World News

01.26.14

Burundi’s Black Market Skull Trade

Has the tiny nation of Burundi become ground zero for a new global black-market trade in human remains?

BUJUMBURA, Burundi – In evenings when the hippo emerges from the depths of Lake Tanganyika to graze its grassy shores, members of Bujumbura’s expat community gather at the various waterholes that ring the lake. At the Italian-owned Kiboko bar in “Buja,” everyone—from the local media and Dutch soldiers to Catholic nuns—stops in to knock back cold Skols, the local brew, and gaze at the resource-rich Intombwe Mountains across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Unlike its famous neighbor Rwanda, the tiny landlocked country of Burundi is difficult to locate on a map. Even Kenya, to the east, considers the former Belgian colony “the back of beyond.”

In most African expat communities, everyone knows or has heard of each other. Few Burundi residents, though, claim they’ve ever seen or heard of Giuseppe Favaro, whose recent arrest for attempting to smuggle human skulls into Asia caused jaws to drop—and sent residents running to cemeteries to make sure ancestors were still buried with their heads intact.

On Oct 25th, Favaro, a one-time dealer of Venetian antiques in his native Italy, strolled into Bujumbura's main post office with three large cardboard boxes, according to law enforcement authorities. On the shipping form he declared that one of the boxes contained a camera, and the other two “organic material,” according to the General Director of Civil Aviation at Bujumbura’s International airport.

Salvador Nizigiyamana, the General of the Post Office, later said in a press conference that Favaro left the post office when he realized he didn't have enough cash to ship all three parcels. (He ended up mailing only two.) According to police, Favaro returned at 5 pm, just before closing. Bujumbura’s post office requires its customers to leave parcels open for postal clerks to inspect before sending. The clerk however did not open either of Favaro's sealed boxes for inspection and instead forwarded them on to the airport, where customs agents are meant to subject packages to further scrutiny.

"Craniums out of Africa show a shift in smuggling from the usual gold, ivory and drugs,” the senior intelligence officer told The Daily Beast.

Twenty-three years of experience at Paris’s Charles de Galle airport had taught Albert Maniratunga, the airport General Director, a thing or two about smuggled cargo.

On the day I visited him, Maniratunga wore a white three-piece suit with blue pinstripes and beamed proudly when he talked about the unique and unprecedented seizure, which he said he owed mainly to new imaging software recently donated by the French government. It was this technology that made it possible for Burundian Civil Aviation Authorities to grab 63 pounds of ivory, with a street value of $400,000, at Bujumbura’s airport last July.

When airport security scanned Favaro's boxes, instead of cameras, they discovered the silhouettes of two white domes inside.  "The skulls [were] human and belonged to two young adults,” Maniratunga said, noting that he called a forensic expert to inspect them along with two disarticulated jawbones, also found inside the boxes. The Director General said he suspected the skulls [were] from the Congo.

On the shipping invoice that Maniratunga showed to The Daily Beast, the packages had been addressed to an individual in Chiang Mai, Thailand. But police had never heard of  "Kassim, A." — the name written as the sender.

A law enforcement team of local police and investigators from Le Service National Renseignement (SNR – National Security Services) launched an investigation and they now claim Kassim Abdoulgani was an alias that Giuseppe Favaro had been using for over a decade. According to the investigation team, Kassim is the surname of Favaro’s ex-wife.

On October 31st, police officers went to Favaro’s house near the lake and, according to a senior officer with Burundi’s National Security Services, who wishes not to be identified, said that they’d found the greying 56-year-old inside “trembling.”

The security officer told The Daily Beast that a few days later authorities detained a 60-year old Burundi-born Congolese man whom Favaro had reportedly fingered as his main supplier of tribal artifacts and human skulls. The same source said another Congolese man was also jailed on suspicion of being another supplier of Favaro’s.

Soon after the arrest of tribal art dealer and his alleged suppliers, Maniratunga and the head of the National Postal Administration, Salvador Nizigiyamana, announced to local press that law enforcement officials had recovered another 38 human craniums.

