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Defender of the month: James Rukampena

50 year-old James Rukampena is a Ugandan human rights defender who advocates for the rights of rural local communities in Kabarole District, Western Uganda, to access their natural resources.

Until 2015, Rukampena lived off farming the land surrounding Mwitampungu Lake, one of the many crater lakes in the hilly region of Western Uganda, used by local communities for fishing and drinking water.
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However, that year, privately owned Ferdsult Engineering Services Limited acquired exclusive access to twenty lakes in Kabarole District. This agreement with district authorities was executed without consultation from local communities whose livelihood depends on the adjacent lakes.

The news that a company whose portfolio includes electrical engineering and eco-tourism would be restocking fish in the lakes initially created hope among local villagers that the area would be developed in their favour  – but these expectations were short-lived. Locals were barred from fishing in the lakes, and their access was limited by private security forces. Rukampena recognised the situation as an infringement on the rights of the local communities and stood up to voice his concerns. “I became active when, to my surprise, Ferdsult did not do what it had promised and started simply chasing out people from the lakes. So I mobilised the local people and exposed the eviction of the communities from the lake,” he says.

With the support of the Twerwaneho Listeners Club (TLC), a local human rights organisation, Rukampena and other community representatives challenged the agreement in Court and mobilised locals to attend the court hearings and make their voices heard.
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Following these legal efforts, four other TLC members were arrested for “use of poison or explosive or electrical devices,” although these spurious charges were later dropped.

In June 2017, the company’s monopoly on the lakes was rescinded by a court order, but this was only a partial victory. As Ferdsult awaited decision on its appeal, it continued to operate in the area with the aid of a private security contractor, which often intimidated and harassed villagers. Fisherman have since regained access to the lakes, but the continued uncertainty means many fear what the future might bring.

On 12 September 2017, Rukampena was attacked by three security guards and shot in both legs at close range. As a result, his left leg was amputated, leaving him unable to continue the farming activities that provided the livelihood for his large family. Rukampena decided to initiate another legal battle against Ferdsult and its security contractor to seek compensation. The court process is still ongoing, and the company has allegedly attempted to conceal their culpability through continued intimidation of the local community. Rukampena nonetheless remains hopeful: “I have no fear because I am supported by organisations like TLC and DefendDefenders, and the case is moving forward. I think it will be a success.” For the moment, Ferdsult was forced to stop operations in the area.

Despite the lifelong mark left by the attack on his body and the uncertainty brought upon his family by his disability, Rukampena does not regret his activism. “What keeps me going and motivated to be an activist is that, thanks to the fact that I spoke out against the wrongs of Ferdsult, now things are normal. Even if I was injured, I know that if I had not spoken out, the company would still be here” he says.  “Activists who are in a similar situation as myself should persist and continue to fight for the rights of others, because, even when they will be gone, their children will enjoy the fruits they have left behind.
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See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pamela Angwench Judith

For most of her life, Pamela Angwech’s existence has always been a defiant and simultaneous act of survival and resistance. In 1976 when she was born, the anti-Amin movement was gathering pace, and her family was one of the earliest victims of the then dictatorship’s reprisals in Northern Uganda. Her father, a passionate educationist in Kitgum district was one of the most vocal critics of the dictatorship’s human rights excesses, which made him an obvious target of the state’s marauding vigilantes.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Joseph Oleshangay

As a human rights lawyer and advocate with the High Court of the United Republic of Tanzania, Joseph Moses Oleshangay spends most of his time crossing from one court to another, litigating human rights cases, some with life-altering implications for ordinary people. It is a monumental responsibility, one he never envisaged growing up.

As a young boy born into a Maasai household in northern Tanzania, his entire childhood revolved around cattle: “Our entire livelihood revolved around cattle. As a child, the main preoccupation was to tend to cows, and my formative years were spent grazing cattle around Endulen. It a simple lifestyle,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Julia Onyoti

The situation of South Sudan’s women and girls remains one of those enduring blights on the country’s conscience. The country retains the unenviable reputation of having the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, and at 51.5%, one of the highest cases of child marriages. It is even worse with gender-based violence(GBV): A 2019 study by UNICEF found that one in every two South Sudan women have experienced intimate partner violence, while a recent UN study, alarmed at the widespread nature of conflict-related sexual violence in the country, in which women are tread as “spoils of war” described it as “a hellish existence for women and girls.

Human Rights Defender of the month:SHIMA BHARE

Shima Bhare Abdalla has never known the luxury and comfort of a stable and safe existence inside her country’s borders. When she was 11, her village was attacked and razed to the ground, sending her family and entire neighborhood scattering into an internally displaced People’s Camp, at the start of the Darfur civil war.

That was in 2002. Shima and her family relocated into Kalma refugee camp in Southern Darfur, where, alongside over 100,000 other displaced persons, they had to forge out a living, under the watch and benevolence of the United Nations – African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur, known as UNAMID. It is here that Shima’s human rights consciousness came to life. She enthusiastically embraced whatever little education she could access under the auspices of the humanitarian agencies operating in the camp, to be able to tell the story of her people’s plight.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Martial Pa’nucci

Martial Pa’nucci is a child of what is fondly known as Africa’s second liberation. In 1990 when he was born, the Republic of Congo, like many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, was undergoing a transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet developments in ordinary people’s lives were not as optimistic. Pa’nucci was born in one of Brazzaville’s ghettos to a polygamous family of two mothers and 19 siblings, where survival was a daily exercise in courage. When he was two, his father died, followed in quick succession by many of his siblings. Pa’nucci did not start school until he was nine, and he had to do odd jobs – from barbering to plumbing to earn his stay there, lest he dropped out like many of his peers.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Veronica Almedom

Veronica Almedom is a poster child of successful immigration. A duo Eritrean and Swiss citizen, she was born in Italy, and grew up in Switzerland where she permanently resides. Her parents are some of the earliest victims of Eritrea’s cycles of violence. When Eritrea’s war of independence peaked in the early 1980s, they escaped the country as unaccompanied minors, wandering through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, before making the hazard journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. There, they crossed first to Italy, and finally, to Switzerland, where they settled first as refugees, and later, as permanent residents.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Omar Faruk Osman

Omar Faruk’s career, and the passion that drove it, were the product of his circumstances. He was born in 1976, in the first of strong man Mohamed Siad Barre’s two-decade rule over Somalia, which was characterized by gross rights abuses and barely existent civic space. He came of age in the 90s when those abuses and rights violations were peaking, as his country was engulfed by a ruinous civil war following the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Rita Kahsay

When the Ethiopian Federal Government representatives and those of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a peace agreement in Pretoria, in November last year, the two parties were hailed for ending arguably the deadliest conflict of the 21st century, in which over 600,000 people had died.
But long before the negotiators for peace got around to an agreement, there were many other unsung heroes, who, through individual and collective efforts helped sustain the world’s gaze on the dire situation in Tigray, despite the Ethiopian Government’s determined efforts to hush it up.

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