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Barricades, Burning Tires, and Bad Blood: On the Streets During the Protests in Burundi

VICE News was on the ground in Burundi as police clashed with protesters angry over the incumbent president’s bid for a third term in office.
Photo by Jerome Delay/AP

Anti-president protests and violence on the streets of Burundi have continued for a sixth day as the country faces its biggest unrest since the end of a civil war nine years ago.

Violent clashes took place on Thursday in several districts of the capital city Bujumbura, with reports of live ammunition being used by police. Crowds of protesters marched through the streets chanting anti-president slogans and waving dead crows, to mock the ruling party's eagle symbol.

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Thousands have taken to the streets since April 26 — defying a government ban on protesting — following an announcement by the country's President Pierre Nkurunziza that he would run for a third term, forbidden under Burundi's constitution.

More than 25,000 people have now fled across Burundi's border fearing a resurgence of bloody ethnic conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of people between 1993 and 2005.

So far five people have died in the demonstrations, according to civil society groups, though police put the number at two. Dozens have been injured and there have been more than 250 arrests.

Related: Two Killed in Burundi as Thousands Protest President's Plan to Run for Third Term

On Tuesday morning the streets of Bujumbura were strewn with burning tires. A group of young people attempting to reach the center of town were pushed back by police using tear gas, and responded by hurling stones.

"We're opposed to the current president running for a third term because it's a violation of the Arusha peace deal," said one, referencing the agreement that ended Burundi's civil war.

"We're leaving the capital because of the protests that are escalating in some neighborhoods," said a 40-year-old man waiting at a bus stop with suitcases.

Earlier in the week the government shut down the country's leading independent radio station and arrested Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, a human rights activist who has been active in a campaign to stop Nkurunziza from running again. Authorities have also blocked access to social media, including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter.

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Related: Burundi Silences Radio Stations and Arrests Human Rights Activist as Political Crackdown Continues

A crowd tried to stop two suspected members of the Interahamwe, a Hutu paramilitary group that committed acts of genocide against Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda. Burundi's civil conflict also pitted Hutus and Tutsis against other, with Hutu rebels fighting the Tutsi-led army, but the army is now fully mixed. One alleged Interahamwe managed to flee but the other was handed over to the military.

Other demonstrators pointed out members of the ruling party's youth wing, the Imbonerakure, who they claimed were disguised as police. In other areas Wednesday, Imbonerakure members armed with clubs, grenades, and handguns clashed with protesters.

"You, hiding among the policemen, you're an Imbonerakure!" someone in the crowd screamed. "You're not a police officer, your name is Gervais, and you're working with the police to kill us!"

As darkness descended on Bujumbura, the protesters obeyed the wishes of the army and began to dismantle their barricades. One protester said the police "fire real bullets and are in cahoots with the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and [the Imbonerakure]." The army, however, is viewed as more sympathetic to their cause.

"The president can't run for a third term because it is unconstitutional and our future is at stake," one protester said as others continued to set tires alight and run through the streets chanting anti-government slogans.

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On Wednesday, police used violent tactics against the crowds. Many demonstrators were arrested and taken into police custody, while others persisted in trying to block off streets. By mid-afternoon, access to several neighborhoods was still blocked off. A police truck fitted with a water cannon was seen crashed into a fence.

"We're not against the current president of the Republic but against the violation of the law," said one protester in the mostly young crowd.

Protesters block off the streets of Nyakabiga with burning tires. Photo by Dieudonné Hakizimana

Burundi's former president Sylvestre Ntibantunganya praised the efforts of protesters, endorsing their calls for Nkurunziza to respect the Arusha peace deal and the constitution. Former intelligence chief Audifax Ndabitoreye, who has helped organize the protest movement, called for a UN intervention in Burundi to protect civilians.

One prosecutor in Burundi has announced an investigation to identify the leaders of the protests, which he described as "an insurgency."

A senate spokesman announced Wednesday that the country's constitutional court would determine the legality of the president's bid for a third term. The United Nations Security Council has called for calm and expressed concern about restrictions on freedom of speech.

The US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, Tom Malinowski, arrived in Burundi on Wednesday to try to help defuse the crisis.

On my way to #Burundi-Disappointed Pres Nkurunziza violating Arusha Accord.Not too late for leaders/ppl to stay on peaceful democratic path

— Tom Malinowski (@Malinowski) April 28, 2015

Attorney Isidore Rufyikiri, former chairman of the Bujumbura Bar Association, has urged the army to intervene and station its men in the neighborhoods and hills surrounding Bujumbura. Rufyikiri told VICE News he feared genocide in Burundi.

"There is a hate radio, the CNDD-FDD (Nkurunziza's party) is a one party-state, the powers that be have written off the constitution and other laws, and there is a militia," he said.