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Human Rights Defender of the month: Leon Ntakiyiruta

As a child, Leon wanted to be a magistrate – whom he saw as agents of justice. Born in 1983 in Burundi’s Southern province, he came of age at a time of great social and political upheaval in the East African country. In 1993 when Leon was barely 10, Burundi was besieged by a civil war that would last for the next 12 years until 2005, characterized by indiscriminate violence and gross human rights abuses in which over 300,000 people are estimated to have died.   

“Growing up, there was a lot of injustice and suffering all around me, and I thought that if I studied and became a lawyer and magistrate, I would help hold the bad guys accountable,” he says.

Accordingly, Leon studied law for his undergraduate program at the University of Burundi, which he completed as his country was turning the page on the civil war, following the Arusha peace process.  But the immediate post-civil war years were not confidence-boosting for those interested in pursuing justice and accountability for rights abuses in the civil war period. The government of the day interfered in the independence of the judiciary to shield its own that were complicit in the preceding violence, and Leon, fresh from university grew disillusioned: 

“The judiciary did not strike me as the place to achieve justice anymore. It was in the firm control of the executive, and for me, as someone hungry for justice, I no longer saw my place in there,” he says.

So rather than join the judiciary, Leon instead ventured into civil society. He joined Forum pour la Conscience et le Développement (FOCODE), where he pioneered a justice and human rights cluster dedicated to  pursuing justice for victims of human rights abuses.

In 2014, when Burundi’s post-civil war President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to manipulate the country’s constitution to run for a third term in contravention of the Arusha Peace Accords, Leon was one of those civil society actors who actively and courageously opposed the move, going as far as undertaking a systematic investigation into the countrywide distribution of guns to the ruling party’s notorious youth militia Imbonerakure, which would later be used to commit gross rights abuses.

“We moved in communes and villages tracking networks of the militias receiving guns, with the intention of exposing them. Along the way however, someone tipped the militia off on our mission, and they started looking for us. Considering their notorious reputation, we knew that we had to leave the country,” he says.

In Jan 2016, Leon and his colleagues crossed into Uganda, where, with nowhere else to go, they settled into Nakivale refugee settlement in South-Western Uganda.  There, he remained actively engaged on Burundi matters, and was soon invited to work with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.  Constituted by resolution 33/24 of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2016, the Commission was charged with the responsibility of investigating human rights violations committed in the country since April 2015 and to identify perpetrators, for purposes of pursuing accountability against them and securing justice for victims. 

Leon worked closely with the Commission, interviewing tens of Burundian refugees in Uganda, and documenting their accounts of abuse. Although this work was meant to right the abuses back home, it left Leon an exposed and marked man. In August 2016, as Leon returned home in the evening, he was attacked by machete-wielding men, who cut him on his right hand and back, leaving him for dead. Although he was never able to establish who exactly was behind the attack, he says there are no prizes for guessing who was behind it:

“At the time, Nakivale refugee settlement was teeming with Burundian intelligence operatives who had been alerted to the work of the Commission. So, because I was responsible for identifying people to give testimonies to the Commission about the violations committed by (Burundian) government agents back home, I was a legitimate target for attack,” he says.

Following the attack, Leon was transferred to Mbarara referral hospital for treatment, with support from DefendDefenders. Following his recovery, DefendDefenders further supported Leon to undertake English language classes to be able to go about his human rights mobilization work more effectively, and to pursue another program in Project Management at the Uganda Management Institute, both of which he says equipped him to better document and report on human rights work.  

“DefendDefenders also trained me and others in digital security, advocacy, monitoring development and research, which improved my skillset. It is that kind of capacity building that enabled me to be promoted at my place of work. From a human rights monitor, I was promoted to position of project manager and later to the position of Program Manager at Association Burundaise pour la Protection des Droits Humains, where I had found work,” he says.

In January 2023, Leon and his family were relocated to Canada under the UNHCR program, where he currently leaves. He appeals to HRDs everywhere to not give up:

“The journey might be long but eventually, justice wins. On my part, I will always be grateful to organisations like DefendDefenders which supported that difficult part of my journey, including through difficult periods like COVID19. It is because of such compassionate gestures like DefendDefenders’ that we are able to survive to contribute towards improving the rights situation for many others,” he says.

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Apollo Mukasa

Apollo Mukasa’s journey into activism is deeply rooted in his commitment to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs). As the Executive Director of Uganda National Action on Physical Disability (UNAPD), Apollo is a driving force behind initiatives aimed at combating discrimination among PWDs. UNAPD was established in 1998 as a platform for voicing concerns of persons with physical disabilities to realise a barrier free environment where they can enjoy their rights to the fullest.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Leon Ntakiyiruta

As a child, Leon wanted to be a magistrate – whom he saw as agents of justice. Born in 1983 in Burundi’s Southern province, he came of age at a time of great social and political upheaval in the East African country. In 1993 when Leon was barely 10, Burundi was besieged by a civil war that would last for the next 12 years until 2005, characterized by indiscriminate violence and gross human rights abuses in which over 300,000 people are estimated to have died.In 2012, still struggling to find her footing in Kampala, Aida was introduced to DefendDefenders, where she was introduced to the organisation’s resource center, and assured, it (the center) would be at her disposal whenever she needed to use it.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Aida Musa

In August 2011, Aida crossed into Uganda, pregnant, and barely able to communicate in another language other than Arabic. The transition was a difficult one, she says: “It was my first-time outside Sudan, and yet I did not know any other language. The first months were very difficult.”
In 2012, still struggling to find her footing in Kampala, Aida was introduced to DefendDefenders, where she was introduced to the organisation’s resource center, and assured, it (the center) would be at her disposal whenever she needed to use it.

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.

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