Friday, February 27, 2009

More on efforts to save albino people in Tanzania

An article in the National Post in Canada. In the picture, Albino children take a break at the Mitindo Primary School for the blind, which has become a rare sanctuary for albino children. The New York Times published an article on Peter Ash last week.

To the vicious hunters of northwestern Tanzania, she is "zeru zeru" -- invisible, inhuman, a ghost.

Under cover of darkness, a group of men charge into young Viviana's room in the middle of the night, pin her pale form immobile, and hack off one of her little legs as her sister screams in horror.

Viviana, shockingly, is among the lucky ones. The commotion draws the attention of neighbours, and the attackers slip off into the night without finishing the job. She is left an amputee, but alive.

The single albino leg will fetch upwards of $1,000 in a gruesome market controlled by powerful Tanzanian witch doctors, who grind the bones into potions and repurpose them as good luck charms for struggling miners and fishermen.

The story sounds apocryphal, yet albinos are shunned and subject to social discrimination in many parts of Africa. There are reports of albinos being murdered in Burundi, and in Tanzania many albinos fear being kidnapped, dismembered, murdered.

Deep-seated discrimination against people with albinism - a genetic condition that causes an absence of pigmentation in the hair, skin and eyes - lies at the root of a "pure and unadulterated genocide," said Canadian philanthropist Peter Ash, the Surrey, B.C.-based founder of Under the Same Sun, a non-profit group dedicated to helping end the slaughter in Tanzania. It has claimed at least 45 lives by the official count, but he believes the real number may be closer to double that.

"Most often if they hack off both legs, or legs and an arm, they bleed to death really quickly," Mr. Ash said. "In some cases they slit the throat first and drain the blood into a pot. One mom we visited told how they came in and slit the girl's throat, and drank the blood on the spot.

"Most children don't survive."

An albino himself, Mr. Ash empathizes deeply with the victims. He has snow-white hair and pale skin that is exceptionally vulnerable to the sun. Like most people with albinism, he is also legally blind.

He remembers being called "whitey" and "snowflake" as a child, beat up by his peers because he was different. One day, as he was bent over his combination lock, squinting with his weakened eyes to read the numbers, a couple of children in the school hallway caught his attention with a shout of "hey, albino."

"They took my head and rammed it into my locker," Mr. Ash recalled.

But with the support of his family, Mr. Ash says he has built a strong sense of self-confidence upon his own uniqueness.

When he heard about the killings in Tanzania, which came into the public spotlight in late 2007, he knew he had to act, and launched Under the Same Sun in March of the following year. In addition to educating the international community about the ongoing atrocities, the group hopes to put pressure on the Tanzanian government to guarantee equal protection for albinos under the law. The country has a significantly higher rate of albinism than other countries -- about 1 in 3,000 compared to 1 in 20,000 for Europe and North America.

The campaign of violence against them has earned harsh condemnation internationally, and the United Nations has called for "concerted action" to end
the spate of murders and bring perpetrators to justice. Mr. Ash's group this month laid additional pressure on the UN to appoint a special prosecutor to assume control of the investigation.

Conservative MP Mark Warawa has also been pushing the cause in Ottawa through discussions with Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary for Foreign Affairs, who is set to meet with Tanzanian officials in March.

Visiting Tanzania for the first time in October, Mr. Ash recalled feeling vulnerable both as an albino and as a vocal critic of the local government's response to the killings.

Despite public rebukes of the slaughter by Tanzania's leaders and a wave of more than 200 arrests, including several police officers, there has yet to be a single conviction.

"Albinos don't know who to trust," Mr. Ash said. "Public statements are great; arrests are great; but until someone's actually held accountable and actually been prosecuted, to us it all doesn't matter because the murders keep going on."

Perhaps even more frightening than the possibility of official complicity is the fact that in almost half the cases of albino killings, the victims are sold out by family or friends looking to cash in.

Thousands of other albinos throughout the continent are killed as infants by mothers afraid their husbands would otherwise abandon the family.

"Because this belief exists that the albino is a ghost or an omen or a curse, what happens is the midwife takes the albino child out back, suffocates it or breaks its neck, and then the baby is buried and the father is told the child was stillborn," Mr. Ash said.

Those who survive past infancy become commodified, with a full set of arms, legs, hair, genitals and blood potentially yielding $30,000, the equivalent of about four decades' worth of wages in the developing country. In almost all cases, the parts are chopped off while the victim is alive, in accordance with mystical beliefs that a live sacrifice is more potent.

Local journalist Vicky Ntetema recalls meeting a family whose seven-month-old baby was "snatched from his mother's embrace in the middle of the night and left limbless outside the family hut, while just like a mother hen she protected the rest of the victim's siblings."

Other criminals desecrate graves of people with albinism to steal their bones.

"[Witch doctors] chop them up or grind them up, use them in potions or what's called a talisman, an object they will sprinkle blood on or infuse with body parts," Mr. Ash said. Fishermen use albino hair in their nets in the hopes of landing a bigger catch, while miners sprinkle the potions in their mines, believing it will yield more gold or diamonds.

The practice is most common in rural areas, where witchcraft is more deeply entrenched. Ms. Ntetema, who calls Tanzania home and believes its image has been deeply "tarnished" by these atrocities, has devoted much of her work to sounding the alarm on the persecution of albino citizens.

She is also urging police and government to take the killings more seriously by banning the activities of witch doctors and changing the law on licensing traditional healers.

Mr. Ash, who is planning to return to Tanzania in April to launch a local branch of Under the Same Sun, says such action is critical to the campaign for change.

He is also encouraged by the traction the issue has started to gain back home, acknowledging that he has helped shed light on horrors that will be new to many Westerners.

"A lot of that was just people weren't aware of it, and to some degree nobody wants to tangle with something this evil," he said. "You're looking evil in the eye when you do this."