ABUJA, Nigeria—Some five hundred villagers gathered in front of a police station in Madagascar’s southeastern district of Ikongo, armed with sticks and machetes.
It was Aug. 29, and they had just learned that four people suspected of kidnapping an albino child and killing the child's mother were to be transferred from the local police station—where they’d been held since the incident occurred a week earlier—to the Tsiafahy maximum security prison in the capital.
Scenes of violence and bloodshed ensued.
“We believed that if these people were taken to Tsiafahy or even left in the [Ikongo] police station, they'll eventually be released and not made to face justice because the police and some of those working in the prison are corrupt,” said one protester, Nomena, who The Daily Beast is choosing to identify by his first name to protect him from possible retribution. “We wanted the police to hand these people [the suspects] to the villagers… or to the military, who we know can handle the matter without being biased.”
But the demonstration in Ikongo turned chaotic as policemen, who said they had “no choice but to resort to self-defense,” opened fire on the protesters. As many as 21 demonstrators were killed and 30 others injured.
“Criminals cannot continue to kill albino children in Ikongo while adults like us just keep quiet and not do anything about it,” Rajo, a 31-year-old auto mechanic who took part in the protest, told The Daily Beast. “We don't trust the police to do what is right because some officers have been bribed by these criminals.”
Reports of abductions, attacks and killings of children with albinism are far too common throughout Madagascar. In the past two years, more than a dozen attacks and killings of albino children have been recorded across the impoverished country in incidents the United Nations said probably occur more often than is being officially reported. According to the UN, the attacks are expected to increase as dangerously false beliefs that the body parts of albino people can be used in rituals to bring wealth and protection continue to grow.
In recent months, according to a number of locals, numerous albino people—some as young as 4—have been kidnapped or killed in and around Ikongo, based on the myth that concoctions mixed with their body parts bring good fortune. Their butchered bodies are often found later without parts like skin, hair, breasts, limbs, nose, eye or genitals depending on the nature of the rituals. In some cases, grave robbers have dug out corpses to retrieve dead bodies of albinos.
One such attack occurred early this year when a 4-year-old albino boy was kidnapped one afternoon while playing with his peers outside his family's compound, according to locals who said his mutilated body was later found lying on a street in an area outside Ikongo. The incident, they said, was reported to police who claimed to have arrested a male suspect but later said the suspect was let go because they couldn’t prove he was responsible for the abduction.
“We don’t believe anyone was arrested at all because there were some officers who told us in confidence that they never saw the suspect at the station,” said Rajo.
The attacks, according to those with knowledge of how they are carried out, are often blatant. In some cases, kids are seized from their parents in broad daylight while walking on the streets. Compounds are attacked and people are kidnapped regardless of the hour. In a few instances, fingers have been pointed at family members and close friends. Even police officers have been accused of such crimes.
Most of the attacks on people with albinism, a genetic disorder that prevents the skin from producing enough melanin, occur in impoverished areas with low education levels and strong superstitious beliefs.
“Attacks on albinos even happen right in front of security officers who look the other way,” Dorion, a 40-year-old welder in Ikongo who took part in the Aug. 29 protest, told The Daily Beast. “No one is bothered about protecting albino people here.”
In March, according to Darion, the 6-year-old albino daughter of his close friend was snatched while standing right in front of her home outside of Ikongo. Her parents allegedly tried to fight the three unarmed attackers off, but without success. “Policemen stood just 50 meters away watching without making any attempt to intervene,” Darion alleged.
The Madagascar National Police did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast's request for comments.
A Madagascan woman, who once lived in Ikongo with two of her albino daughters, told The Daily Beast that people with albinism, a condition that is said to affect as many as 1 in every 1,400 people in Africa, are often forced to remain indoors in order to avoid attacks. “If you get noticed as an albino, your home could be visited by kidnappers,” said Marie Ramanantsoa, who said her daughters narrowly escaped being kidnapped after she and her neighbors fought off body-part hunters who came for her girls two years ago.
The kidnapping of albino children, according to Ramanantsoa, who now lives in Nigeria, has become a lucrative business for hunters who traffic dismembered body parts to other parts of East Africa, where they are also used in similar witchcraft rituals.
“Someone in Ikongo told me I could make thousands of U.S. dollars if I sold my daughter to a body-part trader in Malawi, where the demand is high,” said Ramanantsoa. “If these body-part hunters can't steal your child, they'll offer you money to take them away.”
For Madagascans who are against the continued killing of albino children for rituals, the best way to fight the crime is to ensure that those who are caught in the act are immediately made to face justice.
“The police have to act transparently if they don't want people to seek mob justice when a suspect is arrested,” Jérôme Fontaine, a human rights activist in Antananarivo, told The Daily Beast. “If suspects are charged to court immediately after their arrest, the people will be confident that justice will be done.”