/ 19 September 2022

No justice in Zambia for survivors of attacks against people with albinism

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Danger: People with albinism march through Jinja, Uganda, against attacks on them. Photo: Fredrik Lerneryd/AFP

One night in May last year, Kabwe Musonda, her two children, and her mother had just gone to bed when she heard a knock. Male voices claimed to be Zambian police searching for drugs.

When she opened the door to their home in Mbala, on the outskirts of Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, she saw three men wearing black coats, masks and hats. With guns aimed at her, they warned her to remain calm.

The other two entered the room where Musonda’s mother and her two-year-old daughter, Jamimah, were sleeping. Shortly afterwards, she heard her son screaming: “Mama, they’re cutting off her hand!”

The attackers fled into the night. The child survived but bears permanent scars from the attack.

Musonda and the police believe the attackers targeted Jamimah because of her albinism.

Two months after Jamimah’s attack, unknown men assaulted nine-year-old Sinya Lwanja in the Chasefu district in Eastern Province. They have never been caught. The boy is also lucky to be alive.

Some people believe that the body parts of people with albinism are imbued with the ability to cure myriad diseases and bring good luck, success and wealth.

Human rights activists are also concerned that the economic depression from Covid-19 and the rising cost of living has led to an increase in such attacks.

No arrests have been made in Lwanja’s case. Four suspects were arrested in connection with the attack on Jamimah with the help of her grandmother, who told the police she recognised a T-shirt worn by one of the attackers. 

During the investigations, the police took suspects to the hospital where Musonda had been admitted, and she identified the voice of one.

But the police released the suspects a few days later, saying there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.

Keita Coumba Makalou, the co-founder and executive director of the Salif Keita Global Foundation, which advocates for the rights of people with albinism, described the treatment of Jamimah’s case as a “whitewash of justice”.

“In cases involving ritual crimes, especially in villages, most people know the possible suspects,” Makalou said. “The local authorities need to take these investigations seriously, and incentivise people to come forward with information.”

Zambia has nearly 30 000 people living with albinism.

John Chiti — a musician, human rights activist and member of the civilian Zambia Police Service Commission that oversees police appointments and disciplinary issues — who has albinism, said the failure to secure prosecutions in both cases was “worrisome”.

“We are not sure if the suspects were released because the evidence was insufficient, or maybe they were clever enough to cover up the evidence. We understand that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and the authorities may not want to prosecute wrong people. But we worry that the cases will likely go cold like many others.”

Chiti blamed shoddy police investigations for failing to bring suspects to book. “Such cases would require a lot of forensic evidence, and/or DNA but it seems like our country is poorly equipped in this area.” 

Makalou said the United Nations Human Rights Council had failed to implement measures to protect people with albinism, especially in Africa, even after appointing Nigeria’s Ikponwosa Ero in 2015 as the first independent expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism.

“The plight of people with albinism in Africa is the main reason for the global attention albinism has generated. The UN appointed an expert from Nigeria because it wanted to change the situation for people living with the condition in Africa, but little has changed so far,” Makalou said. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.