A former ULIMO commander stands trial in France accused of war crimes, human rights violations, murder and cannibalism.
For shortness sake reference is made to Civitas Maxima’s monitoring of the arrest and trial of Kunti Kamara, a former ULIMO commander who was arrested in France in 2018. Kunti Kamara is accused of war crimes and human rights violations including torture, rape, murder and cannibalism committed during Liberia’s first civil war (1989-1997) in Foya, Lofa County, Liberia. His trial started in Paris/France on October 10.
Kunti Kamara is not the first or only rebel commander who’s being accused of ritual murder and cannibalism. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission mentions in its 2009 Final Report that hundreds of Liberians were murdered for ritual purposes during the two civil wars. In his book The Mask of Anarchy (1999), the late Stephen Ellis accuses the leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) who started Liberia’s first civil war, Charles Taylor, of drinking human blood during a juju ritual. Also Gibril Massaquoi, a RUF commander in neighboring Sierra Leone and a key-witness in the SCSL trial of warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, was accused of murder for ritual purposes, but acquitted in April (2022). (webmaster FVDK).
“I would never eat human heart” – Kunti Kamara denies accusation before a French War Crimes court
Published: October 18, 2022 By: Prue Clarke, Front Page Africa – Monrovia, Liberia
PARIS, France – The former Ulimo commander Kunti Kamara, on trial here for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Liberia’s civil wars, had his first chance to make a substantive response to the allegations made against him in the first five days of this trial.
Under questioning from the judges, civilian lawyers and prosecution lawyers Kamara denied all the accusations that victims have made against him of torture, rape, murder of civilians and “barbarism” in the town of Foya in Lofa County, Liberia between 1993 and 1994.
Kamara told the nine-person jury and four alternates that the accusations of cannibalism – that he roasted and ate the heart of a civilian who had allegedly reported his crimes to international observers – made him sick.
“Since I was arrested nothing bothered me in the trial like what they’re talking about now. Eating human beings,” Kamara said. “Even if I spend 100 years in jail I will not admit to eating a human being’s heart. Each time I hear it I want to vomit.”
“Since I was born until today I never eat pork,” said Kamara a Muslim. “Why should I eat human being heart? I have nothing to say. I am innocent. I don’t know them today. I don’t know them tomorrow.”
Kamara denied that he had ever knew anyone who had said they ate human heart including in rituals of the Poro, a traditional African society.
“Since I was small that is a rumor in the ear,” he said of Poro human sacrifice and consumption of human flesh. “But I never met anyone who said they ate heart.”
Kamara insisted that the Ulimo committed no atrocities against civilians in the four-month period he was with them in Foya though he conceded Ulimo may have committed atrocities elsewhere during the war.
He said Ulimo in Foya was under the ultimate command of Ulimo Commander Dekau. Kamara said his mandate was only as battalion commander in charge of platoons “on the frontlines”. He denied any leadership role in the town over civilians.
Kamara acknowledged Ulimo fighters that victims have identified in this trial “Ugly Boy”, “Fine Boy” and Alieu Kosiah, convicted of war crimes in Switzerland in 2021, were all with him in Foya but Kamara claimed he hardly ever saw them.
Kamara blamed the accusations that have brought him to trial here were part of a “plot” orchestrated by “a clique” led by Fayah Williams, the late deputy director at Global Justice and Research Project, the Liberian justice activists.
Late in the evening Massa Washington, the former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, gave a powerful testimony that could prove decisive in the trial.
It was designed to answer questions that jurors may have had about whether they should be passing judgement on a Liberian for crimes committed 30 years ago in a country a long way away. That was a question French journalists were asking eachother on the sidelines of the trial.
“These trials are important because they give them people of Liberia justice,” an emotional Washington told the jury. “They give us hope that one day we’ll be able to get justice with our own judges, our own prosecutors, on our own soil. In the meantime we are grateful that some of the people who committed these gross violations of human rights who are in this country, in the US, in every country in the world where they find them they can try to bring them to justice. In the absence of our government addressing accountability these trials are the Liberian people have.”
Washington thanked the jury.
“It sends a message that we belong to the universal human race,” Washington said. “It says that the world has not forgotten Liberia. It says that we all share that common human dignity. We have the same needs. We feel the same pain. We thank you for the opportunity to tell some of these stories. I hope this has provided an important clarification for why this trial is important.”
Washington told some of the horrors she had personally witnessed as a journalist in Monrovia during the first civil war. The jury was riveted by her testimony which made clear that the testimony they were hearing from witnesses here was just a fraction of the myriad atrocities that had been committed during the war. She told of rapes of girls as young as five and of elderly women. She said her work with women made it clear to her than many of the elderly women had not come forward to the TRC hearings because of the stigma.
She told the story of an 82-year-old woman who told her she was made a war wife.
“’I was raped all the time by boys who could have been my grandchildren,’” Massa quoted the woman as saying. “Her story is just one story that represents thousands of stories. The rebels were so bad that when people were on checkpoints trying to get away from the fighting the rebels were raping the wives in front of the husbands. They even forced sons to have sex with mothers in front of the family to destroy the men. They took the young girls away.”
Earlier in the day the fifth victim to testify against Kamara detailed the alleged torture, killing and cannibalism of a schoolteacher in Foya that all victims have claimed was directed by the defendant.
He also talked more broadly of the suffering of people in Lofa during Ulimo’s occupation of the town. His telling of the experience of the women he had planned to marry was a harrowing example of the broader suffering of the people.
“M. was my girlfriend and Ugly Boy took her as a sex slave,” the victim told the Paris court talking of the now deceased perpetrator that many victims have alleged was Kamara’s lieutenant who followed his orders to commit many of the crimes. The court has ordered press to withhold victims’ names for their security.
“This was another blow to me,” the victim told the court. ”I really planned to marry her. The first time I saw her after the war, it was painful, but it had happened. She was not at fault. I saw her but the stigma was too heavy. I could no longer take her as a wife. By tradition anyone who takes a wife after that is easily rejected from society. In addition, because of her time as a sex slave, she conceived. I am feeling it for her now because her situation is too deplorable.”
The trial continues Tuesday with more testimonies from victims about the murder of a woman in Lofa.
This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.
Liberia: “You are Kundi. You killed my sister” A third victim identifies Kamara as perpetrator in War Crimes Trial
Published: October 19, 2022 By: Anthony Stephens and Prue Clarke with New Narratives, Front Page Africa – Monrovia,
PARIS, France – On Tuesday a third victim identified Kunti Kamara, on trial for torture, cannibalism and crimes against humanity in the Paris Court, as “Co Kundi” the rebel commander who allegedly committed atrocities in Foya, Lofa County, Liberia.
The man was one of four plaintiffs who have brought the case against Kamara here in Paris, France where Kamara was living when he was arrested in 2019 after French investigators built a case against him.
“You are Kundi,” the man said turning to look at Kamara directly, barely containing his obvious emotion and rage. The plaintiff pointed at Kamara who was sitting behind his lawyers in a protective glass case. “I know you very well. You the one that killed my sister.”
The now elderly man told the court Kamara arrived at his house in Foya in late 1993 after the man’s sister’s baby had died. He alleged Kamara gave the family $L100 for their pain.
Soon after that Kamara allegedly ordered the victim’s sick and half naked sister – the mother of the child – dragged from the house. He accused her of witchcraft. The victim said Kamara and his troops had taken over the house for themselves and already had his wife, son and mother in custody at the time. Kamara did not know the man, who was standing with a crowd, was a member of the family.
The victim was overcome with tears as told the court that he had watched as Kamara put three bullets in his sister’s head.
Within months the man’s mother was also dead from illness. The victim blamed Kunti for the grief the murder of his sister had caused her.
“She cried every day,” he said. “So she became sick from not seeing my sister.”
The lawyer for the civil parties asked the victim if he had anything to say to Kamara but he took the opportunity to issue a warning to the judges instead.
“I’m very happy to see all the officers to take care of Kundi,” he said pointing to the court officers who accompany the defendant at all times. “This government should not leave Kundi to come back to Liberia.”
Kamara rejected all the allegations as he has done consistently throughout this trial.
“I’m just shocked,” an agitated Kamara told the president of the court Thierry Fusina. “I don’t know him. These people, it’s my first time to see them in my life. I don’t know them! They are lying on me. I’m not a criminal.”
Earlier in the day another witness to the alleged murder of the sick woman accused of witchcraft gave evidence that appeared to contradict testimony that he gave to an earlier investigating judge in the case.
In a recently released document of the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF), Revealing Our Hidden Shame – Addressing Charges of Witchcraft and Ritual Attacks, it is being reported that “hundreds of thousands of children in Africa are believed to be accused every year of what is widely regarded across Africa as a particularly heinous crime: witchcraft”.
In the document, 19 Sub-Sahara African countries are mentioned as the scene of cases of the commission of rural infanticide crimes, attacks against children with disabilities, ritual attacks against children with albinism and cases of violence against children accused of witchcraft.
The 19 SSA countries are scattered across the continent and it is believed – in view of the scarcity of data – that the cases which have come to light only constitute the tip of the iceberg.
It goes without saying that there is no place in the 21st century for these practices and crimes.
Warning: Some readers may find the following story disturbing (webmaster FVDK).
Cult-related attacks against children still occur in at least 19 SSA countries
Published: June 2, 2022 By: LUSA – Macau Business dot com
Angola is the only Portuguese-speaking African country mentioned in a report released on Wednesday by the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) on the practice of ritual attacks against children.
In the document, “Revealing Our Hidden Shame – Addressing Charges of Witchcraft and Ritual Attacks”, presented Tuesday in a video conference from Addis Ababa, “hundreds of thousands of children in Africa are believed to be accused every year of what is widely regarded across Africa as a particularly heinous crime: witchcraft”.
ACPF executive director Joan Nyanyuki argues in the introduction that “across the African continent, much has been done to improve laws and policies aimed at ending violence against children.”
“Some progress has been made in establishing the systems and structures needed to implement and enforce these policies and laws. These efforts, however, have not sufficiently addressed an important dimension of violence against children: accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks,” it adds.
In the document, 19 countries are referenced as the scene of cases of the commission of rural infanticide crimes, attacks against children with disabilities, attacks against children with albinism and cases of violence against children accused of witchcraft.
“The report documents, to the extent possible in light of the scarcity of data, how widespread accusations of witchcraft are across the continent (although they vary in extent over time and from place to place). Best estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of children face accusations every year in Africa and subsequently suffer serious violations.”
