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Stones Vs. Guns: A Night on Burundi's Streets with Elvis and His Protesters

As police and government militias continue to clash with protesters in Burundi, a citizen patrol forms every night to defend its neighborhood.
Photo by Stéphane Puccini/VICE News

The man says his name is Elvis, and that he is the "leader of the protesters." It is 8.30pm on Tuesday, and he's walking down University Avenue in Bwiza, a northern suburb of Burundi's capital, Bujumbura.

"Usually at this time of day, the street is alive," he says. Many of the stores and bars that line the street are closed, their owners fearing reprisals at the hands of the police or the ruling party's Imbonerakure militia, which has been terrorizing Burundians opposed to President Pierre Nkurunziza's third term. As Elvis and his patrol of about 20 people walk through the streets of Bwiza, it becomes clear that some of them have been drinking. The group appears restless.

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Zedi Feruzi, the leader of a small Burundian opposition party, was shot dead on May 23, stalling talks between the opposition and the government. The talks were reportedly due to resume this week. Meanwhile, East African heads of state met Sunday in Dar es Salaam, in neighboring Tanzania, where they voted to delay the coming elections by at least another month and a half, a decision apparently endorsed by Burundi's leaders.

Related: Assassination of Opposition Figure in Burundi Derails Talks Between Protesters and Government

News of the delay did not appease Burundi's opposition, however. Protestors have called for Nkurunziza to withdraw from the race, a condition not discussed during the Dar es Salaam summit. But they're not the only ones expressing concern. US State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that the US was strongly opposed to Nkurunziza's third term, and called for neighboring countries to voice their own opposition. The EU has voted to suspend its observer mission in the country, saying that "current conditions in Burundi do not allow for credible polls." And the Burundian Catholic church, which represents more than two-thirds of the population, has pulled out from observing the elections, announcing that it could not "support elections that are full of shortcomings."

Protesters from the Bwiza Patrol say they carry stones to erect barricades and defend themselves. (Photo by Stéphane Puccini/VICE News)

Many think the elections should be further delayed in light of the recent resignation of the vice president of Burundi's electoral commission, known as CENI, who reportedly fled the country over the weekend. The president of CENI has said that a new election calendar would be announced Friday.

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In Bwiza, Elvis and his men continue through the dark, passing several improvised barricades erected by the protesters to keep out non-locals. Elvis introduces the members of his watch, men between 15 and 25 who roam the streets of the neighborhood every night. Some of them carry rocks, they say, to defend themselves in case of attack.

"In the daytime, the police harass us and try and stop us from gathering," Elvis says. "But at night, we lay down the law."

The government has toughened up its crackdown on the opposition. Violent clashes broke out on Tuesday after the summit in Dar es Salaam closed and protesters registered their disappointment. According to reports, police opened fire on protesters, and additional forces were called to the capital as reinforcements. The violence of the mass demonstrations has prompted protesters to take to the streets in smaller groups.

At a street crossing, members of the patrol stand in the way of a taxi and order the driver to turn back.

"Often the taxis are transporting the Imbonerakure, who then try to infiltrate us — that's why we turn them away," Elvis tells VICE News. "If you want to continue living here, you have to agree with us…. If you don't, we'll chase you from the neighborhood, or else you change your mind and join us."

Burundian activists told Reuters that at least 30 people have died since the start of protests on April 26. An activist speaking to French dailyLe Monde said he had recorded 50 deaths. According to the same source, about 500 people had been injured in the unrest, many of them sustaining gunshot wounds. (Burundi's Red Cross has stopped communicating official figures.) More than 800 people have been arrested since the start of protests, and according to the UN, some 70,000 people have fled the country, seeking refuge in neighboring Rwanda or Tanzania. A cholera outbreak in a Tanzanian refugee camp has killed 30 people.

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Elvis' watchmen stop a taxi and force the driver to turn back. (Photo by Stéphane Puccini/VICE News)

Bwiza's night watchmen are walking in the direction of Jabe market when shots ring out a few feet away — police officers on duty have spotted the patrol and are firing in the air. The protesters quickly disperse; we hide out in a courtyard with some. Residents come out onto their doorsteps to watch the action.

"Stay here, the police have surrounded the courtyard," they tell us.

Related: Burundi's President Postpones Parliamentary Elections Amid Rising Tensions and Renewed Protests

Earlier that day, the police allegedly torched a house in the neighborhood of Citiboke, and residents fear a similar incident tonight. But the gunfire does not resume, and the police appear to withdraw. Ten minutes later, we return to the street and rejoin the patrol, which has resumed its rounds.

Follow Pierre Mareczko on Twitter: @MareczkoP

Additional reporting by Pierre Longeray