The killings of albino people in Burundi and Tanzania, based on occult practices, have triggered a crisis involving almost the entire albino population of the two countries, according to a report released today by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
The report, called Through Albino Eyes, says that as many as 300 children and teenagers are now in hiding and stranded in Tanzanian schools for the disabled or in emergency shelters established by the police in Burundi, where they exist in dire conditions.
Thousands more albinos across a huge swathe of countryside–perhaps as many as 10,000–are unable to move freely to trade, study or cultivate fields for fear of albino hunters in search of body parts and hired mainly by witch doctors and big-money traders.
In the words of one local Red Cross worker, albinos are “hiding in their backyards”, their lives on hold.
The Tanzania Red Cross Society (TRCS) intends to provide health education about skin care, protective wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts and vocational teaching equipment that will improve chances of finding indoor employment.
Salif Keita, the Malian albino singer and human rights activist said that “even before the killings began two years ago, albino people in tropical Africa suffered an array of afflictions that made physical survival a desperate struggle”.
“These included, above all, needlessly high rates of fatal skin cancer that are the result of their acute sensitivity to sunlight.”
IFRC Secretary General Bekele Geleta described albinism as “one of the most unfortunate vulnerabilities, that needs to be addressed immediately at the international level”.
“Our national societies closest to this tragic story have responded well, and they will continue focusing on areas where they can really add value–like public-health education and anti-discrimination awareness raising.”
The local humanitarian response to the albino emergency last year was largely coordinated by branches of the Red Cross societies in both countries, but urgently needs external support, according to the IFRC’s report.
Peter Mlebusi, the TRCS deputy secretary-general, said the crisis is now essentially fourfold: “It is a health problem because of the skin cancer risk. It is a stigma and discrimination problem in the community. There is also insecurity because of the ‘mythology’ of the wealth that can be generated by selling parts of albino bodies. And, finally, there is a legal issue because of the painfully slow process involved in dealing with the killings.”
“Once these people are identified by our volunteers an expanded Red Cross program will make a huge difference to their lives,” adds Dr. Mohammed.
Most recently, on 21 October, while IFRC was conducting the field research for its report, a ten year old albino boy, Gasper Elikana, was killed by hunters. His neighbours and his father had tried bravely but unsuccessfully to protect him.
The secretary general the Burundi Red Cross, Anselme Katyunguruza, emphasized that his organization was “committed to work with the authorities in our country to put an end to these killings and secure a life of dignity for our albino brothers and sisters.”
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. Private organizations and some media in Tanzania have put the number higher, at more than 50 deaths.
In Burundi, to an even greater extent than in Tanzania, the total albino population is an unknown quantity, but the best estimate according to the local Red Cross is that there are at least 1,000 albinos countrywide.
The number of officially registered albinos in Tanzania is just under 7,000, but again some groups and media put the number much higher, and this total includes only people who have come forward voluntarily to register.
[Editors Note: The report “Through Albino Eyes” can be downloaded as a PDF here.]