Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation evokes memories of 'despair martyrs' in Tunisia, Congo and elsewhere

Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation evokes memories of 'despair martyrs' in Tunisia, Congo and elsewhere
Aaron Bushnell's act mirrors the despair and defiance shown by previous protests, from Tunisia's Bouazizi to Afghan women fighting against domestic violence.
4 min read
28 February, 2024
On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor, set himself on fire after police forces confiscated his cart. [Getty]

Aaron Bushnell, a US airforce airman, died on Sunday just hours after lighting himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington to protest his country's complicity in the Israeli genocide in Gaza. 

Bushnell's action immediately evoked a long history of self-immolation as an act of extreme political protest, particularly in the "Global South". 

On Sunday, 25 February, the 25-year-old American wore his military uniform as he appeared to livestream his self-immolation on Twitch. He yelled, "Free Palestine," until he collapsed in front of policemen, who were pointing guns at his burning body.

In this ultimate act of both resignation and self-sacrifice, Aaron mirrored, at once, the despair and defiance shown by previous figures, from Tunisia's Mohamed Bouazizi to Congo's Cedrick Nianza.

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Tunisia: Mohamed Bouazizi

Bushnell's death reminded several people across the region of Mohamed Bouazizi, the vendor whose suicide fourteen years ago inspired millions to oust their long-lasting dictators.

On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor, immolated himself in protest of the confiscation of his cart and the humiliation inflicted upon him by police forces.

Unlike Bushnell, Bouazizi did not leave a letter to the world calling for action. As far as is known, he was not politically engaged. However, his despair in the face of injustice resonated with millions of Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians, and other populations in the region who took to the streets in what was dubbed 'the Arab Spring.'

After a glimpse of freedom, Tunisians now live under the growing autocratic rule of President Kais Saied while facing a severe economic crisis. Many of them hope that Bushnell's action could serve as a wake-up call to revive Bouazizi's long-delayed Tunisian dream of freedom and to advocate for the liberation of Palestine.

Democratic Republic of Congo: Cedrick Nianza

Shouting, "Congo na nga" (my Congo), a young man named Cedrick Nianza self-immolated himself in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) a year after Bouazizi's death.

Ninaza self-immolated himself in protests of corrupted elections and decades of injustice and impoverishment in the central African country.

Last November, another Congolese man committed a similar act to draw attention to the ongoing genocide in Congo.

Racked by conflict for more than 30 years, the DRC's insecurity is caused by complex and deep-seated factors, as well as a multitude of actors, including the M23 rebel group, Congolese and foreign forces who are battling for control. 

Nearly 7 million people have been displaced due to ongoing conflict and violence in the country, according to the International Organisation of Migration.

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From Morocco to Afghanistan: those we forgot their names

Self-immolation is an extreme protest tactic often adopted by artists, climate change activists, and ordinary citizens desperate to draw attention to injustices in their communities.

However, these acts often go unnoticed or become lost in the news cycle.

Last March, in Morocco, a little-known artist named Ahmad Jawad set himself on fire in front of the Ministry of Culture building in Rabat on World Theatre Day. His act was to protest the injustices and poverty small artists endure in the country.

However, little has changed since he died, as self-immolation became a normality in the North African kingdom. "Setting fire to oneself in Morocco achieves nothing," wrote Moroccan author Ali Anouzla following Jawad's death.

Recent self-immolation incidents in Morocco have become a distressingly common occurrence among marginalised groups. In 2016, a woman set herself on fire in protest against the confiscation of her bread sales, vital for her struggling family. In the same year, a teenage girl did the same after her rapists walked free without consequence. Countless other Moroccans, their stories untold, have resorted to this extreme act.

"These individuals are not suicidal, desperate or losers because the decision to burn oneself in protest is not an easy one to make. It is a courageous attempt to preserve one's dignity and pride in the face of feeling helpless and having no prospects," added Anouzla.

In Afghanistan, for decades, dozens of women suffering opt for self-immolation yearly as their last statement against domestic violence and to escape the abuse of their partners.

"It is a form of disclosure in itself. A woman will set herself alight and run out of her house, with the surrounding community as her witness. It is her scream, it is her desperation, and it is also her drawing a line that she is not going to endure violence anymore," wrote Ayesha Ahmad, senior lecturer at the University of London.