Examples given by the document point to reported cases of ritual infanticide in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar and Niger, while Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Essuatini, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Madagascar, Rwanda and Zimbabwe have reported ritual attacks on children with disabilities.
Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali and Tanzania have reported attacks on children with albinism and in South Africa, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania cases of violence against children accused of being witches are reported.
“To protect children from the harm of witchcraft accusations, it is not necessary to deny that ‘witchcraft’ exists. Instead, it is important to prioritise child protection while preventing child abuse by addressing the belief that such abuse can somehow protect communities from perceived danger,” the document argues.
The research that resulted in the report found that with the exception of work done by some non-governmental organisations, “few organisations and states in Africa make systematic efforts to prevent such abuse”.
“Few prohibit accusations. Services for children who have suffered harm and violence related to accusations are few and far between. This area needs urgent attention,” argues the report.
Joan Nyanyuki argues “a comprehensive and coordinated effort by state and non-state actors is needed to uncover the nature, magnitude and impact of violence related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks. This approach will ensure that child protection systems, laws and policies are enhanced to adequately address these forms of violence against children.”
Saving Africa’s Witch Children (dated June 22, 2009) reporting on how thousands of small children in Nigeria are branded witches. The web page also contains a large number of news reports and articles (2005-2009) including websites of organizations fighting against these cruel and illegal practices.
There is hardly any doubt that in Malawi the position of people with albinism is the most fragile and dangerous as compared to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. I have repeatedly mentioned this here, see e.g. my posting earlier this year, on January 22.
In 2017, ALJAZEERA reported that In Malawi, more than 115 people had been attacked in the past two years and that at least 20 of them did not survive the attack. Below follows an extensive report of ALJAZEERA on the victims, the survivors and the perpetrators (as far as known).
ALJAZEERA is to be commended for raising awareness on the human rights violations people with albinism experience and the efforts being made to protect them.
ALJAZEERA is to be commended for this excellent work of investigative journalism and the attention thus paid to this curse. People with albinism face discrimination in at least 23 African countries. For many, this discrimination amounts to insecurity, violence & murder.
Also in the current year, ALJAZEERA paid attention to the plight of people with albinism, on June 13, International Albinism Awareness Day, with a series of tweets. Click here to access the tweets.
Warning: some readers may find the following stories disturbing (webmaster FVDK).
Published: June 13, 2022 By: ALJAZEERA
Killed for their bones – On the trail of the trade in human body parts
In Malawi, people with albinism are being killed and their bodies harvested; children and adults hacked to death with machetes and kitchen knives. More than 115 people have been attacked in the past two years, at least 20, fatally. Those who have survived have been left with deep physical and psychological scars, and remain fearful that those who hunt them will return.
But why is this happening? Ask and most people will talk about an elusive market for these body parts, people who are prepared to pay large sums of money for them and witch doctors who use them in potions to cure everything from disease to bad luck. But few seem to know where this trade actually takes place or to be able to point to an instance of money changing hands.
So, does this market of human body parts really exist, or is it a myth that is driving murder? We went in search of the market and found a toxic mix of witchcraft, poverty and desperation.
Here are the stories of the victims, the survivors and the perpetrators.
The condition that makes me black without black, white but not white. That is how it was, and I will tell you all about it. – Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory
1 – The Victims
Village of Nambilikira, Dedza district, eastern Malawi
It was a Sunday in April 2016. A warm, dry day. Seventeen-year-old David Fletcher was being moody and withdrawn. He wanted to watch a football match at the local school instead of helping his family gather maize in the fields. His parents eventually relented and let him go.
When he didn’t return later that day, they searched the village, but couldn’t find David.
The next day, they walked to the nearest police station to report him missing. Then they waited.
A week later, the local police chief came to their home to deliver the news: David’s dismembered body had been found, 80km away, in neighbouring Mozambique. It was badly decomposed, he told them. It couldn’t be brought to the village for burial, but he could bring the arms and legs, if they wished. And if the family could afford the journey, they could visit it where it was found.
“He was dead. What benefit was there to see his dead body?” Fletcher Machinjiri, David’s 65-year-old father, asks, dismissively. “It was too expensive for us.”
Fletcher is sitting outside his house. His 53-year-old wife, Namvaleni Lokechi, sits beside him. Her face is expressionless. Their 32-year-old daughter Mudelanji and 21-year-old son Manchinjiri sit on the hard earth a few metres away. They listen as though it is the first time they have heard the story.
“He was killed like a goat at a market,” Lokechi says, staring into the distance. “His arms and legs had been chopped off. They broke off some of his bones. His skin was hanging. And they buried him in a shallow grave.”
He was killed like a goat at a market. His arms and legs had been chopped off.– Namvaleni Lokechi, the mother of David Fletcher, a murdered 17-year-old
She makes chopping motions with her hands as she speaks.
“We cry every day,” Fletcher says. “To us, he was a ray of hope. We believed in his future. We thought he would lift our hand because he was good at school.”
“We still battle to eat without him.”
‘A war against people with albinism’
Born in 1999, David was the fourth of five siblings – and the only one to have been born with albinism.
“I wasn’t surprised when he was born,” David’s mother says softly. “I was more than happy with his complexion.”
Her tiny frame stiffens when she talks about her son.
She had an aunt in Blantyre with the same congenital disorder that results in a partial absence of pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes, she explains.
“I’ve always felt that this group of people were lucky in life,” she says slowly.
David was a star pupil at the local school in the neighbouring village of Kachule.
His teacher, Clement Gweza, recalls feeling mildly concerned when he didn’t turn up for school that Monday.
“I thought maybe there were no groceries at home, or maybe he was unwell,” Clement says, sitting inside his empty classroom. “But the second day [he didn’t turn up] … then I got worried.”
When he learned what had happened to David, he says, he was shocked. “It meant I was next,” he says, placing his hands on his chest.
For Clement also has albinism.
So, too, does 14-year-old Latida Macho, another pupil at the school. She is one of five siblings with the condition. After David’s murder, her family refused to send her to school for three weeks.
“If this is war against people with albinism, then it means I’m second in line,” Clement reflects.
He says he knew that people with albinism were being murdered, but “for it to happen in the district, but also in my class, it was unreal”.
Within days, two men were arrested for the murder.
Both Malawians, they were tried in a district court in May 2016 and sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiracy to commit a crime and abduction.
David’s family say they heard about the arrests and subsequent trial only from the media. And that they are bitterly disappointed with the outcome.
“The accused persons should be killed as well,” Fletcher says, pointing to the floor. “The child was brutally killed, hence they must equally be killed brutally.”
Village of Nasi, district of Phalombe, eastern Malawi
Seventeen-year-old Alfred Chigalu lives with his aunt in a mud home surrounded by dead sunflowers.
Their courtyard of red earth is home to five goats and a dozen raucous chickens.
The nearest neighbour is a five-minute walk away, along a path cut through overgrown grass. It takes 20 minutes – across dried up tobacco fields – to reach the main road. Drought has hit this region hard, and while tall mango trees provide shade for the farmers, they bear no fruit.
The climate here is harsh. Crops are often destroyed by drought or violent hailstorms. Like others in the village, Alfred and his aunt, Lydia Petulo, are surviving on pieces of dried maize from last year’s harvest. The goats in the yard are not their own. Lydia looks after them for a local merchant, and receives one at the end of each year in return.
In December 2015, four men broke down the door of Alfred’s bedroom while he was sleeping. They slashed at him with machetes, hitting the back of his head, his shoulders and his back. They tried to drag him out of the house. When his aunt found him in a pool of his own blood, his attackers ran away.
Alfred survived but was left badly scarred.
Now, the slightest sound wakes him, and when he walks to the village he must be accompanied.
“Before the attack I used to depend on him; I could send him to the market, he could go to the farm and do the farming,” Lydia says, biting her lips as she completes her sentences.
“But I cannot do the same these days.”
“I fear for his life. The responsibility has shifted to me.”
But this isn’t the first time she has been afraid for her nephew. She took him out of school six years ago, when the taunting began, she explains.
Lydia slouches as she narrates their story. Her tired eyes wander. But they brighten when she talks about Alfred. She adopted him after his mother – her sister – died.
Alfred had a sibling who also had albinism, but that child died, she recalls. She doesn’t remember the dates or the details – of his sibling’s or his parents’ deaths – other than that both of Alfred’s parents died around the time he took his first steps.
‘I am lonely’
Alfred is sitting outside on the floor, his back against the house, wearing oversized jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. They are the only clothes he owns. He was wearing his other outfit when he was attacked. There was so much blood that it had to be burned.
On his head is a large cowboy hat.
He is tall with broad shoulders that droop when he walks. For the first few hours that we are there, he doesn’t talk.
But when we put the camera away and move out of sight of the curious neighbours who have gathered to watch, he begins to speak.
His parched lips barely move.
“I wake up at 6 in the morning, every day. I sweep the yard, but I feel pain in my arms,” he says slowly.
He removes his shirt to reveal long, deep scars on his chest and back.
“The way they cut me, they cut my veins. I can barely hold a hoe,” he explains.
I want to finish school, to become a teacher, and move out of here. I would love if someone could take me away from this village. I have to get out of this place.– Seventeen-year-old Alfred Chigalu, who was attacked in November 2015
When she found him on the floor, Lydia began to scream and cry.
“The neighbours came, but it was too late, the attackers had left,” she says. “I really felt sorry for him when I looked at him and I knew he was lucky to have survived. He would have been killed if he hadn’t screamed for me.”
She says she knows why he was attacked.
“Before the attack, some people used to mock him if he went outside the house. They [would say] he is worth millions of kwacha [thousands of dollars], so that gave us an indication that his life could be in danger,” Lydia explains.
The physical wounds have mostly healed, but life is not the same for Alfred. He misses “chatting”, he says, shyly, before adding: “Most of all I miss my friends. I am lonely.”
His aunt says he “lacks peace”.
In April 2016, Ikponwosa Ero, the UN’s independent expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, visited Alfred and his aunt. She told Al Jazeera that Alfred seemed to have suffered “memory loss” after the attack. But when we visit him two months later, he rolls off the names of towns in Malawi, capital cities of African countries and national political leaders. He seems to be recovering.
Fiddling with a piece of dry hay, he tells us: “I want to finish school, to become a teacher, and move out of here. I would love if someone could take me away from this village. I have to get out of this place.”
Village of Mpakati, Machinga district, southern Malawi
Edna Cedric remembers that night in February 2016.
Her husband, Marizane Kapiri, had gone fishing. Her identical nine-year-old twins, Hari and Harrison, were sleeping beside her.
