ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Democratic regimes have replaced military dictatorships across much of Africa, but that hasn't prevented some leaders from using force against their own people. In Burundi, many people speak of the youth wing of the ruling party as a group that is out to strong-arm the public. As NPR's Gregory Warner reports from Burundi, with just over a week to go before the presidential election, the youth wing seems to be everywhere and nowhere at all.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Wherever you go in Burundi today, you hear about their stealth attacks.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).
WARNER: On this street of burning tires in the capital, residents are protesting the shooting of a local activist by men in police uniforms. But no one here believes his killers were real police.
ISSA HAMISI: Many of our policemen are only Imbonerakure who wear policeman clothes.
WARNER: It's the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party, says Issa Hamisi. They're only dressed as policemen. He echoes dozens of Burundians I've met here in the capital and over the border in refugee camps who warn of the group's intimidating nighttime visits. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights reports consistent testimonies that the group is being supplied weapons and uniforms by the Burundian government to sabotage a fair election, while the government denies its militia at all.
DENIS KARERA: The Imbonerakare that I represent - we are against any violence.
WARNER: Denis Karera, a party loyalist, is the group's president.
KARERA: We are for peace and development.
WARNER: When I arrived for the interview with Karera, given all the stories I'd heard, I expected to meet a rough-hewn militia-type in camo fatigues. The man I met wore a rose-colored, checkered shirt, a seersucker jacket and acted like a Boy Scout troop leader. The Imbonerakure, he says - we're a volunteer youth league, building hospital and schools, planting trees to beautify Burundi.
KARERA: Yeah, Imbonerakure - we live together with the others. We live in peace.
WARNER: But Karera's mild description is not matched by some who are in the youth wing. Most of the ones I approached were terrified to talk on record to a journalist.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) Because we can be killed by someone in the street or by the intelligency services.
WARNER: This Imbonerakure member agreed to an interview in my hotel room if I didn't use his name or his voice. The voice you're hearing is the voice of an interpreter. He said he joined the wing at age 17 out of loyalty to his late father's party. That was in 2004, when their mission was help the current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, gain power. They succeeded, but now that same president is running for a third 5-year term, despite the constitutional two-term limit. And our Imbonerakure members become disillusioned. He agrees with the protests. He said it would be fatal for him to leave the party, but when intelligence agents order him to kill protesters, he finds excuses.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) They asked me one day why I'm not fighting. I told them, for me, I can't kill.
WARNER: How does the Imbonerakure work with the police?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) Not that question.
WARNER: Remember, this is the heart of the international critique that the Burundian government is said to be supplying the groups with weapons and uniforms.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) It's a...
WARNER: And then just as he starts to speak, a housekeeper comes into my hotel room without knocking to offer bottles of water. Our guy is nervous again. More negotiation ensues. Finally, he says OK, I'll tell you how it works. There's a place, a warehouse...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) At that place, they bring uniforms - police uniforms or soldier uniforms. And they tell you - choose.
WARNER: The Imbonerakure don the uniforms, slipping into the guise of security forces before arming themselves with machine guns and grenades.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) We used to kill the protesters.
WARNER: There's no official death toll that's reliable, but activists say that more than 70 demonstrators have been killed in the last two months. Still, the most striking thing about talking to this Imbonerakure member is how much swagger he has. He doesn't agree with the group, but it's a powerful feeling, as the son of a farmer, to make the law, to decide who lives and dies - more than the police, more even than the army.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) Even the president of the Republic - if he's there, he's there because we, Imbonerakure - we are there.
WARNER: The election is scheduled for July 15. If it goes ahead, he says, on that day, the Imbonerakure will be there, too. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Bujumbura.
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