According to the police report later shown to The Daily Beast the additional skulls were found in Favaro's "office", one of a series of windowless bunkers on the lakeside compound of Favaro’s neighbor, a 70-year old German expat. The septuagenarian was present during the search, according to the report. “He was scared, but we had no intention of arresting him," said the senior intelligence source. "He seemed unaware that the skulls were being stored there.”

All told, police say they recovered 41 human skulls in connection with the Italian tribal art dealer. (Apparently, soon after Favaro’s arrest, a parcel destined for China containing one skull had been returned to the Bujumbura post office. The name “Kassim, A.” was written as its sender).

In a phone call with The Daily Beast, Harimenshi Hermenegilde, the spokesman for Bujumbura police, declined to say whether Favaro had been formally charged with an offense and explained that “the case has been turned over to prosecution and is still being processed.” Edouard Ngendakumana, Favaro's defense lawyer, told The Daily Beast via phone, “We are waiting [for the case] to be heard before the appeals court… and are trying obtain [Favaro’s] release on bail.” Ngendakumana declined to state the charges against his client.

According to the senior officer quoting the Police report, Favaro was arrested on charges relating to giving false statements, the desecration of cemeteries, and trafficking of human remains.

All three men remain in custody today pending trial.

Reactions in Bujumbura to the news of Favaro’s arrest and the discovery of the skulls varied. On a Facebook page called the Bujumbura Professional Network, Teddy Mazina, a political activist and photographer at a privately-owned local media station, was first to post news of the arrest. Mazina said a quick Google search turned up a photo of a human skull described as “used” and in “good condition” listed on eBay for $300 with Favaro as the contact. Other commenters expressed concern that the discovery might paint an image that doesn’t reflect the values of good Burundians.

For his part, Favaro reportedly told police that the skulls were intended for scientific study in Chiang Mai, according to a security officer. Indeed, the city in northern Thailand is home to a university specializing in medicine and dentistry, and of course, the use of remains in the study of human anatomy is nothing new. Leonardo da Vinci claimed to have sliced up as many as 30 cadavers before publishing his groundbreaking drawings of the human body in the early 1500s. By the beginning of the 19th century, the demand in England and Europe for human remains for research exceeded supply and grave robbing spiraled out of control. The practice crumbled after the British government passed an Anatomy Act in 1832, permitting doctors to take unclaimed corpses at the morgue in the name of science.

By the end of the last century, India had become the main supplier of corpses. In 2007, a Wired magazine reporter wrote that workers for black-market bone factories would often snatch corpses right off funeral pyres as soon as grieving relatives had left. After boiling and scrubbing off the skin, they’d send the bones to a Calcutta-based medical supply company, which assembled the skeletons and shipped them to universities and medical facilities around the world.

When India banned the bone trade in 1987, after a dealer was arrested for exporting 1500 child skeletons, China then became the main global supplier of corpses. 

The practice was outlawed in 2008 just before Beijing hosted the Olympics.

Ebay’s policy states “We don’t allow humans, the human body, or any human body or products to be listed on eBay with two exceptions—the seller can list items containing scalp hair and skulls and skeletons intended for medical use only.”

In America, meanwhile, it is legal to buy and sell human skeletons and skulls – with the exception of the remains of Native Americans, whose graves are protected by the American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Only three states currently restrict the trade: New York, Georgia and Tennessee.

Though possession and shipment of human remains is legal within the United States and in parts of Europe, it doesn’t mean they are easy to come by -- and they’re not cheap.

The website for Skulls Unlimited, which describes itself as “the World’s Leading Supplier of Osteological Specimens”, sells human skulls for up to $1,950.

The Berkeley-based Bone Room sells complete "Standard Human Skeleton" online for $5,500. 

Zane Wylie, an American artisan who carves intricate tattoo-like patterns on skulls that he sells online for more than $3,000 says bones from Africa are rare inside the States. While it’s legal to purchase skulls from Africa he chooses not to because of the possibility that skeletons could be from victims of the continent’s widespread HIV/AIDS epidemic or its many wars.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, where Favaro’s skulls were headed, the use of skulls in ritualistic practices is not unheard of. Police in Thailand recently investigated a case in which five human skulls were found in a fertilizer bag. Officials told reporters they suspected the skulls had been dug up from graves and their foreheads carved out and removed for ritual use. And two years ago, Thai police arrested a group of monks robbing graves to make "love talismans".