She heard a knock at the door. When she answered it, a machete-wielding man barged inside, slashing at her.
He pulled Hari from the bed and dragged him to the door. Edna tried to hold on to him while also gripping Harrison with her other hand.
Then the intruder struck her face with the machete and she fell to the floor. And, just like that, her son was gone.
The police brought the head wrapped in a cloth and in a sack. His mother identified it.– Marizane Kapiri, Hari’s stepfather
“I couldn’t hold on to him any longer,” she says, quietly. “I ran out screaming.”
“Four days later, the police found his head in Mozambique.”
“The place was very lonely. This is why we moved here,” her husband says.
The fisherman is not the father of Edna’s children. He says he spent the best part of the five days after Hari was abducted explaining to the police why he wasn’t at home when the attack took place. They suspected that he was involved and it wasn’t until the village chief explained to them that he spent much of his time at the lake, catching fish to feed the family, that the police let him go.
“After the police discovered the head, they sent a message to us that we should be ready to see it,” Marizane explains. “They brought the head wrapped in a cloth and in a sack. His mother identified it.”
According to Amnesty International, two men were arrested in connection with Hari’s murder. One was said to be an uncle, and the other a stranger who had an existing conviction for possessing the bones of a person with albinism. For that crime, he had been fined $30.
The family, though, say they have no idea who was responsible for the attack and what has become of those who were arrested.
The twin brother
Harrison is wearing pyjamas and a cowboy hat. He sits between his parents as they take turns to talk. He fiddles with the cords of his hat, licks his cracked lips and scratches at the dry skin on his arms. He only returned to school in September 2016, eight months after his brother was taken.
Their mudbrick home is in a remote rural area, far from the main road between Blantyre and Mangochi. Houses here sit in small plots on expansive fields. It is a few minutes’ walk to the nearest neighbours through fields of browning plants that haven’t been harvested in a year. Here, police officers are few and far between.
But this is not where Hari was taken from. That home was even more isolated, Marizane explains.
“We demolished the house … and moved here so we are closer to other people,” he says.
But the move hasn’t changed much for the remaining brother, Harrison.
“He wakes up in the middle of night, screaming, because he can’t find his brother. We just tell him he will come back one day,” Marizane explains.
He wakes up in the middle of night, screaming, because he can’t find his brother.– Marizane Kapiri, whose stepson, Hari, was murdered
Edna says that she can’t get over the pain she felt when she saw Hari’s head.
“I immediately thought about his brother, Harrison, and I knew his life would never be the same,” she says, looking at her surviving son.
2 – A History of Violence
Borrowed from the word “albus”, meaning white in Latin, albinism is a congenital disorder where the body is unable to create enough melanin to darken the skin, hair and eyes.
The non-contagious condition affects about one in 20,000 people worldwide. But it is more common in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in 5,000 have albinism. Most cases are in Mozambique, Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
In Malawi, a country of 16.5 million people, there are said to be 7,000 to 10,000 people with albinism.
Why it affects this part of the world so disproportionately is unclear.
And it is not just a matter of colour: lack of melanin often results in poor vision and sensitivity to light. In fact, many people with albinism are legally blind.
Because their skin is particularly vulnerable to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, they can also be predisposed to skin cancer and lesions.
According to a 2014 study, people with albinism in Africa are 1,000 times more likely to get skin cancer than others.
But their plight is not solely medical.
The story of discrimination against people with albinism is an old but not necessarily well-documented one. It is driven by myths and superstition.
According to Amnesty International, those with albinism face discrimination in 23 countries in Africa.
For many, this discrimination amounts to violence – murder, infanticide and live burials.
The past decade has seen an increase in the number of documented killings and maimings of people with the condition, driven in part by a belief that their organs, bones and body parts can be sold on the black market.
And that belief is fed by the myth that their bones are made of gold dust and the suggestion that they are a necessary component of magic potions.
But while there are reports of bones reaching up to $75,000 on the black market, there have been no documented cases of money changing hands. So the question of whether an organised trade in the body parts of people with albinism exists has yet to be definitively answered.
The UN’s Ikponwosa Ero says they have been unable to confirm the existence of a market.
“There is allegedly a lot of money in this business. And I say allegedly because people keep on repeating the idea that there is a lot of money in this, and it would seem that the media is part of the reason some people have gotten involved,” she says. “But then some countries have witnessed a reduction in the number of attacks, maybe because people are realising there is no value [in the bones and body parts].”
The majority of the documented attacks have taken place in the Great Lakes region, particularly Tanzania and Burundi. According to media reports, Tanzania has seen some 180 attacks, including 76 murders, since 2000. Thirty-five of those murders took place in 2015.
Within eight months of her appointment as the UN’s independent expert on albinism in June 2015, Ikponwosa, who herself has albinism, documented 40 attacks in eight countries.
Although there has long been discrimination, she points to a more recent phenomenon: “Hacking people [with albinism] alive.”
Zomba, southern Malawi
Emily Chiumia works at a government department in Zomba, southern Malawi. But she moonlights as an activist for people with albinism.
She’s happy to talk, even if the topic is the names they call her.
“You walk on the street, and they call you ‘millions, millions’,” she laughs, “as if we are gold.”
Emily is the former vice-president of the Association for Persons with Albinism (APAM). Since the attacks began, Emily and the association have been documenting the offences committed against people like her.
Most of them, she says, are carried out by relatives, neighbours or people the victims considered to be friends.
“Before, it was a case of people saying ‘if you sleep with a person with albinism, your skin will turn white’,” she says. “But now, it’s different. I cannot enjoy my life as I used to … I can’t walk in the evenings, can’t sleep, even at home, I fear who might come.” Her laugh has disappeared now.
You walk on the street, and they call you ‘millions, millions’, as if we are gold.– Emily Chiumia, former vice-president of the Association for Persons with Albinism
Radio DJ Ian Sambota describes how in 2012 he was befriended by an “older, educated” woman who first offered him K100,000 ($138) and then K500,000 ($700) to sleep with her. “She was HIV positive and she thought if she slept with a person with albinism, it would be solved,” he says.
Ian refused, but admits that the offer was tempting because he needed the money to pay for medical care for his mother.
Steven Burgess is in his 40s and says he has been called a “white animal” since he was a child. But this is “a time of crisis”, he explains, referring to the increase in attacks.
Bazirio Kaudzu, 46, says he feels so threatened that he only travels to the clinic in the capital Lilongwe – to collect the zinc oxide ointment needed to treat the lesions and blisters on his skin – if his nephew accompanies him. It’s an expensive journey for the tomato farmer, so each month he must take out a loan to cover the cost of the taxi ride for two.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
Patricia Maguwa, 37, remembers a time when her husband, gospel singer Geoffrey Zigoma, was considered one of the golden voices of Malawian music. Before he died of cancer in 2013, he always tried to offer a counter-narrative to the misperceptions about people with albinism, she says.
“He was called names like ‘yellow man’, but he never felt insecure about his life,” she says from her modest home 7km outside Lilongwe. “[But] the situation is different now.”
A shifting trade
Malawi’s government recognises that there is a problem.
Neverson Chisiza, a senior state advocate at the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, says there have been at least 85 documented cases, including murder, assault, attempted abductions, trafficking, maiming, and grave robberies since 2014. At least 20 of those cases have been murder.
Malawi’s government says a crackdown in neighbouring Tanzania has shifted the “trade” in body parts to their country.
Senior Chief Kawinga, a traditional authority from Malawi’s Machinga district, where most of the attacks have taken place, told us during a visit to his office that he’d heard the market for body parts was in neighbouring Mozambique. Each country in the region tends to posit their neighbour as the source of the problem.
Though many people tend to use the term “albino”, there have been significant attempts to change the terminology to “person with albinism”. Ikponwosa Ero says this is preferred as it puts the person before the condition, while Canadian charity Under the Same Sun points to the fact that albino has historically been used in a derogatory manner.
In June 2016, 150 government officials, academics and activists from 26 countries met in Dar es Salaam for the first forum on albinism in Africa. It aimed to create an action plan to end the attacks, and concluded that governments must dedicate a budget and a multisectoral task force to doing so. It recommended a range of measures and best practices. “Now that we have a catalogue of effective specific measures that are not very expensive to execute, governments should no longer act ignorant of what to do on the issue … It is time to act,” said Ikponwosa Ero.
3 – The Perpetrators
Zomba, southern Malawi
The red brick walls glisten in the midday sun.
Zomba Maximum Prison stands like a citadel in the former capital. It might resemble a factory were it not for its watch towers and the metal fence that encircles it. Flanked by mango trees and shrubs, a dirt track leads to the main entrance.
Inside, some 2,365 prisoners are either awaiting trial or serving time for some of the most serious of crimes: murder, abduction, trafficking, and armed robbery.
The prison’s director, Major Manwell, greets us at the front door – an almost three-metre tall gateway made of green steel. He is wearing a khaki safari suit and leather sandals.
“How can I help you?” he asks with a knowing smile.
Manwell hands us over to two prison guards who lead us into an open corridor between the front desk and the staff kitchen. A makeshift clothes line hangs nearby. We sit on a bench, shaded by the prison’s towering walls.
Over the next three hours, we will meet eight prisoners who are either awaiting trial or have been convicted of playing some part in an attack on somebody with albinism.
One at a time, they sit opposite us on another wooden bench, a translator beside them.
A guard sits at a distance – far enough that his presence doesn’t feel intrusive, but close enough to eavesdrop. His body language tells us when he finds an inmate’s story of interest. When he doesn’t, he slumps back into his leather chair.
Just two of the inmates acknowledge that their case is related to someone with albinism. Most insist that they were framed or have been wrongly accused. Only one admits to having committed a crime.
“They are not able to come to terms with their crimes,” says the guard, removing his cap so that he can scratch his head. “They are in denial.”
The tomb raider
Stenala Shaibu Lizahapa is wearing a clean white shirt and tattered jeans. He takes his seat slowly and crosses his legs. A thin row of rosary beads pass through his fingers. Stenala is not in a hurry. Unlike the others, he doesn’t fidget. He simply sits and waits.
He is in his mid-30s and has been convicted of trespassing on a gravesite to remove three bones from the body of a deceased man named Awali Mandevu.
Along with five others, he was caught trying to sell the bones to an undercover police officer in April 2015.
All six were charged with criminal trespassing, removal of human tissue and selling human bones.
Three of them, including Stenala, pleaded guilty. Two others denied the charges and were acquitted, while the case against the sixth was dropped.
Stenala was sentenced to six years in prison.
He says he has made peace with his crime.
