Writing on the wall in Bujumbura
A Burundian protester chants near a burning barricade in the Mugasa neighbourhood of Bujumbura on May 6, 2015
(AFP Photo / Phil Moore)
BUJUMBURA, May 7, 2015 – Today was a tense morning. I found myself in the middle of clashes between protesters and police in Burundi where some people were injured by grenades and a protester was shot in the head right in front of me. Ugly scenes.
The writing had been on the wall that these elections in Burundi could be contentious, with such strong opposition to President Pierre Nkurunziza seeking a third term. I had been researching the situation in the country for a while, keeping an eye on current events and reading up on its history and politics, all in anticipation of covering the elections.
It was poor timing that I was in Congo on assignment at the moment when Nkurunziza's party made the (unsurprising) announcement that he would be their candidate for June's elections but I arrived as soon as I could, on May 1, at the tail end of a week of protests covered by AFP's Nairobi-based photographer, Simon Maina.
The tension here has been rising and falling in waves. The day after I arrived, civil society called a "truce" for the weekend, as I tried to grasp an understanding of events on the ground.
Gunshot to his back
The first day of the "truce" coincided with the funeral of Jean-Claude Niyonzima, who was killed on the first day of protests, on April 26. Family members said that armed men entered his house and shot him. I find it hard to fathom such a brutal response to the act of protesting; but two days later I was in a small health centre in Musaga neighbourhood – a focal point of the protests - where a young man I know only as Pascal was losing a lot of blood. He had taken what looked like a gunshot to his back after police charged protesters.
This small medical facility were used to treating typical ailments rather than major trauma. None of the staff there really knew what to do. I was in the small consultation room with several colleagues, and as soon as we realised that no-one had patched the wound, we - largely Jerome Delay from AP and Sonia Rolley from RFI - did what we could to stem the bleeding. But by the time an ambulance finally arrived, Pascal was unconscious and his prospects did not look promising. We later learned that he died.
That evening, the spokesman of the Ministry of Public Security spoke to us, a group of journalists, and claimed that the police had not been using live rounds.
Since we arrived in Bujumbura, there have been several instances of police firing on protesters with live ammunition, as well as grenades thrown around. Each side blames the other for using the grenades. The only thing that is certain is that they have caused casualties.
'Hear the penny drop'
I'm used to working in environments where security services are a lot more aggressive towards the press, and where mobs can quickly turn nasty. So far, this has largely been absent in the Burundian capital, although many of the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party who are opposed to the protesters, are reluctant to speak and have at times taken an aggressive stance against pictures.
As with covering any kind of civil unrest or conflict, one of the biggest precautions reporters can take is to try to "hear the penny drop"- understanding the dynamic, how to preempt events turning, and how to react when they do.
At times, things can be unpredictable. The protesting is largely limited to certain neighbourhoods, and I have been driving from one to the other, to monitor the situation. But yesterday afternoon I was back in my hotel room to quickly file some morning pictures when I heard the sound of gunfire. I grabbed my cameras, dashed out and police were clearing a barricade that had been hastily erected on the main road, some 150 metres from the hotel door. The next few days could see more of these cat-and-mouse battles.
I spend much of my time talking to, and interacting with police and protesters. To make pictures that accurately portray a situation, I believe you must understand the dynamic behind events. Police regularly ask me "how do you see the situation here?", and crossing the barricades, protesters ask the same thing.
Increasingly tired and frustrated people
From their side they are simply exasperated by the fact that Nkurunziza is - as they see it -breaking the constitution to run for this third term. (The Burundian constitutional court has ruled that he is not in breach, but protesters almost unanimously believe the court is in his pocket.)
There is tremendous frustration at the situation, exacerbated by the bouts of violence meted out to them by the police at times. Add to that the fact that the majority of the shops and markets in the city are closed, and so buying food is becoming more difficult; people are not working; and due to the insecurity, many are not sleeping the night to keep guard; and you are faced with increasingly tired and frustrated people.
The ruling CNDD-FDD party, which nominated Nkurunziza as its candidate, has as its emblem an eagle. The protesters have placards with a red-cross over the image of a bird to denigrate the party’s emblem, and I have seen a few other placards featuring bird imagery. This was the most gruesome, with protesters plucking out the feathers from what looked like a dead magpie or crow, and scattering them in the air. These guys were holding the dead bird at the front-line of a demonstration, waving it at the police opposite them.
When I first arrived, I didn't notice much in the way of adornment of the protesters themselves, but then as time went by, more and more young men had their faces covered in black soot from the barricades. Others began to wear masks, some simple balaclavas or scarves, others more elaborate, made from branches and leaves. It appears to me to be more of a question of style than of masking their identity. I can't help but wonder how much of the visual appearance of these protest movements - not just in Burundi, but worldwide - is influenced by how people see other protests on television, or in print. Theatrics plays an important role in activism, and capturing the world's attention.
In Cibitoke neighbourhood where tensions were running high early this week, the sight of a man wearing a giant leaf, with three holes punctured for his eyes and mouth, was just arresting. He was dancing around incessantly and I found it difficult to frame the shot how I wanted it, but his ingenuity had to be captured…
Faux-weapons against live rounds
I also spent quite a bit of time tailing the guy with the old-school gas mask as he danced around a protest overlooking a neighbourhood loyal to the President, trying to make the right shot. The mask coupled with the faux-dreads reminded me of the Predator movie.
Early Tuesday morning was relatively quiet following a big day of protests. I had gone out early to check what was happening, but met with weary souls lingering in the neighbourhoods marked by protests. I quite like these quiet moments, when you can catch more atmosphere of a place, particularly in soft early light. I was walking through the nearly deserted streets of Musaga when I saw this man sauntering towards me with a faux wooden rifle. I couldn't resist raising my camera, and as I did, the man noticed me and struck a pose.
Similarly, on Monday I saw a man marching in protest with a tripod slung over his shoulder by a piece of rope. One of the legs was more extended than the others, giving the impression of a gun.
The protesters seem to have adopted these faux-weapons to represent the futility of coming up against live rounds. Although personally, I would be wary of carrying anything that could - particularly from a distance – resemble an arm to a nervous security agent with an itchy finger.
Phil Moore is an independent photojournalist and AFP contributor based in Nairobi. Find more examples of his work here.