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Africa's albinos seek their place in the sun

Lack of pigmentation causes many to be killed to make potions for the superstitious.

BOSTON — Up two flights of stairs in a musty apartment in central Madrid is where an African man with a face as white as chalk has placed his hope for the future.

In early April, 18-year-old Moszy came ashore in the Spanish Canary Islands, along with 59 other African refugees. He stood out among a sea of black faces waiting in line that day to be processed by immigration officials. He is an albino, a person with a congenital lack of the melanin pigment that protects the skin, eyes and hair from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Albinism is a condition that makes life in much of Africa miserable for many reasons, said Javier Ramirez, a human rights lawyer with the Spanish Commission for Refugees or CEAR, which is representing Moszy.

“Albinos suffer violence and also they face huge discrimination in their countries of origin,” said Ramirez.

“That’s 'cause there’s still a lot of ignorance,” said Thabo Leshilo, editor of the South African newspaper, The Sowetan, which has reported on human rights abuses against albinos in southern Africa. “People still believe, for example, that people with albinism don’t die. That they actually disappear and don’t get buried.” Leshilo said it is the de-humanization of people with albinism that makes it possible for some to kill them without remorse. Over the past 19 months, 62 ritualistic murders have occurred in Tanzania, Burundi and Kenya in which albinos were killed to sell their body parts. Four albinos, including a 4-year old, were murdered in July. The buyers are traditional healers who say they can concoct powerful potions with so-called albino magic that businessmen and others believe will bolster their fortunes.

Around Lake Victoria in northern Tanzania, fish stocks have dwindled in recent years. In response, many fishermen now weave albino hairs in their nets — believing that by doing so they will increase their daily catch of fish.

The right leg from an albino can sell for $2,000 and an arm about $800, according to an investigative report by a BBC team.

In a recent incident in Ruyigi, Burundi, according to Al Jazeera, a young albino man was reportedly killed and chopped up by his older non-albino brother, who sold his body parts for $240 before escaping to Tanzania. As of this writing, he has not been captured.