent charms.
"There are all sorts of baseless misconceptions. They include the wrong belief that having sex with an albino will cure HIV and Aids. Some are hoodwinked into believing that our body parts can make one get rich quickly, either by using parts such as eyes to be visionary and forward-looking. Those are empty lies," he said.
Incensed by the horrors, Malawi Police chief Lexen Kachama has ordered his officers to "shoot-to-kill those caught in the act of abducting or killing albinos".
"We first heard of such horrible stories of albino abductions and killings in neighbouring Tanzania. The problem has now spilled to Malawi and hence it is important to fight against this criminality aggressively and professionally," said Kachama.
Despite continued abductions, he has vowed that the police will hunt down the perpetrators of these crimes.
"But we need members of the public to support us. The kidnappers live with us in our communities so if we join hands, we can end these horrible attacks and murders," said Kachama. Meanwhile some community members, frustrated with pace of justice, have started taking the law in their own hands.
On Tuesday, a mob burnt to death seven alleged members of an albino hunter gang found with human parts including bones in Southern Malawi's border district of Nsanje.
Police confirmed the incident.