By Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tanzanian parents with albino children are racing to find safe havens for their youngsters after the abduction and suspected murder of two children raised fears of more attacks on albinos ahead of elections later this year.
Two albino children have gone missing in the past two months despite a government ban on witch doctors, who are accused of encouraging attacks on albinos to get body parts from which they make charms and spells that they claim bring good luck and wealth.
Last week police found the body of one-year-old Yohana Bahati just days after an armed gang snatched him from his home in northwestern Tanzania's Geita region. His arms and legs had been severed.
He was the second albino child in two months to be abducted in the Lake zone of the east African nation where an estimated 75 albinos have been killed since 2000, according to U.N. figures. A four-year-old girl kidnapped in December is still missing.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, has called for greater protection for people with albinism, who lack pigment in their skin, hair and eyes, ahead of elections in October because of the risk that politicians will turn to witchcraft to improve their chances.
Peter Ajali, coordinator of the Buhangija centre in the northern town Shinyanga, which shelters children with special needs, said the number of albino children seeking protection had almost doubled to 218 from 115 this month.
Other government-run residential centres, such as Mitindo primary school in Misungwi district, which caters for students with special needs, also reported a surge in numbers.
"We have received an overwhelming number of children with albinism within a short period, most of them were brought by their own parents who think their children would be in safer hands here than at home," Ajali told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
"Here our own guards, a private security company and the police always ensure safety for the children."
Kulwa Ng'welo, head teacher of Mitindo Primary School, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the number of albino children at the school had risen to 67 from 45 in the past week.
A U.S. survey by the Pew Research Centre in 2010 found that although most people in Tanzania are Christian or Muslim, 60 percent believed certain people could cast spells and curses.
Witch doctors will pay as much as $75,000 for a full set of body parts from an albino, according to a Red Cross report.
Beatrice Lema, 16, an albino girl whose parents brought her to the Buhangija centre a week ago from the neighbouring Simiyu region, said she feels much safer there than at home.
"I don't want to die, I want to stay safe. I have a lot of friends to play with and I believe no one will come to hurt me here," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Amid growing outrage over the lack of protection for albinos - there have been only five successful prosecutions to date - police in Dar Es Salaam this week approved plans by the Tanzania Albinism Society to protest on March 3 outside government buildings.
"We believe it is everybody's responsibility to fight for justice and protect lives of people with albinism," said Mohamed Chanzi, the association's deputy secretary general.
Albinism is a congenital disorder which affects about one in 20,000 people worldwide, according to medical authorities. It is more common in sub-Saharan Africa and affects an estimated one Tanzanian in 1,400.