by Dai Kurokawa
“Hey Chinese!” An angry-looking young man shouts at me as I walk toward a group of anti-government protesters. I turn around, holding up my homemade press card with a Japanese flag printed on it, and tell them “Mimi sio Chinese, Japonais” in a combination of the only languages I could communicate with them half decently – Swahili and French. Someone would suddenly smile and say “Oh Japonais. OK OK.”
This small exchange of words with protesters had become my daily ritual from the day I entered Burundi – a small, impoverished central African nation – to cover the political unrest triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement to seek a third term in office, which has been called unconstitutional and a violation of the 2006 Arusha peace deal that ended the country’s 13-year civil war.
Foreign journalists aren’t always welcome by the local population. And in many of the African countries I cover, journalists who look like me – East Asian – often face angry and hostile crowds who view China as “new colonialists” of their continent. In Africa, if people are against the government, then they are almost certainly against China. Burundians were no different.
Agency photographers were covering anti-government protests every day for weeks so I knew the protesters were not hostile toward us. My daily routine was going through the “ritual” and taking pictures of running battles between rock-throwing protesters and police.
One day, as I covered the daily protests, I found myself caught in a small alley between a group of young men throwing rocks and policemen firing shots toward them. I stepped aside and tried to take pictures of a policeman. The next thing I knew, a rock, the size of a fist, hit me in my chest and I went down for a very brief moment. When I looked back up, I saw the sky was filled with stones thrown by protesters, coming in my direction. There was nowhere to take cover with, so I ducked down hoping that it would not last long. I turned my face the other way, took my camera out in hopes of capturing something.
Then came this young protester running toward me. He wrapped his arms around to cover me, protecting me from the rain of stones. He used his whole body to cover me for about 30 seconds until there were no more stones thrown. At least three stones hit my head, protected by a helmet. When it was over, the young man said something, tapped my shoulder and told me to start moving. I got up and saw that the alley was littered with hundreds of rocks thrown by protesters. He was already running back to his fellow protesters. I caught up with him and thanked him. “Merci beaucoup”.
I wanted to make sure that he was not hurt, and if I could do something for him in return. But he just smiled, gave me a thumbs-up and left quickly. As he mingled back with others, I realised that he wasn’t even wearing a pair of shoes, let alone a helmet or any kind of protective gear, naturally. I have been beaten, robbed, or threatened by people while covering sensitive events in Africa. But I’ve never had anyone risking himself to protect me from harm.
I was very touched.
Burundian youths have been protesting against Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term for more than a month. They were not randomly hurting people, they were not looting any shops, and they were kind to journalists. They knew exactly what they were taking to the streets every day. They had a clear sense of purpose. And they knew the presence of journalists was important for them.
Some have warned that the current crisis could develop into an ethnic conflict between a Hutu majority and Tutsi minority and descend the country back into a civil war. Burundi fought an ethnically fuelled civil war (1993-2005) in which some 300,000 people have been killed.
When asked about their ethnic divide, protesters always told me that it wasn’t about ethnicity. Everywhere I go, the protesters were a mix of Hutu and Tutsi youths. One protester, a Muslim man, told me “It’s everyone. Hutus and Tutsis. Christians and Muslims.
Despite the boycott by opposition parties, parliamentary elections were held on June 29th, 2015. Burundi is scheduled to hold presidential elections on July 15th, 2015.