“What I did was wrong, but I felt desperate,” he says softly, only briefly making eye contact. “I feel ashamed.”
If there is a market [for bones], I don’t know… I would have believed it if I saw it. – Stenala Shaibu Lizahapa, sentenced to six years in prison for selling human bones
As a fisherman, he says he was earning K500 (70 cents) a day. So when friends asked if he’d help them deliver a set of bones to a client – promising it would make him “rich enough to drive” – he says he was tempted.
“With my income, I can’t afford a motorcycle, but a car – that was a dream … The devil took over me,” he says.
In early April 2015, Stenala travelled with friends from Machinga to his home district of Jali, where he went to Chinangwa, a village neighbouring his own, in search of a grave he’d been told housed the corpse of a person with albinism.
“Who doesn’t want more money?” he asks rhetorically. “I knew it was wrong, but I did it for my family.”
“If there is a market [for bones], I don’t know,” he says. “I would have believed it if I saw it.”
The victim’s family
Chinangwa village, Zomba district, southern Malawi
In the village of Chinangwa, Emily Emisi is sitting on a straw mat outside her mud brick and thatch-roofed home.
She offers us a mat on which to sit – between a couple of brown puppies and some corn drying in the winter sun.
“Why didn’t you call before you came?” the 36-year-old asks with a smile. “I would have cooked.”
Her generosity betrays her means. Her open yard – like the barren plateau that surrounds it – is hard brown earth. A few mango and small kachere trees surround the settlement.
Three children sit on the floor. For a while, they watch curiously. But when the novelty of strangers wears off, they return to kicking a punctured miniature football.
“It was my grandfather’s grave that Stenala dug up,” Emily says. “It was terrible. He was buried a long time [ago], in the 1990s. And this felt like a second funeral for him.”
Emily says it didn’t come as a surprise to many of the villagers when they learned that Stenala was responsible.
“He was known to steal goats,” she says.
Stenala had got into an argument with his brother weeks before when he’d tried to persuade him to help find the bones, Emily explains. His brother had refused and the argument had turned into a fight. The whole village heard about it, she says.
“Then, he tried to romance an albino girl, but the girl refused and told villagers that she was being pursued by him.”
She is “happy he has been put away”, she says, because he would “terrorise the village”.
Someone close to Stenala must have betrayed him, Emily speculates, because nobody knew that the village graveyard had been tampered with.
But, while she has no doubt that Stenala had been searching for the bones of somebody with albinism, Emily says he dug up the wrong grave.
“My grandfather, Awali Madenvu, was not an albino. But his grave was close to an albino and so they got the wrong bones.”
That wouldn’t have made any difference anyway – the penalty in Malawi is the same.
Because his was not a case of murder or attempted murder, Stenala wasn’t eligible for legal aid and so had no representation in court.
He was tried, sentenced and given 30 days to appeal.
When we tell Emily that Stenala admits his guilt and is remorseful, she clicks her tongue and looks away. “Of course, after the hardship in jail, he is going to be remorseful,” she says.
“He is not someone who will change. We all think that his sentence is too short, and we expect him to come back and teach us a lesson.”
‘I will wait for him’
As the sun is about to set, the silhouette of a woman appears through a haze of dust. She has a girl at her side and a baby in her arms.
“That is Annie Fuleya,” a young girl says. “Stenala’s wife.”
She is on her way to gather wood. Stenala’s home village of Jali is just a few hundred metres away. Emily’s family crosses paths with Stenala’s every day.
Annie is tall with a brush-cut. She wears a long green skirt and a pale blue T-shirt.
In the weeks leading up to the incident, the 26-year-old says her husband was acting strangely. She recalls asking him to stay away from a friend she thought was trouble.
“I didn’t believe it at first but then after the conviction I felt let down by him,” she reflects, looking away as she completes her sentence. Then, without looking back at us, she adds: “I believe that he did it.”
Annie was pregnant when her husband was arrested and must now raise their four-year-old daughter Saamyato and their now 14-month-old baby Latifa alone.
She left Machinga for Stenala’s village after his arrest, believing it was safer to be close to her mother-in-law. Now, she works in other people’s fields and depends on financial support from the extended family to help raise her children.
“All I know is that he was found with body parts of an albino. I don’t know what parts. I don’t know what he did. I just feel disappointed,” Annie says, holding on to Latifa as the baby wriggles in her arms.
“But I understand that he may have done it because of our situation. He doesn’t earn enough as a fisherman. He looks after me, his mother, my mother, and two orphaned children from an aunt,” she explains softly. “Perhaps this is what drove him to do this.”
“I will wait for him. Because I have forgiven him,” she adds. “But he will have to conduct himself properly on his return.”
Stenala’s mother, who has been watching pensively as her daughter-in-law talks, agrees to speak to us under the shadow of a large kachere tree. Elizabeth Magawa is 49, and the resemblance to her son is immediately apparent. She smiles when we tell her this and the children who have gathered around, burst into laughter.
Elizabeth seems tired. She says she has aged over the past year.
“I didn’t look like this,” she sighs. “I spend sleepless nights wondering why Stenala would have done such a thing. He always helped the family.”
“It is something I will never understand,” she says. Then, she adds: “But I know he was fully capable of such a thing.”
Maybe Stenala did it because of our poverty, or because of peer pressure. I don’t know. – Elizabeth Magawa, mother of Stenala Shaibu, sentenced to six years for selling human bones
Her son’s arrest brought the family unwanted attention in the village, but Elizabeth says they haven’t suffered any serious repercussions.
“There was a lot of talk. They spoke about bones. But they’ve moved on,” she says.
“Maybe Stenala did it because of our poverty, or because of peer pressure. I don’t know.”
It has grown cold now and, without warning, Annie stands up and walks away, in the direction of her mother-in-law’s house.
Elizabeth watches as her daughter-in-law disappears into the darkness, her young daughter in tow.
Charles Nyasa: Convicted of trying to sell human tissue
Charles Nyasa cries as he tells his story.
The 24-year-old from Zomba district was sentenced to six years for being in possession of human flesh in March 2015.
He says he heard an advert for a witch doctor on radio or television – he can’t recall which – that promised “quick riches”. But when he visited the witch doctor, he was told to bring the placenta of a newborn. So, he says, he spent K8,000 ($11) buying one from nurses at a hospital.
When he took it to the witch doctor, he was accused of carrying a placenta from a newborn with albinism.
He was convicted but insists his case had nothing to do with albinism.
John Alfred: Convicted of trying to sell a child
Thirty-one-year-old John Alfred looks older than his years. He is feverish and sweating profusely, but wants to talk.
John was sentenced to six years in prison for trying to sell his own child.
“I did it because of my [financial] condition. No other reason,” he says, shaking.
The father of five from Naweta village, in Machinga district, was earning K4,000 ($5.50) for two weeks’ work in the gardens and on the farms of a businessman.
“My boss saw me living in poverty and said to me one day: ‘Why don’t you be brave, and sell that child of yours?’ pointing to my daughter Vanessa. He said there were buyers in Mozambique for children like her.”
I had five children, and I thought that maybe it wasn’t a problem to get rid of one.– John Alfred, sentenced to six years for trying to sell his daughter
John says that his daughter does not have albinism but “resembled one”. The authorities at the prison say the child does have the condition, although there is no mention of it in his prison file.
“I had five children, and I thought that maybe it wasn’t a problem to get rid of one,” John says.
In April 2015, without consulting his wife, he took their four-year-old daughter and left for Mozambique.
“I didn’t know where I was going. I was just going to Mozambique to find this market,” he says.
But the police intercepted him in Machinga and arrested him.
“I admitted it in court and was sentenced,” he tells us.
Melinda Mbendera: Convicted of attempted kidnapping
Twenty-year-old Melinda Mbendera is agitated. She twitches and bites her lips as she talks.
She was found guilty of trying to kidnap a child with albinism and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. But she insists that she is innocent. The court didn’t have enough evidence, she declares, and based their verdict solely on the claims of the child and her parents.
She says the judge told her that it would be safer for her to be in jail than on the streets, where she might face mob justice.
In 2016, 11 people suspected of being involved in digging graves or carrying human flesh were lynched in Malawi. In one case in the Nsanje district in March 2016, seven witch doctors accused of using bones in their potions were burned alive. A month earlier, a courthouse in the South Lunzu township in Blantyre, was razed to the ground after three people accused of murdering somebody with albinism had been bailed.
Melinda says she previously spent eight months in prison for stealing K200,000 ($275) from a family friend. She suspects her criminal record influenced the verdict in this case.
But, she maintains: “I didn’t spend eight months in this wretched place only to go out and commit another crime.”
“The police said that because I stole before, the probability was high that I did this … but why would I sell a human being?” she asks.
4 – A Question of Justice
Zomba, southern Malawi
Edge Kanyongolo is a tall man with thick eyebrows and an even thicker moustache.
The associate professor of law at the University of Malawi in Zomba is sitting behind his desk. Behind him, a window showcases a courtyard garden. Beside him, textbooks and legal reports are carefully stacked on a wooden bookshelf.
“The attacks on persons with albinism are a manifestation of a larger problem,” he says. “On the surface, there is the question of superstition and witchcraft, but I think underlying all of that is desperation.”
Malawi has been in an economic crisis since 2012. It began when tobacco, the country’s premier export, dropped in price by more than 50 percent in 2010. In 2012, under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund, President Joyce Banda imposed a range of hard-hitting economic reforms that were most harshly felt by the poor. The currency was devalued by almost 50 percent and inflation reached more than 20 percent.
In 2015, the World Bank rated Malawi as the poorest country in the world, per capita.
Two out of every five Malawians of employable age are without work. According to the International Labour Organisation, three in four young workers have only irregular employment, while nine out of 10 work in the informal sector, where their employment is precarious and may change daily. At least 61 percent of Malawians live on less than $1.25 a day and 2.3 million are said to be food-insecure.
“People don’t have options to earn money. And this then drives them to be so desperate and, as some would say – so irrational – as to think that getting the body parts of a type of person and so on, may make you rich,” the professor explains.
But Elijah Kachikuwo, the senior deputy commissioner of police in Mangochi, disagrees. In fact, he grows agitated when questioned about the connection. He is standing in the dusty courtyard of the main police station in Mangochi.
“It is not poverty that is causing this,” he declares, the lines on his forehead deepening. “We aren’t faced with poverty for the first time in the country. We shouldn’t hide behind this … so that question is out of order.”
The traditional healers
Mphalare in Dedza, central region of Malawi
Masiyambuyo Njolomole and Usmani Ibrahima Banda live in the remote village of Mphalare in Dedza. It is 80km – about an hour’s drive along a dirt track – from Lilongwe.
