Through albino eyes: The plight of albino people in Africa's Great Lakes region and a Red Cross response - Advocacy report

Introduction

The occult-based killings of albinos in eastern parts of Burundi and several regions of north-west Tanzania - the general area between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria - were first brought to light by journalists, initially from Africa then from the global news media. In October 2009, at a ceremony in Stockholm, the Tanzanian journalist Richard Mgamba was awarded the Lorenzo Natali Journalism Prize for Africa for his coverage of the Great Lakes albino emergency.

Perhaps most famously, the outside world's attention was drawn to the albinos' plight by the undercover reports, produced at great risk to her life, by the BBC's Dar es Salaam bureau chief, Vicky Ntetema, herself a Tanzanian. (See box: The reporter's story.) Most recently, at the time of writing, the story was featured by the US ABC network in its 20/20 programme.

As this report was being drafted, a three-month lull in the albino killings in Tanzania came to an end with a brutal attack on a family in the Geita district of Mwanza region. A 10-year-old albino boy, Gasper Elikana, was killed on 21 October by hunters who fled with his leg, which they hacked off in front of his family having first beheaded him to stop him screaming. His neighbours and his black father, who was left fighting for his life in hospital, had tried bravely but unsuccessfully to protect him.

The last reported killing of an albino had been on 18 July, and the whole of Tanzania had hoped that the firm action taken - including the sentences passed on three albino hunters from the Shinyanga region convicted of the murder of 13-year-old albino schoolboy Matatizo Dunia - had finally put an end to the killings. The news of Gasper's murder caused dismay nationwide.

The official death toll now stands at 44 albinos killed in Tanzania and 12 in the eastern Burundian provinces of Cankuzo, Kirundo, Muyinga and Ruyigi - on or near the border with Tanzania. This figure for Tanzania is the one given by police to the special parliamentary committee investigating the killings. Private organizations and some media in Tanzania have put the number higher, at more than 50 deaths.

Burundians - no less shocked by the killings than their Tanzanian neighbours - believe the market for albino body parts exists mainly if not exclusively in Tanzania, generated by big-money buyers who use them as talismans to bring luck and above all wealth. Senior police officers in Dar es Salaam said a complete set of albino body parts - including all four limbs, genitals, ears, tongue and nose - was fetching the equivalent of 75,000 US dollars.

After they began in 2007, the killings quickly triggered a smallscale humanitarian crisis in both countries, leaving as many as 300 young albinos abandoned or stranded in existing Tanzanian schools for the disabled like the Kabanga school (49 albinos) at Kasulu, Kigoma region, and the Mitindo school (103 albinos) at Misungwi, Mwanza region - a centre of the killings and the witchcraft practices behind them - and in emergency shelters in Burundi where many remain well after the last killing there on 14 March.

In Burundi - a tiny country relative to Tanzania which has a land mass nearly equal to that of France and Germany together - the police were able to gather together albinos in secure urban locations and mount a 24-hour guard on them. That guard has yet to be stood down. An undetermined number of Tanzanian albinos also reportedly clustered near police stations and churches or are, in the words of one Red Cross worker, "just hiding in their backyards". It is impossible even to estimate the number of albinos who have been displaced. What is certain is that thousands - probably the overwhelming majority of the total population of albinos, whatever it may be - are no longer able to move around freely to work, study or tend vegetable plots for fear of the hunters.

In effect, their lives are on hold.

As of mid-September 2009, terrified albino children were continuing to arrive at the Kabanga school. The most recent arrival, seven-year-old Enus Abel, spent two weeks hiding in the bush with his black mother after hunters appeared in their village. They finally made it to Kabanga and safety on 13 September.