Bujumbura, Burundi - Fear. That's the word that dominates interviews with rights activists, journalists and anti-corruption campaigners in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura.
The hills - apparently 3,900 in all that demarcate neighbourhoods in this bite-size country in Africa's Great Lakes region - are quiet now. But up until a few weeks ago, they were alive with marauding members of the Imbonerakure - a youth wing allied to Burundi's ruling CNDD-FDD party that is accused of beating, extorting and killing civilians.
Benefiting from complete impunity, some armed and militarised elements within the most popular youth party - also known for its charity work - have become a weapon that the state can wield as it cracks down on critics ahead of elections in May.
"There's no shortage of fear around here," said Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa the country's leading rights activist.
|Villagers in the countryside fear attacks by government-linked militias [Hannah McNeish/Al Jazeera]
In May, Mbonimpa was thrown in jail for broadcasting widespread allegations that the government was distributing weapons to youths and training a faction in the badlands of nearby eastern Democratic
Republic of Congo (DRC).
More than a decade of bloody civil war in Burundi ended only in 2005. Unidentified bodies still wash up on Lake Tanganyika's shores, and families often beg Mbonimpa to find relatives that simply disappear.
"Sometimes we find they're detained, others in exile, and some never show up," Mbonimpa told Al Jazeera.
While critics talk of fear, officials are brimming with optimism about the "very good" security situation. They are keen to change the subject to plugging Burundi's "tasty" fish, "delicious" bananas, "amazing" coffee and "abundant" pineapples".
But not before quickly brushing off reports by international rights groups on widespread abuses, or lampooning naysayers and "traitors" making up a coalition of 18 opposition parties that have declared the electoral registration process a joke and threatened to boycott the vote.
|About 90 percent of Burundians farm for a living [Hannah McNeish/Al Jazeera]
"We need to be suspicious of these reports people," said Burundi's Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana. He called accusations of decreasing freedom of expression as "political speculation" from wily opponents, lying journalists, or unpatriotic civil society representatives that he claimed cite repression and harassment to gain
political asylum in Europe "as they think life is better there".
Nduwimana dismissed a leaked UN cable documenting a case of two military men distributing arms and uniforms to the Imbonerakure youth militia and former soldiers as the work of an unsteady employee.
The government has refused to allow the United Nations secretary-general's anti-genocide adviser to investigate further. Last week, the UN scaled down its operation in Burundi, in what ministers
claimed was a sign of Burundi's post-conflict progress following a 12-year civil war that ended in 2005.
"The UN got pushed out because it actually did its job," said a leading journalist who requested anonymity to protect himself from reprisals - rare praise in a region where peacekeepers are often accused of selling civilian protection down the river to save themselves from official backlashes.
|The government benefits from neighbours keen on maintaining a semi-stable status quo [Hannah McNeish/Al Jazeera]
Rights activists say leaders only quelled violence because of international donors who raised the alarm over rights reports in a country that relies heavily on foreign aid.
Gentle-mannered and close to retirement, Mbonimpa said it was only an international outcry and prison illness that freed him, and he's not allowed to leave the capital.
New rules banning people from jogging or meeting in unauthorised groups - even at the central market where people used to gossip on benches - show levels of state paranoia.
People are not keen to talk amid reports of Imbonerakure beating police and taking over local governments in some areas. The few people accused of violent crimes have also been released from custody within weeks to seek revenge on victims who denounced them.
|Burundi's government has been accused of carrying out authoritarian practices to control the country [Hannah McNeish/Al Jazeera]
Despite moving house after several beatings, a kidnapping, mock execution and the lingering fear that his attackers will find and execute him after two months of hiding, Ezekiel wanted to share his story.
A farmer like 90 percent of Burundians, Ezekiel wanted to boost his four children's futures by opening a small bar in his village, about 20km from Bujumbura. But hours after his first customers popped the tops off their drinks in celebration, 40 youths swinging spiked sticks and machetes burst in and smashed the place up.
"They promised to come back better armed. I didn't take them seriously," Ezekiel said as he displayed scars on his chest, back and arms that he said were caused by hours of beatings.
But at 9pm the youths plus men dressed in police and military uniforms came to Ezekiel's home, beat and took him to "a cemetery where no one goes that is far away from everything".
They accused Ezekiel of supporting an opposition party and drove him to a house in the middle of a banana plantation where thankfully, no one answered the door, as Ezekiel believed they meant to kill him there.
Instead, he fell to his knees to "beg for forgiveness and promise not to do any more business".
In a region where police states or rebellions cause enormous and expensive international headaches, Burundi benefits from neighbours and backers keen on maintaining a semi-stable status quo.
|Unidentified bodies still wash up on Lake Tanganyika's shores [Hannah McNeish/Al Jazeera]
"There's the reasoning that you should favour stability to avoid a return to chaos and violence that will make us invest more to lift the country out of strife," said one diplomat, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorised to talk to the media.
He added: "That means you're comforting a government in its authoritarian practices to control the country".
He warned if "manipulating" the ballot box doesn't work, the government will "play all its cards" to win this election by activating "this new tool; these youths that they've trained as killers".
Civil society worker Gordian Niyungeko also said he fears that "we could share Rwanda's sad history" 20 years later, but this time fuelled by political divides. The diplomat said he fears people would be targeted by ethnicity too.
Analysts said a major concern is Burundi's proclivity for communal violence that turned neighbour on neighbour during the war. Now, in one of the world's most densely populated countries, 80 percent of local court cases are over land. Stunting from malnutrition affects, almost 60 percent of the population and corruption keeps them poor.
With a pressure cooker of local tensions, disputes easily turn deadly and can spill across the hills.
"Everything here has been bought; land, votes and the people's conscience," said Gabriel Rufyiri, who heads Burundi's main anti-corruption organisation. His predecessor was killed in 2009, and the government refused the US FBI's help to investigate.
Rufyiri said one-third of Burundi's budget goes into individuals' pockets. The success of army generals accused of trafficking minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo or officials allowing friends to have tax benefits through kickbacks is visible on the prettiest hillsides.
Next year, Burundi's elite "are going to use everything they've got" to maintain their grip on the purse strings, Rufyiri said.
|Many fear violence will intensify in Burundi closer to May's election [Hannah McNeish/Al Jazeera]
Despite having a plethora of opposition parties, they are seen as weak and disorganised in a country where politics is viewed as a gravy train and public policy an afterthought. The irony of the current crackdown is that many say the CNDD-FDD would easily win next year's elections, despite rights groups crying foul over President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a third term, claiming it violates the constitution.
Football-mad Nkurunziza, whose impoverished populace can pay to see him play centre-forward in national games held at one of his three personal football pitches, seems more interested in giving people Friday afternoons off to do sport than seizing power.
But activists talk of "an invisible circle" of army generals who call such shots, despite two being let go recently to apparently placate foreign critics.
The diplomat said this cabal has organised and trained youths to take orders that Burundi's state security forces would refuse.
"The police can stop the opposition demonstrations, but you can't ask them to go and kill people," he said.
"If the state's in control of the army, why has it recruited, armed and secretly trained youths? It's to make them do what the other security organs can't."
Source: Al Jazeera