They are both traditional healers.
Seven wooden stools lined up against a wall and a small coffee table are the only furniture inside the house where we meet them. There is no electricity, so the door has been left ajar. The sunlight illuminates the two men’s faces. A woman sweeps the yard outside, scraping at the dry earth.
Usmani wears a skull cap; Masiyambuyo a headdress made from monkey skin. The latter smiles as he presents his registration card. Usmani’s expired in 2011.
Masiyambuyo, a tall, thin man, makes it clear that neither of them use bones of any kind in their potions. He says “people like him” are being made scapegoats for criminals and a political conspiracy because the government has lost control of the situation. “This is a syndicate by some influential people in this country who are interested in body parts of albinos. They simply want to take the attention away from them; that is why they are accusing us,” he declares.
“Albinos have existed for a long time and we have also existed for a long time,” he adds.
In June 2016, Malawi’s High Court banned “witch doctors, traditional healers, charm sellers, fortune tellers and magicians,” in an effort to quell the trade in the bones of people with albinism.
Traditional healers such as Usmani and Masiyambuyo argue that only hurts the people they help.
“People think we deal with witchcraft, but we are here to help people,” Masiyambuyo says, earnestly, opening his arms.
According to the Traditional Healers Association of Malawi, up to 97 percent of the population visit traditional healers and herbalists. It is hard to verify this but it is clear that many people do use them, particularly in rural areas, where the state is often conspicuous by its absence.
Usmani says that, in such circumstances, the services he and Masiyambuyo provide are critical.
People think we deal with witchcraft, but we are here to help people.– Masiyambuyo Njolomole, a traditional healer based in Dedza
He was trained by his father, the softly spoken traditional healer explains, and used to specialise in sexually transmitted diseases. But, “nowadays, [it’s] cancer, blood pressure, asthma, using herbs and a mixture from seven trees” he adds, showing us plastic packets of concoctions made primarily from plants.
“People come to me when the hospitals have failed them.”
Dr Chilani is the spokesperson for Malawi’s Traditional Healers Association and tells us over the phone that “everyone [in the country], [from] farmers to politicians” uses traditional healers.
Many believe that illness involves an “element of being bewitched”, he explains. But, he insists, “sending people to kill others” isn’t part of their craft.
“We help people, we don’t kill them,” he says.
The new law targeting unlicensed traditional healers would purportedly help end these crimes. But the line between traditional healer and witch doctor isn’t always clear.
Mary Shawa, the former principal secretary at the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, says the distinction lies in registration. “No one who obeys the law needs to feel threatened,” she explains.
Chilani’s Facebook page offers “revenge spells, fertility spells, magic rings and witchcraft spells”, but also asks that anyone with information about the bones of somebody with albinism contact him so that it can be reported to the police. He says no one has been in touch.
“If we have been around for generations, and the killings of persons with albinism began roughly two years ago, what were we doing all this time?” he asks.
One lawyer for every 38,500 Malawians
Lilongwe, central region of Malawi
Piles of paper cover Masauko Chamkakala’s desk. The director of Legal Aid, the body tasked with representing those who cannot afford legal representation, is in his office in Area 4 of Lilongwe.
The country’s legal system, he says, is a mess.
“More than 90 percent of the population cannot afford legal representation. We have seven lawyers for the entire country,” he says, his hands clasped and eyebrows raised.
The Legal Aid Act stipulates that anyone charged with a crime that could result in a custodial sentence is entitled to legal aid, but limited resources have resulted in the courts restricting this to homicide cases.
A 2013 report found that Malawi had fewer than 400 lawyers. That was one lawyer for every 38,500 people.
The jails are overcrowded and suspects can wait months or even years before their cases go to trial.
“If you go to the prisons [and] start going through the cases, you realise that so many of these people are not supposed to be there,” Masauko says, pointing out that: “For an ordinary person to get an appointment with a lawyer will cost him K20,000 ($27), while the [monthly] minimum wage is K18,000 ($25).”
Then there is the question of entrapment – a method that police officers have admitted to using but one which has so far led only to the arrest of sellers.
More than 90 percent of the population cannot afford legal representation. We have seven lawyers for the entire country.– Masauko Chamkakala, the director of Legal Aid
In a side office near Malawi’s High Court, Neverson Chisiza, a senior state advocate at Malawi’s Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, acknowledges that there have been discussions within the ministry about “why it is always sellers, those who are desperate [and] looking for quick money, [who] are caught, not the buyers”.
And without the buyers, the police are little closer to understanding the source of this trade.
Masouko says that the hysteria over the killings of people with albinism has reached such a height that “it is possible a person could be convicted for carrying antelope bones because they resemble human bones”.
And, he adds, those accused of any crime related to people with albinism are tried in “people’s courts”.
A question of government preparedness
Lilongwe, central region of Malawi
It is late on a Friday afternoon when Mary Shawa meets us in her office and her team are about to leave for the day. She is responsible for the security, health and wellbeing of Malawians with albinism.
“Until the atrocities started, we didn’t look at persons with albinism as people with a disability. We saw them as ordinary people,” she says, adjusting her glasses.
She slumps back into her chair. “If you look at the demographics, they are young and old, some working as lawyers and teachers, some still in school,” she adds.
Before moving to this ministry in 2012, Mary was the secretary for nutrition, HIV and Aids in the president’s office, credited with tackling the country’s HIV pandemic.
She speaks authoritatively and frankly, rejecting any suggestion that the government hasn’t done enough to address the crimes committed against people with albinism. She rattles off the details of cases that have been solved and cites “ministerial research” to suggest that there is no market for the bones.
“[The] culprits get the bones and walk around looking for a market to sell them,” she says.
Mary says her ministry has been leading a communications plan to tackle the crisis. “The radio messages, the billboards, this is all us,” she explains.
But it’s hard to tell if anyone is listening.
“We are also compiling a census, to register all persons with albinism in the country,” she says, leaning forward, her hands resting on the desk.
But beyond the issue of security, people with albinism have other needs – sunscreen, hats and sunglasses to protect them from the sun. The Ministry of Health does provide zinc oxide at clinics but that only helps with the blisters and lesions and doesn’t offer any protection. Moreover, patients have to travel to the main cities to access the ointment.
Mary hints at a lack of funding. Malawi is heavily reliant on donors, and it’s unlikely that sunscreen or hats top the government’s financial priorities or a foreign government’s agenda.
Village of Nambilikira, Dedza district, eastern Malawi
5 – The Future
Confident, assertive and friendly, Clement Gweza seems as though he was born to teach. He transforms the 60 rowdy teenagers into an orderly classroom and begins his social and environmental science lesson by scribbling “How to prevent air pollution” on the blackboard.
The 24-year-old is smartly dressed in an off-white shirt, pinstriped tie and black trousers.
“It was difficult at first,” he says. “The children found it hard to understand my albinism, because people, not just the learners, don’t think that a person with albinism can do something that can be recognised by society.”
He became a teacher, he says, because the tuition was free and he couldn’t afford to pay to study anything else.
At first, he worried that his students wouldn’t respect him. But, he says, “after a few weeks, the learners came round. They will tell you: ‘Ah! He is a good teacher and he understands our problems’.”
But he knows that, despite the respect he enjoys in the classroom, he is not safe outside of it.
The murder of one of his students, David Fletcher, made him afraid.
He has stopped walking outside at night and, if he must, he asks a close friend or relative to accompany him.
“If I can’t find someone to take me home, I will stay where I am and sleep there. I have no choice,” he says.
“Everything has changed. I look at the people, the friends around me, and I think ‘maybe he wants to kill me and make some money’.”
Stercia Kanyowa’s story
Masumpankhunda, in Lilongwe, central Malawi
Twelve-year-old Stercia Kanyowa says she doesn’t want to beg. She wants an education, and to stand on her own two feet.
“I want to be a teacher first. Then maybe a journalist or a bank manager,” she declares.
Stercia is one of three children with albinism at the Malingunde School for the Visually Impaired. As an only child from a single-parent household, she says completing school is her only hope for the future. She has been here since 2011.
“Of course, I miss home. It’s long since I have gone home. Who doesn’t miss home?” she says, outside her dormitory.
The school is government-run, and functions almost exclusively on donations. There are 17 classrooms and 40 teachers for 3,000 students.
There is no electricity. Inside Stercia’s classroom, some students are huddled around braille machines, while others, such as 15-year-old Foster Kennedy, who also has albinism, use a magnifying glass to read textbooks.
“Everyone here is a friend. You would think we are born from the same mother,” Foster says, smiling.
He wants to be a radio personality or a songwriter, he explains.
The school yard is a thoroughfare for people walking or cycling to the town centre, which means that there are always strangers passing through. This concerns the school authorities. Without a wall or a gate, the school is vulnerable to theft and the students to being attacked. In early 2015, a 16-year-old student with albinism was almost abducted by a stranger who promised to buy her supplies from the local market.
“It is an open place. And anything can happen,” says Chiko Kamphandira, the school principal.
Back outside, Stercia, who is head of the school choir, begins to sing one of her favourite songs, before stopping suddenly, self-conscious and shy.
“I am going to work hard and fulfill my dreams,” she says. “I don’t see myself as any different. I am just a human being.”
Ian Simbota’s story
Blantyre, southern Malawi
Ian Simbota is eating a chicken tikka burger at a Pakistani fast food diner when we spot him one evening in Blantyre.
When we ask to talk to him, he scans our journalists’ credentials before agreeing. It turns out that he gets paid to talk as a late-night radio talk show host and a DJ with the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation. And he has just returned from Kasungu, in the central region of Malawi, where he was the master of ceremonies for World International Albinism Awareness Day.
When he finishes his meal, he invites us to the radio studio.
Once on the airwaves, the slightly pensive man we met at the restaurant is no more. He taunts and teases his listeners. The studio is his safe place.
Later on, he talks of a double life. As a radio star, his voice and name are widely recognised. But not all of his listeners know that he has albinism. And there are times when his confident persona gives way to fear.
“Look, I am working at night. And people know I am here,” he says. “What are they thinking, planning? From here I will get a car and go home. And when I go home, I feel unsafe. What if they attack me? I think about it all the time.”
Ian became a full-time DJ in 2015. It was a dream come true. “I wanted to be a midwife as a child [but] thankfully my mother convinced me otherwise,” he laughs.
“And then, I wanted to be a radio host. Geoffrey Zigoma [the gospel singer] made a huge impact on my life.”
But life hasn’t been easy for Ian.
When he was born, he was the second child in his family to have albinism. His father walked out on them.
