Alexis Manirakiza in Ruyigi, Burundi
Napoleon Ahishakiye, a healthy boy, was born on Thursday 15 October 2009 – as far as anyone knows the first albino birth in one of the shelters still scattered around the eastern Burundian province of Ruyigi, near the border with Tanzania.
After the occult-based killings began here in August last year, the Ruyigi local authorities had to resettle 60 albinos in secure locations the police could guard.
And there at least 20 remain, including Napoleon’s albino mother, Emelyne Banteyineza, 18, who sits in the shade next to her grandmother, Candide Ntawenganyira, who is black and estimates her age at “about 70”.
Emelyne has seven siblings, including one other albino. Candide, whose own parents were black, says she puzzled for a while about the sudden emergence of albinism in the family, then decided “it’s God’s will” and dismissed the issue.
Candide, whose Kirundi name translates as “I have no one to take my worries to”, is clearly too delighted with her new great-grandson to think much about the shadowy albino-hunters – working for big-money buyers in Tanzania, most Burundians believe – who have killed 12 people in Burundi and caused the displacement of many others in several provinces.
For the moment, at least, in Burundi they seem to have melted away. The last killing of a Burundian albino was on 14 March, according to Kazungu Kassim, the director of Albinos Sans Frontières Burundi, and himself an albino.
But conditions in the stifling shelters are dreadful: children sleep on foam blocks on bare concrete; they are filthy and often hungry; and, lacking proper protective clothes, many are also badly sunburnt.
The Burundi Red Cross (BRC) was instrumental in coordinating the spontaneous humanitarian response to the albino crisis last year, which included local NGOs, UN-agency staff, churches and schools.
The BRC collected food, clothes and – as in the Kigoma region of Tanzania – cash that volunteers and others had donated from their own pockets.
At Emelyne’s shelter – a derelict building most recently used as a barracks during the war – BRC volunteers continue to manage vegetable plots on behalf of the albinos; they’re now productive enough to provide a small cash-surplus.
But it isn’t enough. And in any case the long-term goal is for albinos to be reintegrated into their communities.
“We’re forming a donor partnership with the World Lutheran Federation,” says Jean-Pierre Sinzumunsi, BRC regional coordinator for Ruyigi and Cankuzo provinces.
“We want to help our volunteers better understand the problems of albinism and to promote the integration and protection of albinos.
“We also aim to sensitize the local authorities, the police, the military, priests, local NGOs and village elders.”
In Burundi to an even greater extent than Tanzania, albinos are an unknown quantity. The lack of proper data is almost total: “We know so little,” says Kassim.
There are believed to be at least 1,000 albinos in Burundi and they suffer varying degrees of marginalization. With a mock cruelty not uncharacteristic of the very young, schoolchildren have been heard calling albino classmates marchandise or iboro in Kirundi, according to Sinzumunsi – a reference to the trade in their body parts for use as occult talismans.
But it is not their neighbours who pose the mortal danger. Quite the reverse.
The suspected albino-hunter who rode his bike straight at Marie Niyukuri’s eight-year-old albino son, Ephreim, last year was lucky: he was saved by the police from being lynched on the spot by her vigilant neighbours, who were jumpy since a small albino boy had been snatched and killed in the next colline (hill or village administrative-unit).
It seems the man had attempted to fake a road accident and make off with Ephreim’s body, but the boy was pulled away by his black friends.
In at least one other incident recorded by the BRC, police did not arrive in time to rescue an albino hunter from being lynched by his victim’s friends and neighbours.
Marie’s confidence seems, if anything, to have grown since last August. She, her husband Protais, Ephreim’s 14 year-old albino sister, Faustine, and eight black siblings live next to their plots on a hillside near Ruyigi town.
The family took refugee in a shelter in town with other albinos, but the fact that “people round here are on the alert now,” as Marie explains, is a large part of the reason why they returned home.
The children walk the three kilometres every day to school, unescorted, but Marie’s other concerns for her highly vulnerable son quickly reasserted themselves once the immediate threat to his life seemed to pass. “He’s struggling,” she says.
“He had to repeat his first year three times. While we were in the shelter and he was at school in town the teachers put him in the front row so he could see, but not here.” (This is the easily rectified problem facing so many albino schoolchildren.)
But perhaps most seriously, neither Ephreim nor Faustine, who speaks in a whisper with her head bowed, has had any medical attention for the melanomas that liberally speckle their faces and arms.
Neither child possesses a potentially life-saving wide-brimmed hat.
“We got married very young,” says Marie. “When I started having albino babies [another albino child, the first of the three, died in infancy] I was shocked and I looked for an explanation, but I gave up and just accepted them and treated them the same.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Jeremie Ndayiragije’s story is very different – but thankfully far less typical.
The married albino father-of-two had just returned from a wedding reception with his albino brother Daniel when they heard noises outside. Daniel went to investigate and found himself confronting a group of armed albino-hunters.
“Daniel fought and stopped one of them,” says Jeremie, “but he had no chance – they shot him, cut off his arms and legs and left his torso.”
The awful twist in the brothers’ story is that it was a third, non-albino brother, who had betrayed them to the hunters in exchange for 300,000 Burundian francs (about US$ 250).
A number of men arrested in connection with the attack are now in jail.
Jeremie is in hiding.