A radiologist and senior faculty member at Chiang Mai’s school of dentistry told The Daily Beast that in the 22 years she has been working at the university, she has never seen human skulls used for dentistry purposes. “Only cadavers are used for anatomy classes. There is no need to import [human] skulls for study purposes here in Thailand.”

Commercial trade in human remains is illegal in Burundi and is protected by the same laws, which prohibit human trafficking. 

Not that these regulations are necessarily reassuring to rattled residents of Burundi.

The recent and unprecedented discovery of the skulls in Bujumbura may suggest that Africa has replaced India and China as the supplier of human remains. “Craniums out of Africa show a shift in smuggling from the usual gold, ivory and drugs,” the senior intelligence officer told The Daily Beast.

Tragically, human remains are abundant in this part of the continent, which has seen decades of warfare. “With the war in Burundi the dead are buried anywhere, including mass graves; it is not difficult to obtain all kinds of ‘ossement’,” says Patrice Faye, a French herpetologist, crocodile-wrangler, and former long-time resident of Bujumbura.

“People offered me [human] heads and hands,” said Faye. “But I never knew if they were serious.”

Honore Gatera, the manager of Rwanda’s Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, has assisted in more than 1,000 burial ceremonies within the last nine years. Gatera said he’d heard of reports from Burundi about a black market for skulls in Asia, but told The Daily Beast he’d never heard of any such incidents in Rwanda.

So far there have been no news or police reports of grave robberies in Burundi.

If, as officials suggest, Favaro has been peddling skulls from the Congo, it is unclear when he began the practice. According to his website, Favaro moved to Bujumbura in the early '90s and began collecting tribal masks and statuettes mostly from the Congo. Soon after he opened a gallery and, in 1992, a trading company – both based in Bujumbura - specializing imported “goods in China for the local African market” and exported the tribal masks, statuettes, paintings, gemstones and jewelry, along with Dracaena seeds and Jatropha curcas oil used for diesel. In 2006 he began selling items online – some apparently fashioned from elephant ivory -- via his ‘webstore’, which states it takes any method of payment, from Western Union to PayPal.

“Based on what we see in Central Africa, it makes sense that the trade in human remains would use the same networks [as ivory, drugs and gold],” says Richard Ruggiero, Chief of the Africa Branch at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Division of International Conservation.

"At a certain point smugglers in the chain are just illicit versions of any legitimate global import/export courier,” Ruggiero told The Daily Beast. “Once they have established methods and routes, and have the right people on their payroll, they will ship anything they can make money on.”

  According to intelligence sources, Favaro, using the alias, had been shipping parcels of varying sizes for years, sometimes paying up to one million Burundi francs (the equivalent of $650 at today's exchange rate) for larger boxes. “Kassim, A.” was the Post Office’s best client; so popular, he was invited to all its “VIP” luncheons, which he dutifully attended, sources close to postal workers say.

Though Favaro is still incarcerated, his tribal artifact website, Flickr and Pinterest accounts remain active and continue to showcase his tribal figures.

(A police spokesman said that Favaro had bought the skulls for around $30, according to the Kigali Post.) Since his arrest, the skull listed on eBay apparently sold for $477 but the photo appears to have been replaced with an older skull - with some teeth missing - than the one originally listed.

The airport Director General says all 41 skulls are currently undergoing DNA analysis. The investigative team is probing the Italian’s international connections and claims to have asked Interpol for assistance.

For now the Italian tribal arts dealer languishes in the town's Mpimba prison. Originally built for 800 inmates, it is now crammed with 3,000.

“Burundi is a very poor country," says Teddy Mazina, the Burundian political activist and photographer. “The average citizen earns a dollar a day. If people are getting paid to find human skulls, which are becoming fashionable or used for medical purposes and sold on eBay, where is this country going?”

When news of the smuggled skulls broke over the wires early last November a Tweeter from Mogadishu replied: Shhh keep it quiet! When people find out there is cash in human skulls the dead will not be safe in their graves!’