“My father told my mum to kill us. When she refused, he left,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“At that time, people didn’t know about the genes and stuff. My dad thought it was a curse.”
Ian’s mother left her village in southern Malawi and came to Blantyre with her two children to look for a job. She found one as a cleaner at the College of Medicine.
His father remarried. His next child was also born with albinism.
School was tough for Ian. He says his teachers didn’t realise that he was visually impaired so would just call him lazy. When he completed his certificate in journalism and applied for internships in radio, his visual impairments worked against him again – station managers were concerned that he wouldn’t be able to see the computer screens, he says.
Then his mother died after a prolonged illness, and the new job felt like the start of a new life for him. But then the attacks on people with albinism began.
“I can tell you, it has become difficult,” he says. “I have friends. But at this point in time, I only trust one friend in my circle. I have other friends, but then sometimes, you just wonder, you know, maybe, he is being used [to get close to me].”
He also has to face harassment on the streets and says his girlfriend left him last year because “she couldn’t deal with what … [he] was going through”.
But today he’s the voice of a successful radio show.
“I like radio because you could come naked to the studio and it doesn’t matter. People are listening to your voice,” he says, pausing for a second, before laughing.
“I have done a little bit of TV, but radio is better because listeners create a different picture of what they think you are. It’s only now [with the crisis] that people realise I am a person with albinism …”
As is clear from the article below, all Liberian presidents including William Tubman, William Tolbert, Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as well as other political leaders are aware of the occurrence of ritual murders in the country, notably during election campaigns. It is even whispered that some presidents had a more than passive role in this respect but these – sometimes persistent – rumors have never been confirmed or proven.
The author, Melvin Pyne, presents an astonishing – sketchy – overview of ritualistic murders from the 1960s onwards hence covering a period of over half a century.
He hasn’t mentioned them all. Certain cases have never been discovered. The thick Liberian forests hide many ritual murder crimes, I am very sure about this harsh reality, though without having proof of it. Nevertheless I am pretty sure that many people in Liberia will confirm this ‘gut feeling’ of mine (webmaster FVDK).
The Liberian government must take charge of our security, or else…
Published: January 17, 2022 By: Melvin D. Weh – Front Page Africa
Last year ended on a rather low note for many Liberians with the wave of alleged ritualistic, serial killings which instilled fear across the country. Communities and residents were on the brink of paranoia. Thus is upsetting the way of life for everyone.
Liberian history tells us that such killings have happened in the past. In the 60s and 70s, Gboyos (Heartmen) ravaged the southeastern parts of the country. Gboyos were a feared society that allegedly wore top hats, black suits, and captured people for ritualistic purposes. They took body parts, especially the hearts of their victims, thus earning them the nickname, Heartmen. The situation was so bad that the citizens pressured the government to act.
In 1979, the administration of President William Tolbert, took action. It investigated and convicted seven individuals including top government officials who were involved in the ritualistic murder of Mr. Moses Tweh in Harper, Maryland County. The court, after hearing the case, established a precedent. They handed down the verdict of guilty. The convicts were sentenced to death and subsequently executed publicly in Harper. Amongst those executed were James Anderson, Superintendent of Maryland County, Allen Yancy, representative of Maryland County and Philip B. Seyton, Senior Inspector of the Ministry of Commerce, Maryland County. This deterrent action practically slowed the act.
Years later in 1989, President Samuel Doe’s administration tried and convicted Defense Minister Maj. General Gray D. Allison and his wife Mrs. Angeline Watta Allison for the ritual murder of a police officer, J. Melvin Pyne in the Caldwell community. Gen. Allison was tried under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) at a military tribunal, found guilty and sent to Belleh Yalla, the maximum-security prison in Lofa County. His wife was convicted at ‘Criminal Court C’, and sentenced to life imprisonment according to the Mr. Max Dennis, son of Mrs. Allison.
Allison was the most renowned government official convicted during the Doe regime. However, it is reported that an aide to president Doe, Mr. David K. Clarke and five others were tried, convicted and executed for the ritual murder of two little boys in 1987.
During the war years and President Taylor’s administration, there were rumors of murders for ‘Juju’ purposes. We must note that those were years of injustice and arbitrary justice, therefore there is not much record on how those cases were legally handled. Men in arms allegedly conducted speedy quasi-investigations and punished alleged perpetrators, wrongly too. Serious attention was not placed on the issues perhaps because killings were almost the norm, sadly.
On 29 June 2005 before the special general elections, there were reports of ritualistic killings almost across the country. The interim leader, Gyude Bryant warned that candidates tempted to boost their chances by carrying out human sacrifices will be executed if caught. While no one was successfully tried and convicted, Mr. Bryant’s warning seemed to have eased the situation for sometimes, as it was observed. ( BBC News, 29 June 2005)
In 2017 during the reign of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, protesters (women in majority) stormed Gbarnga City in demand of answers to over series of young women including 12 years old girl who were seen dead with missing body parts. The women of the county under the banner Bong Women Association and the Bong Christian Association marched in the streets demanding more actions from the government in addressing such monstrous crimes.
Another notable case of ritual killing was the murder of seventeen years old Cyrus Yeawonyee in September 2015 in the suburb of the commercial city of Ganta. Cyrus was killed and body parts including eyes, ears and tongue were extracted according to report. Cyrus’ convicted killer was another teenager, Jacob Vambo who was sentenced to life in prison in February 2016. Vambo confessed to luring his friend Cyrus into the trap of powerful muscular men who allegedly killed him for a well-connected government official. His claims of the involvement of others in the killing could not be authenticated to punish those he had accused.
However, his lawyer (a Public Defendant) Cllr. Mewaseh Payebayee (late) and some observers believed his claims as they felt such a lanky looking child was incapable of overpowering someone and committing such gruesome murder.
A day after the investigation into Cyrus’ murder case by the Liberia National Police-LNP on 29th September 2015, Ganta experienced one of the most violent disruptions since the civil war. This time, it was a motorcyclist. The news of Cyrus killing was gradually fueling tension when the young man was discovered dead with blood allegedly drained from his body for the wealthy businessperson. Though, investigation disproved the allegation of ritual killing and established that the killing happened as a result of robbery, the damage was done. The popular Alvino Hotel in the City was looted and burned while two persons were reported dead, among the many damages done. About fifty arrests were made in connection to the riot.
With such history, it is no surprise why the public will be alarmed if there is a rearing up of such activities. The FrontPage Africa News Paper September 23, 2021 edition reported the alleged murder of John Tubman at his residence with deep cuts in the neck. John was the son of Liberia’s longest serving president William V.S. Tubman. Barely a month later, the death was reported of the renowned Rev. William Richard Tolbert, III, a peace ambassador and son of another former president, William Richard Tolbert, Jr. then, a Madam Maude Elliot of the Liberia Immigration Services (LIS) was also found dead. Both were murdered in their respective homes in similar conditions.
Additionally, amongst many others, the FrontPage Africa newspaper published on November 8, 2021 a list of several murders all of which occurred this year alone with victims displaying similar conditions. On that list was Jane Doe (Unidentified Woman) found on 17th Street Beach (September); Mordecai Nyemah (May), Florence Massaquoi (February), as well as, Robert M. Blamo, Jr., Bobby S. Gbeanquoi, and Siafa G. Boimah.
While last year, amidst the global Covid-19 pandemic, several other killings occurred- Elijah Polumah, Abraham Tumay, and George B. Fanbutu, mentioning a few.
But most troubling of all this were two separate incidents. First, is a statement by President George Weah in November, when he signed the book of condolence for the late Mr. Emmanuel Barten Nyenswa. Mr. Weah is on record urging citizens and residents to install at their premises, Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) Cameras. He pointed out that government’s focus of security was on the country’s borders. Mr. Nyensuah’s death like three other auditors from the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) is still being investigated. Many believe their deaths were for political reasons or cover up for some malpractices they may have uncovered.
Mr. Weah is either unaware of the financial hardship in the country or does not care much about the innocent lives being lost. A people that can barely afford, how does he expect them to buy CCTVs that cost $1000 USD at a minimum? With many parts of the city out of electricity, how does he expect the cameras to work?
The second concerning issue is the remark made by the Liberia National Police Inspector General, Col. Patrick Sudue at Ministry of Information Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT) press conference. Col. Sudue alleged that the news of serial and ritualistic killings in Monrovia and other parts of the country were fake stories being created by opposition politicians who want to implant fear and give negative image of the country and malign government’s reputation.
The IG’s statement on these recent issues suggests a political posturing. While Col. Sudue is a political appointee, the office of the Inspector General needs to be apolitical and professional, always endeavoring to maintain the integrity and independence of the Liberia National Police.
In midst of this scaring security situation, such comments undermine the confidence of the people in the government and the ability of the Liberian National Police to combat these criminal acts.
Such levels of insecurities lead to several dire consequences. Those who can afford, would now take the law into their own hands, those who can’t might find other means not necessarily legal. Are we to now become a lawless society? Then, there is the investment angle. It doesn’t present a secured environment for investors. They could then leave the country and with them other citizens and residents out of fear would flee the country. Investors (local and international) do shy away from investing due to insecurity and lack of justice. When investors do not invest, economically the country is affected as unemployment increases. Government incomes (personal and corporate income taxes are lost. Aggrieved citizens usually take mob justice as the only alternative. These amongst many negative reactions are recipes for chaos and anarchy.
The questions now are: what can be done here to change the atmosphere of fear? And how can we do it?
To these questions considering the preceding, the government is under obligation to protect the lives of those residing in the country. To ensure that the citizens do not regret electing the current administration, she has to act, and do it now. To avoid mob justice, the government must take charge of matters immediately. To avoid fleeing of citizens and other residents from the country, the government must muster the courage to dig deep into these happenings and punish perpetrators. To ensure current and potential investors that their lives and properties will be protected here, the government must change gear and expedite investigations into these matters.
In closing, while these acts have happened in the past, the onus is always on the government to fight them and protect the people. The Liberian National Police has to step-up, take control of the security, and avoid becoming political in handling these issues.
Namibia is not often in the news when speaking about ritual murders, attacks on people with albinisme, witchcraft or related ritualistic activities. Yet also in Namibia occult and ritualistic activities and ceremonies take place, performed by Namibians who believe in the power of superstition. I reported on ritualistic murders in this country as far back as 2005 and 2008. In 2012, members of the national police force discovered items suspected to have been used in a witchcraft ritual near the Nonidas plots some 10 kilometres east of Swakopmund.
