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In Burundi, Where Anti-Government Protests Are Tamed With Guns

Clashes in Bujumbura on May 31
Clashes in Bujumbura on May 31
Jean-Philippe Rémy

BUJUMBURA — When she goes out alone of Burundi's capital, Valerie has started wearing trousers in case she has to run or is dragged to the ground. On this day, Bujumbura is sunny with a light breeze coming off Lake Tanganyika — still her heart is beating fast.

Valerie (not her real name) is always bracing herself for the "violence and blows" she anticipates will come from security forces, just like the last protest she attended, when women who were already on the ground were kicked in the face, the back, all over their bodies.

She describes herself as a "state employee, a widow, a Catholic," and she is one of the brave protesters ready to march again against Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid to seek a third term in office.

The crisis broke out in late April, when the ruling party nominated Nkurunziza to be the candidate in the election initially planned for June 26. A coalition of opposition parties and organizations who were readying themselves for the election organized the first demonstrations against a third mandate, pointing out how another term would contradict the Constitution and the Arusha Peace Agreement signed 15 years ago.

Demonstrations have continued since then, with the ongoing unrest partly responsible for the decision to postpone the election by a month.

Protest marches are happening primarily in neighborhoods where there is strongly established opposition, especially the Movement for Solidarity and Development (MSD), whose leaders are either forced into secrecy or exiled, and the Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU). Demonstrations are notably absent in towns such as Kamenge, held by the governing party, or in posh areas such as Kiriri.

Valerie comes from Kinanira III, a military neighborhood close to the stronghold of those who attempted a coup last month by seizing the national TV and radio stations. In the mornings in Kinanira III, young people here can be seen rebuilding their barricades to prevent cars from circulating.

Answering with guns

Despite such occasional signs of open opposition, the movement is under siege. Security forces are firing every day, lately even at night. And they are helped by civilian supporters of the ruling party, including the much-feared Imbonerakure youth movement whose members are armed and violent.

Nkurunziza was conspicuously absent from last weekend's crisis meeting in Tanzania, where East African leaders gathered to discuss the instability his reelection bid has created. He sent two representatives instead: Willy Nyamitwe, his PR adviser who's had a leading role since the crisis began, and his brother Alain, who was recently recalled from his position as ambassador in Addis Ababa to become foreign minister.

The absence of Rwandan President Paul Kagame was also notable. He's been a vocal opponent of Nkurunziza's third-term bid and has warned that the political crisis could descend into anti-Tutsi ethnic tensions and violence. Conflict between Hutu and Tutsi were largely responsible for a 12-year civil war in Burundi that ended in 2005.

More than 40 people have been killed since this latest series of protests began, and over the past few days explosive devices have been detonated in central Bujumbura. There have been threats against the Burundian Red Cross, which has ceased to report casualty figures. A reliable source in town that collects information from hospitals says there have been more than 50 people killed and more than 500 wounded, often by gunfire. More than 800 demonstrators have been arrested, with some detained in unofficial cells.

Yet Nkurunziza stands firm. He will seek reelection, and there's no risk he'll lose.

The protest movement is no longer just about the president's eligibility to serve another term. "It's a deep crisis, and even if it's solved on the surface, it will leave marks," respected intellectual Willy Nindorera said when the tensions first began.

But since then, Nindorera, like all of his peers, has learned to hold his tongue, fearing retribution.

"I'm not sleeping at my place anymore," says demonstrator Jérémie Minani, who's wanted by the police. "There's an extreme ferocity on the part of the police. We're out in the streets, and we'll stay there. It's our only weapon."

The Catholic Church has distanced itself from the electoral commission, which saw two of its leaders flee and go into hiding. Members of the European Union's election observation mission packed their bags a few days ago.

Frédéric Bamvuginyumvira, deputy leader of the FRODEBU party, is growing increasingly worried." The Burundian administration has convinced itself that the demonstrations were not about politics but rather a Tutsi conspiracy to seize power."

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