RUYIGI, October 14 – Richard Ciza was alerted by neighbours last week that a posse was looking for him. He ran and hid for two days in the forest of eastern Burundi.
The 19-year-old is an albino and knows exactly the kind of death he would have suffered if the marauding horde had caught up with him.
"Some neighbours came to warn me that a group of killers was after me and so I ran like the wind, completely terrified," said Ciza who lives in Ruyigi province.
In recent weeks, Ruyigi has seen a gruesome string of murders and mutilations of albinos, whose body parts are sold to witch doctors.
"People say that the body parts taken from albinos are sold in Tanzania. They put them on gold mines and that brings the gold to the surface, then you just need to collect it," said Ciza, fear evident in his pale blue eyes.
"Some fishermen also use the parts to bait large fish they think have gold in their bellies."
Still in shock, Ciza spoke to AFP from the safety of Ruyigi province chief prosecutor Nicodeme Gahimbare’s personal residence.
The official’s home has been turned into an albino safehouse, surrounded by a three metre (10-foot) wall, where some 25 albinos from the all over the region have taken shelter.
"We held a crisis meeting with the administration, the police, local MPs and people representing the albinos… We’ve decided to gather all 45 known albinos in Ruyigi to guarantee their security," Gahimbare said.
On September 22, a 16-year-old albino girl by the name of Spes was attacked in her village of Nyabitsinda.
She was dismembered and her body parts disappeared. A few days later, it was the turn of a man in the village of Bweru. Officials have reported two other recent murders in other parts of the country.
Police have established that the limbs, organs and blood of the albinos were smuggled into neighbouring Tanzania and sold to local sorcerers who use them to concoct lucky charms.
Northern Tanzania has been plagued by grisly incidents involving withcraft. The phenomenon has reached such proportions that the country’s president has had to launch a special protection programme.
Demand is such in Tanzania that albinos across the region now feel threatened.
Albinos in Ruyigi province, where witchcraft is deeply entrenched, are more at risk than others.
Ephrem, an eight-year-old boy from Nyabitsinda, walked for more than 10 kilometres (six miles) with his father to reach the prosecutor’s safe house in Ruyigi town.
"Just because of their skin colour, they are being hunted on the grounds that have a commercial value in the eyes of some people," said his father Protais Muzoya, a father of 10, two of them albinos.
"Not very far from our home, some criminals killed a young girl who looks like my children. They cut her arms off and collected all her blood and I’m very scared for my children," he said, holding his son’s hand.
As the worried father recounted the girl’s death, a car pulled up in front of them to offer a lift to Ruyigi but Ephrem panicked, kicking and screaming, refusing to get into the stranger’s vehicle.
"My son is in a constant state of terror since he heard what happened. When he walks in the street, some people say things like ‘Our fortune goes by’," said Protais, politely turning down the perplexed driver’s offer.
The handful of albinos in the region have had to close ranks and often exchange stories and survival tips.
Albinism is a congenital lack of the melamin pigment in the skin, eyes and hair which protects from the sun’s ultraviolets. Albinos are vulnerable to medical complications and social discrimination in Africa.
But while they once had to hide only from sun rays and jeers, albinos in Tanzania and Burundi are now running away from a more macabre menace.
"The threat against albinos is very real. Richard Ciza for example was chased by four murderers armed with rifles and had to hide in the forest for two days," Gahimbare said.
"These people say they can earn 600 million Tanzanian shillings (380,000 euros/500,000 dollars) from the body of one albino," he said.
"The fate of albinos should become a national preoccupation because it has spread far beyond the borders of our province. What is happening is terrifying because albinos are now looked upon as a commercial good.