In a small courtroom in eastern Burundi, state prosecutor Nicodeme Gahimbare waves a bone at the judges and the eight men lined up in front of them, as he states his case.
It’s a human bone.
The eight men are on trial for murdering albinos and trying to sell their body parts across the border in Tanzania, where some people believe that using albino body parts in witchcraft can bring wealth and good fortune. Some of the body parts found are now on display for all to see.
The grisly case shocked people far beyond the courthouse in the Burundian town of Ruyigi, where three of the men got a life sentence and the other five got 20 years in prison for aiding and abetting.
For Kazungu Kassim, a spokesman for Burundi’s albinos, the sentences were a victory. “It gives the Burundi Albinos Association a lot of courage because it shows that the government is on our side,” he told Reuters Africa Journal after the trial. “I think it could reduce the amount of attacks on albinos and I also think it might discourage anyone who was intending to endanger the life of an albino in our country.”
It was the first in a series of cases in which the governments of Burundi and Tanzania are finally trying to bring some of those behind the albino murders to justice. More than 50 albinos — who lack pigment in their skin, eyes and hair — have been killed in the two countries, presumably to fuel the cross-border trade in their sought-after body parts.
Tanzania opened five new cases last month, and Burundi passed down another sentence on July 23, condemning one more person to life in prison.
Both countries are also trying to convince ordinary citizens to help in the arrest of those responsible. But it’s little consolation for those who have already lost a loved one in such a brutal and horrific way.
Outside her hut, Leonie Kabura cradles her baby twins. They’re all she has left. Until a few months ago, her 16-year-old daughter helped to care for them. But she was albino, one of the 11 who was murdered in Burundi.
Her husband had left her because of the stigma attached to albinism here.
“Those people who were arrested should rot in prison,” says Leonie bitterly. “If the
government can kill them, then they should, because they are the reason for my hunger.”
Many albinos in this region still live in fear of being attacked and killed, and in Ruyigi town, the government has rented a safe house guarded by the police, where about 25 albinos have found shelter.
“We used to get along well with everybody,” says Godefroid Hakizimana. “That’s changed now. We’re being told that they’re going to kill us to earn lots of money.”
Africa is thought to have the highest concentration of albinos in the world. Only about 200 live in Burundi, but an estimated 200,000 live across the border in Tanzania.
In the main city Dar es Salaam, people were horrified by what’s been happening.
“I want to tell my fellow Tanzanians not to get conned by these witchdoctors,” says Catherine Nguni. “They themselves are looking for wealth, so how can they make you rich?”
Pamela Mcheka, also a Dar resident, is herself an albino. “My family tells me to be careful at night and that I should stay indoors,” she says. “I just hope God will watch over us.”