When on June 29, 2021 the lifeless body of a 22-year old student, Mukuve Frederick Kanyanga, who had been missing for several days, was found floating in the Okavango river near the Kapako village, in the extreme north-eastern corner of the country, many villagers immediately thought of foul play. “Similar incidents are common in the area where his lifeless body was found,” Kavango East regional councillor Damian Maghambayi commented. And when the victim’s sister, Justa Kalyangu, was interviewed she said: “We need investigators from other regions to come help our police here. Over 18 people have died or have gone missing in this area over the years and no investigations are done.”
Though the cause of Kanyanga’s death has not yet been established officially and hence talking about suspicions and a possible ritual killing constitute non-confirmed speculations, the rumors spreading after his death and the anxiety shown by his relatives and the villagers clearly show that ritual murders are far from an abstract phenomenon in Namibia (webmaster FVDK).
Missing student’s body found in Okavango
Published: June 29, 2021 By: The Namibian – Enoke Kaumba and Ester Mbathera
THE mysterious death of 22-year-old University of Namibia student Mukuve Frederick Kanyanga has sent shockwaves through communities in the Mukwe constituency of the Kavango East region.
Kanyanga’s body was discovered floating in the Okavango River near the Kapako village on Thursday last week.
Kavango East regional councillor Damian Maghambayi on Friday issued a statement expressing shock and disbelief about the incident.
“The mysterious death of Mukuve brought shockwaves among communities of Mukwe. Similar incidents are common in the area where his lifeless body was found,” he remarked.
Rumours have suggested that the incident was linked to ritual killing. Maghambayi cautioned communities and the family to remain calm and allow the police to conduct their investigations.
Kanyanga’s sister Justa Kalyangu last spoke to him on Sunday last week, when he arrived at Divindu from Rundu. He was supposed to have accompanied a friend to a funeral at a village near Divundu.
“When we spoke he said he is coming to the funeral. I thought it was the funeral of our relative but he came for a different funeral. He was not at the memorial service or the funeral. I called him the next day and he did not pick up his phone,” said Kalyangu.
During the following days, she kept calling Kanyanga’s phone, which was ringing but not being picked up. Kalyangu told The Namibian that on Monday 21 June, she approached the Mukwe police to report a missing person. The same day she also put out a missing person’s post on social media.
“They only asked that we give them a picture and all his details. Thereafter nothing happened. I asked some family members to help me search for him on Tuesday 22 June.
“On Thursday morning I went to the police to ask that they issue us a search warrant so that we can search the houses. That is when I received a call that the person we are looking for has been found in the river,” added Kalyangu.
She added to Maghambayi suspicions that people are dying and going missing mysteriously in the area.
“We need investigators from other regions to come help our police here. Over 18 people have died or have gone missing in this area over the years and no investigations are done,” she said.
Kavango East governor Bonifasius Wakudumo also expressed condolences to the family and the residents of the region.
The governor has encouraged the youth in the region to be very mindful when choosing friends.
“We must be cautious of the friends that you have, because you never know what is inside a person.
“When you move in a group of people the family must know who you are with because if anything happens they will not hesitate to contact the colleagues you said you were with,” said the governor.
Kavango East acting regional commander, deputy commissioner Vilho Kalwenya said the police have interrogated the group of friends the deceased was with before his disappearance.
“We cannot reach a conclusion of arresting anyone because there isn’t any evidence that suggests an arrest,” he said.
Kalwenya added the police are doing their best in their investigations.
He cautioned the community members to stop spreading unsubstantiated rumours about ritual killings.
“The post mortem will tell us the cause of the death. Those who are spreading unsubstatiated rumours on the issue should prove to us because the autopsy is not concluded, people are already making conclusions,” he said.
Unfortunately, Namibians are familiar with the crime of ritual murder, notably in the Mukwe area, as the article indicates. (webmaster FVDK).
Headless ‘muti’ murder in Kavango
Published: January 5, 2005 By: The Namibian – Petros Kuteeue
POLICE have not ruled out the possibility of a “muti killing” in the gruesome murder of a 79-year-old woman whose head was found floating on the Kavango River on Sunday.
The head was found at Shadikongoro village near Mukwe, about 180 kilometres east of Rundu. The culprits have not yet been arrested and the police are still searching for the rest of the body.
Law enforcement officers now fear that ritual killers, who terrorised villagers in the Mukwe area in the recent past, might be rearing their ugly heads again.
“We have had experience of such things happening in Namibia, particularly in the northern part of the country, where people were murdered and their bodies chopped into pieces,” said Warrant Officer James Matengu of the Police’s Public Relations Division.
Matengu was, however, quick to point out that the Police could not at this stage speculate on the motive of the killing, as the investigation is still underway.
Villagers at Shadikongoro have identified the deceased but, according to Matengu, her name cannot be released, as the next of kin have not yet been informed.
Contrary to a Namibia Press Agency report that the murdered woman went missing from Shadikongoro village on Christmas Day, the police stated that the woman had in fact disappeared on New Year’s Eve, on her way home after watching a religious film at a local church.
When fellow parishioners went to her home the next day to wish her well for the New Year, she was nowhere to be found.
The following day her head was discovered floating on the river.
Last year, several muti-related attacks were reported in the Mukwe constituency, including the discovery of body parts belonging to an elderly woman, which were found in a plastic bag hanging from a tree at Bagani.
Also in 2004, a 42-year-old Zambian national was lucky to escape with his life at Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Region when his private parts were severely mutilated by three men who allegedly tried to harvest his genitals for ritual purposes.
Yesterday morning I posed a question – in fact, I made a statement expressing my opinion – but could not imagine that a sad event would soon confirm my view.
I stated: “Ritual murders still occur in Liberia, notably during election campaigns, and the fear of ritualistic killings is a daily preoccupation of many Liberians.” See yesterday’s post Ritual murders and elections in Liberia
Then I read the news, later, yesterday evening. “Boy Discovered Dead in Nimba’s Sixth District; Cause of Death Linked to Ritualistic Rites”.
Sad news. I prefer to have been wrong. When will it end in Liberia? When will it stop, ritualistic murders? How come that it does not stop in Liberia (and elsewhere)?
Many questions. Now first the facts. (webmaster FVDK).
Boy Discovered Dead in Nimba’s Sixth District; Cause of Death Linked to Ritualistic Rites
Published: January 31, 2020 By: The Bush Chicken – Jerry Myers
SANNIQUELLIE, Nimba – A 9-year-old boy has been found dead in a hideout in Nimba’s sixth district, with his body partially dismembered and missing key body parts. The body of Lee Arthur was found on Thursday, Jan. 23 in Sahn Village.
The cause of death remains unknown. However, residents of the village suspect that his missing body parts is an indication that he may be a victim of a ritualistic murder.
Coroners from Boe and Quella administrative districts, as well as Liberia National Police officers in Bahn, Nimba’s seventh district, who visited the scene crime, have all ruled out death from natural causes, suggesting that the child was murdered.
The head of Boe and Quella Administrative District’s Coroner Office, Moses Kargou, described the incident as “too scaring” and the first of its kind in the district since he took up his position in 2005.
“Since my father who was the district coroner died in 2005, and the district people chose me to serve [in] the position, this is my first time to see such ugly act,” Kargou said. “People can get drowned in water, and several other deaths have been happening here. But today, to see someone butchered like [an] animal, it is bad.”
Kargou expressed doubts that the crime was committed by a stranger to the village, suggesting that the perpetrator must be a member of the community. His passionate plea, therefore, was for the police to bring the killers to justice. Kargou then pledged the village’s fullest cooperation in the investigation.
“We can only hear about these kinds of acts on the main road, but for someone to travel this far to commit such an act is really serious,” he noted.
Four persons are already suspected in the alleged murder and are currently in police custody in Bahn.
Following the coroners’ examination and police forensic investigation, the victim’s remains were turned over to his family who, without money to preserve it at a mortuary, has gone forward with burial.
There has been no formal indictment of any suspect as the police investigation continues.
There are so many reports on ritualistic killings in Liberia, one should almost lose track. Below is another article, dating from 2005, on ritualistic murders in Maryland County, perhaps the most notorious region of Liberia as far as ritual murders are concerned. (webmaster FVDK)
Some panic-stricken inhabitants of the southeastern county of Maryland, mainly in Harper city, over the weekend took the law into their hands when they staged a violent protest over the wave of ritualistic killings which has re-surfaced in the area.
The county is noted for ritualistic killings, despite serious actions taken over the years by the Liberian government – by putting perpetrators to death by hanging while giving others lengthy prison sentences.
According to latest report emerging from the county, hundreds of angry residents came out to protest the alleged failure of the appropriate security apparatus to curtail the wave of ritualistic killings in the county.
During the violence demonstration staged by the youth of the county, several persons were victimized while several business houses and private homes were reportedly attacked and looted by the mobs. Liberia’s Justice Minister, Cllr. Kabineh Ja’neh told journalists in Monrovia this week that the mobs attacked the National Police Headquarters on Green Street in Harper and released several prisoners sentenced for various crimes.
The Justice Minister explained further that the mobs ransacked the Harper Police headquarters and flogged two detainees severely. The two victims, according to minister, have been accused of being involved in the ritualistic killing in the county.
In order to restore calm in the area, the transitional government has imposed a dust to dawn curfew in the county, while at the same time the government has instituted a thorough probe into circumstances that led to the mob action.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Secretary General Special Representative in Liberia, Ambassador Jacques Paul Klein told journalists in Monrovia that the UN Mission in Liberia is carefully studying the situation in the county.
According to the UN diplomat, UN peacekeepers are on standby to move into the county should the situation continue in an effort to help ensure the safety and security of the people of Maryland. Warning the residents to remain in doors during he curfew which run from 6: PM to 6:AM daily, ambassador Klein said UNMIL will provide full security for the people of the county.
The situation in the past led to severe punishment administered against convicted sons and daughters of the county, with some of them being publicly hanged to death, while others were given long prison sentences. Among those hanged were the former Superintendent of the County, James Anderson, Jr., Allen Yancy, Francis Nyepan, Philip Seton, Oldman Barclay and Madam Wreh Tarnyonoh, just to name few. They were hanged on 17th February 1979 during the regime of the late President William R. Tolbert, Jr. after a guilty verdict was brought down against them for killing a popular Kru traditional singer Moses Tweh.
Similar situation re-emerged in 1986 and took away the lives of two little kids in the county. Those connected to the act include former NDPL county chairman, David Clark, Alfred Davies, Jasper Bedell, Gbason Toe and one Gardner. They were arrested and brought to Monrovia where they were sentenced to prolong detention while under going investigation.
