“Two days ago, it seemed like they were willing to sacrifice a lot, maybe their lives. It looked like some may be willing to die for this out there on the barricades,” says Erik Esbjornsson. “The question was, ‘Is this going to turn to a civil war?’ Now, I don’t think so.”
Esbjornsson is an Africa correspondent for Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter newspaper. He’s been in the Burundian capital of Bujumbura all week, watching protests against a president who was seeking an unconstitutional third term devolve into what most would consider a military coup. At least 20 people have died in the protests so far.
Before Thursday, it had “been a completely different situation,” Esbjornsson says. Protesters were rallying against President Pierre Nkurunziza, who was overriding part of a decade-old Constitution in an effort to remain Burundi’s leader. The government had been deploying law enforcement with the intent of breaking up larger groups of protestors all throughout the city, often with tear gas. That was the case until Thursday morning came.
“The morning was really hectic. Lots of gunfire and blasts. Around lunchtime, those were the heaviest explosions,” he says.
The difference? The army has moved in.
“For weeks, there've been clashes between anti-government protesters and the police loyal to the government. The army wasn’t taking sides in the protests. They left that to the police. But now, since parts of the army staged a coup, police are not part of the fighting so much,” he says.
Not many people have been able to document the fighting within the country, and that’s very much on purpose. Some phone lines have been cut. Radio stations are under a media blackout. Facebook is inaccessible without the use of a VPN, Esbjornsson says. The crackdown has drawn the ire of the U.N. It’s all in an apparent effort to prevent people from gathering together in one place.
“It was an organized shutdown of social media, so there’s no organization at all. The government is trying to prevent thousands and thousands of people from gathering in one spot. They don’t want 5,000 people to come to one symbolic place in the city center. They tried to kill this uprising before it became a symbolic thing,” he says.
It’s worked. “Now, nobody dares to go outside in groups,” he said.
Despite the blackout, Esbjornsson has found a way to document all of it on Instagram. His pictures of the chaos—lots of burning makeshift barricades, teenagers on tanks, an injured protester—are some of the only immediate documents of the strife on social media.
And he wants to make this clear: This is a “very complex, insecure situation” that isn’t possible to distill in one picture.
Burundi is still reeling from a 12-year civil war between the Hutus and Tutsis that ended in 2005 and left 300,000 people dead. It has left many in Western media to guess that this latest chaos might, as one CNN report put it, “plunge into ethnic violence.” It is, in fact, a party line for President Nkurunziza. But Esbjornsson says that’s not what he’s seen on the ground at all, at least not yet.
“This conflict right now is about a president that some people think is not respecting the Constitution. This is about democracy and respect for that constitution so far,” says Bjornsson. “Of course, when you have a deterioration of the state, it may turn to groups. But it's not part of this conflict at all yet. People are simply very upset that Nkurunziza is running for a third term.”
After Thursday’s violence, Esbjornsson says, “now it seems like the president will have the upper hand again.” But he says normalcy in Bujumbura doesn’t look near anytime soon.
“I want to stress: This is a lot more complicated than when you first look at it,” he says. “You've had a protest against a very specific decision. Now it's turning into something completely different.”