A quiet street in Burundi's capital can change in an instant. In recent months, antigovernment protesters in this tiny, east African country have developed a flash mob approach to demonstrations, rapidly convening and dispersing. An hour later, all that's left are shuttered kiosks, tossed bricks and the odor of burned tires in the air.
Activists are taking this approach because they say at least 70 people have been killed in protests in the past two months. Their attackers usually wear police uniforms, but few believe the killers are really police.
"Many of our policemen are only Imbonerakure, who wear policeman clothes," says Issa Hamisi, a man I met at one recent protest.
The Imbonerakure are the youth wing of President Pierre Nkurunziza's ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy — Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). The term can be translated as "those who see far" or "visionaries" and technically refers to any party member age 35 or younger.
But in this part of the world, youth wings of political parties are associated with violence. And Burundi's current violence has been triggered by Nkurunziza's April 25 announcement that he would run for a third term in elections now scheduled for July 15. The constitution imposes a two-term limit.
The opposition has demanded that the president withdraw and says it will boycott the election, which has already been postponed once. The African Union wants Burundi to postpone again — in large part because of tit-for-tat violence between Imbonerakure and armed protesters.
Last month, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, said that his office has received "consistent testimonies indicating that Imbonerakure members operate under instructions from the ruling party and with the support of the national police and intelligence services, who provide them with weapons, vehicles and sometimes uniforms."
Hussein warned that the group's violence "could tip an already extremely tense situation over the edge."
But the government denies that the Imbonerakure is a militia at all.
"We are for peace and development," Denis Karera, the Imbonerakure president, tells me. He insists that the group is "against any violence."
Far from the rough-hewn militia type in camouflage fatigues that I expected to meet, Karera sports a pastel checkered shirt and seersucker jacket. He casts the Imbonerakure as a Burundian version of the Boy and Girl Scouts: a volunteer youth league busy building hospitals and schools and planting trees to beautify their country.
But Karera's mild description is flatly contradicted by dozens of witnesses I've spoken to both inside and out of the country, including some Imbonerakure members themselves, who tell me they are well-paid to commit attacks.
An Insider's View
Most of these young men are too terrified to talk on the record to a journalist. But I finally meet one who agrees to an interview in my hotel room, as long as I don't use his name or voice. (In the radio story, you'll hear only the voice of our interpreter.)
He tells me that if he spoke publicly, he would be killed by a fellow militia member or by someone in Burundi's intelligence services.
The young man who sits nervously on the spare chair in my hotel room does not look like a killer. He has an easy laugh and a genial manner. Now 27, he says he joined the wing in 2004, at 17, out of loyalty to his late father's party.
Back then, the job was an electioneering assignment — not a killing one. Their mission was simply to help Nkurunziza gain the presidential seat.
But in the following election, in 2010, he says (and human rights groups agree), party operatives called upon the Imbonerakure to intimidate the opposition.
When Nkurunziza announced his decision to run for a third term this year, this same man who'd fought for his rise became disillusioned. He agrees with the antigovernment protests, he tells me in a whisper. He fears the violence between Imbonerakure and protesters will destroy Burundi's fragile peace since its two-decade civil war, which ended in 2005.
In this Catholic-majority country, he explains, "Even God cannot accept the third term of Pierre Nkurunziza." (Catholic bishops in Burundi oppose the president's third term.)
Links To The Intelligence Services
When his bosses — who he claims are government intelligence agents — order him to shoot and kill protesters now, he finds excuses not to.
"They asked me one day why I'm not fighting," he says. "I told them, for me, I can't kill."
That, he says, is "why I'm always afraid to be killed" now by them.
"How does the Imbonerakure work with the police?" I ask. The shootings of protesters have been officially attributed to police officers.
The man laughs.
"Not that question," my interpreter says. "He says it's a secret."
Again I assure him that I won't reveal his identity.
He sighs and starts to speak. At that moment, a housekeeper enters unexpectedly to offer bottles of water. It takes many minutes, and many more assurances, before he speaks again.
"There is a place," he says, finally. A warehouse. He tells me the location of the neighborhood in the capital but begs me to leave that out of my story.
"At that place, they bring uniforms," he says. "Police uniforms. And soldier uniforms. And they tell you — choose!"
The Imbonerakure — among them decommissioned rebels who fought in the last civil war — don the uniforms, slipping into the guise of security forces. Armed with machine guns and grenades, they go "to kill the protesters," he says.
When I ask where the ruling party would be without the Imbonerakure, he laughs proudly. Despite his fear and his stated desire to quit the group, he can't resist a kind of swagger.
It's a powerful feeling, as the son of a farmer, to feel like you make the law — to decide who lives and dies more than the police, more than the army.
"Even the president of the republic," he says. "He's there because we Imbonerakure, we are there."
On July 15, if Burundi's election goes ahead as scheduled, the Imbonerakure will be there, too — invisible, and everywhere.