Another 200 persons were round-up by the former Superintendent of the county now Minister of Internal affairs, Minister H. Dan Morais for the mysterious death of Lt. Alphonso Chalde, former employee of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (BIN).
Published: September 21, 2007 By: John Zodzi – Reuters
LOME (Reuters) – Six grisly murders in Togo in which the victims were decapitated and drained of their blood have raised fears of a resurgence of ritual killings ahead of parliamentary elections in the West African state next month.
The serial killings occurred last weekend in the southern Vo and Lacs prefectures, east of the capital Lome. The victims included a 12-year-old boy and a 63-year-old woman and their severed heads were carried off by the killers.
The discovery of the headless corpses has shocked Togolese and triggered a wave of speculation that the killings were ritual murders. This is a practice still found in parts of Africa in which people kill to obtain body parts and blood in the belief they will bring social success and political power.
Police announced the arrest of four suspects, including one from neighboring Benin, the West African home of the ancient Voodoo religion, who confessed to killing the 12-year-old boy.
Togo holds legislative elections on October 14, and international observers hope they will strengthen the weak grip of democracy in the small former French colony, which like Benin is wedged between Nigeria and Ghana on the Gulf of Guinea.
In a society where traditional beliefs still have influence, some Togolese saw a link between the killings and the ambitions of aspiring candidates for next month’s polls.
“Some of these deputies are ready to do anything to keep their seats and you hear that they’re carrying out sacrifices,” said Joel Attigan, a geography student.
Others saw the murders as linked to a desire for social advancement.
“There are too many young rich people in Togo these days. These crimes are linked to these kind of people, who sometimes use human sacrifices to obtain their goals,” said Da Mensa, the manager of a bar and restaurant in Lome.
Togo’s media have joined the feverish debate, blaming shadowy religious sects in Togo and Benin.
“We are in Africa, and spilled human blood can reveal many things,” the newspaper Le Magnan Libere said, referring to the witchcraft practice of using blood or body parts for divining or influencing the future.
The police have been cautious about confirming the ritual killing hypothesis.
But they said the arrested Benin citizen, Roger Kodjo Hounguiya, had confessed that he was working for a fellow countryman, Jean Goudjo, wanted in Benin for grisly murders involving mutilation.
The European Union, which froze most of its aid to Togo in 1993 citing the poor democratic record of then President Gnassingbe Eyadema, is sending electoral observers to the polls next month. Eyadema died in 2005 and his son is now president.
People-smuggler to be quizzed over boy’s body in Thames Published: July 27, 2004 By: RELIGION NEWS BLOG
A child trafficker who may have helped smuggle the River Thames “torso boy” into Britain was jailed for four-and- a-half years yesterday.
Kingsley Ojo headed a “substantial” network thought to have brought hundreds of youngsters and adults into the country to work in the sex trade, as domestic slaves or for benefit fraud. Now police hope he can shed some light on the ritual murder of the five-year-old boy they named Adam.
Southwark Crown Court in London heard that Ojo was arrested last year during a co-ordinated series of raids in the capital. He claimed to be Mousa Kamara, 30, from Sierra Leone but was soon identified as a 35-year-old Nigerian, originally from Benin City, where Adam used to live.
The court heard that Ojo had come to Britain in 1997 posing as an asylum seeker from Sierra Leone.
When police searched his flat, they found a video mock-up of ritual killings, a shot of what appeared to be a decapitated head in a basin and a voodoo artefact in the form of a rat’s skull, pierced by a long metal spike and bound in black thread.
Ojo, of Devonshire Close, Stratford, east London, admitted four charges. Two involved dishonestly obtaining a British passport in July 1999, and using a forged driving licence with intent to deceive, while two related to assisting illegal entry into this country in November 2002 and February last year.
Judge Neil Stewart said the offences were so serious that prison was inevitable. He told Ojo: “I’m satisfied your continued presence would be to the detriment of this country and I make a recommendation that you be deported upon your release from prison.”
Detective Chief Inspector Will O’Reilly, the head of the investigation into the unidentified boy’s death, said later that Ojo had been detained because of his close association with a woman, Joyce Osagiede, who was arrested in Scotland. “We believe she is closely involved in the Adam case … we also believe he assisted with her entry into the country,” he said.
He went on: “I firmly believe he [Ojo] can assist us with our inquiries and we will be looking to speak to him as soon as possible.”
Osagiede, who has since been repatriated to Nigeria, also came from Benin City, and the pair lived together for a while at a London address.
The woman, who had Ojo’s address among her belongings, told immigration officers that she had fled her country due to being caught up in a ritual cult.
She claimed her husband, who was arrested in Dublin last year and later deported to Germany, had been involved in a group which carried out “demonic rituals”. He had, she said, played an active part in the deaths of 11 children, one of whom had been their eldest child.
In her flat, police found chicken feathers and a number of other items used in west African curses. They also found clothes believed to have come from the same shop in Germany as the orange shorts found on the headless, limbless body of the child which was found floating near Tower Bridge in central London almost three years ago.
Osagiede’s two daughters are still in foster care in Scotland.
Related article: Jail for torso case people smuggler Published: July 27, 2004 By: RELIGION NEWS BLOG
A man suspected of having smuggled into the UK an African boy whose torso was later found in the Thames was jailed for four years and six months for people trafficking yesterday.
Kingsley Ojo, 35, from Stratford, east London, admitted four charges: bringing two men, whom he provided with false papers, into Britain in November 2002 and February 2003, and using a forged driving licence and passport.
Ojo headed a “substantial” network that is thought to have smuggled in hundreds of children and adults to work as prostitutes or domestic slaves.
Scotland Yard detectives do not think he killed the boy, named Adam by police, whose headless and limbless torso was recovered from the Thames in September 2001. But they believe he could hold the key to the horrific ritual murder.
Officers were initially baffled by the gruesome find. But painstaking forensic analysis of the boy’s bones established his diet, which narrowed down his place of origin to the region around Benin city in Nigeria.
Ojo, who was arrested with 20 others in a series of immigration-linked raids across London last July, is also from Benin city. He had falsely claimed to be Mousa Kamara, 30, from Sierra Leone.
Detective Chief Inspector Will O’Reilly, who heads the investigation, said Ojo was not thought to have murdered Adam, but police wanted to interview him again about his links with a woman arrested in Scotland.
Children’s clothes found in her Glasgow flat came from the same German shop as the orange shorts on Adam’s torso. She also comes from Benin city, and she and Ojo lived at the same address in London for a time.
“We believe she is closely involved in the Adam case,” Mr O’Reilly said. “Her main associate in this country was Ojo. We also believe he assisted her entry into the country. I firmly believe he can assist us with our inquiries and we will be looking to speak to him as soon as possible.”
The woman has since been “repatriated” to Nigeria and Mr O’Reilly said he could not comment further on her as a file had been submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service.
When officers searched Ojo’s flat in London, they found a video of mock-up ritual killings and a rat’s skull, thought to be a voodoo talisman.
Southwark crown court heard that Ojo came to the UK in 1997, posing as an asylum seeker, and was granted leave to remain, but forbidden to travel abroad. But when he discovered his girlfriend, Barbara Bourne, had lost a newborn son a few years previously, he used the dead boy’s birth certificate to obtain a driving licence and passport.
He then brought in illegal immigrants on cheap flights from Naples. Police think those smuggled in may have paid up to 20,000 each for a new life in Britain.
Judge Neil Stewart said he was satisfied that Ojo had an organizational role and had profited from the enterprise, and recommended that he be sent back to Nigeria when he had served his sentence.
Five witchcraft inquiries Published: June 17, 2005 By: RELIGION NEWS BLOG
Police and social services in London are investigating five new suspected cases of child abuse involving witchcraft.
Britain’s leading expert on witchcraft, Dr Richard Hoskins, is working with social services on allegations about fundamentalist churches in Haringey and Hackney.
They involve two boys aged 11 and 14 and three girls aged 10, 12 and 13. They were all allegedly abused after being accused by their family of being “witches”.
A Metropolitan Police report, leaked yesterday, unmasked a “trade” in young African boys brought to London to be murdered as human sacrifices.
An inquiry in which members of the African community in Newham and Hackney were questioned found a number of sects that believe in powerful spells requiring the ritual killing of male children.
It also identified cases of children abused and killed after family members accused them of being possessed by “evil spirits”.
Dr Hoskins, a chief adviser to the Met, said almost all the cases he is investigating have similar features. The children have been accused of being “possessed” and allegedly abused and tortured.
Social services took them into their care after parents called for the children to be exorcised in fundamentalist churches.
Dr Hoskins said: “We are dealing with real cases here. I have got seven cases on my books of children nationwide who have been abused in the name of witchcraft. When you actually talk to them, these are hard and fast facts. But the issue as a whole has to be dealt with very sensitively.”
Dr Hoskins worked with police on the inquiry into “Adam“, the torso found in the Thames, which he is convinced was a ritual sacrifice.
In the Adam case, detectives also spoke to Tussan le Mante, a voodoo priest or hougan, who carries out rituals in his west London flat.
Le Mante was able to tell them accounts of child abuse of which he was aware through his connection with voodoo.
Police also found children are being sold to traffickers on the streets of African cities such as Lagos, Nigeria, for under ?10 then smuggled into the UK.
They arrive in London with false documents and accompanied by adults who believe they will bolster their asylum claims.
Dr Hoskins said: “We know this through work we have been doing on the Adam inquiry. It’s the same in Kinshasa. These children are ripe for people to abuse. They are easy prey.”
The 10-month study was commissioned by the Met following the death of Victoria Climbié who was starved and beaten to death after relatives said she was possessed.
Its aim was to create an “open dialogue” with the African and Asian community in Newham and Hackney. In discussions with African community leaders, officers were told of examples of children being murdered because their parents or carers believed them to be evil.
Earlier this month, Sita Kisanga, 35, was convicted at the Old Bailey of torturing an eight-year-old girl from Angola whom she accused of being a witch. Kisanga was a member of the Combat Spirituel church in Dalston.
Many such churches, supported mainly by people from West Africa, sanction aggressive forms of exorcism.
The caretaker of the building used by the church said its leader was “an extraordinary man”.
“The pastor would come down after preaching with froth coming out of his mouth,” he said.
“The congregation made massive noise and generally caused so much disturbance that the neighbours here kicked up a fuss and got the council to evict them.”
There are believed to be 300 similar churches in the UK, mostly in London. Last month, Scotland Yard revealed it had traced only two of 300 black boys reported missing from London schools in a three-month period. The true figure for missing children is feared to be several thousand a year.