Detained in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 21-year-old Rebecca Kabugho is one of the youngest female prisoners of conscience in the world.
Defined as a person who has been imprisoned for holding political, religious or other conscientiously-led beliefs, a prisoner of conscience is not tolerated by the state / regime in which they reside. They are detained despite never having used, nor advocated, violence.
As the country's main cities were paralysed by a general strike, Rebecca was arrested in the Katindo district of Goma in North Kivu on 16 February along with five male activists. The 'ville morte' (operation: dead city) was called by a coalition of opposition parties and civil society groups, including her LUCHA (Lutte pour le changement, or Struggle for change) movement, which the government describes as an insurrectionist movement.
According to Jean Bwenge, a LUCHA member, the activists were arrested in their sleep and tortured. Their crime: to have prepared banners calling for the respect of the constitution and reminding the Congolese that, as the nation unpredictably won the football cup, so too could they win the battle of democracy and alternation of political parties in government. Despite an escalating government crackdown on dissenting voices, pro-democracy activists claim incumbent President Joseph Kabila, should step down when polls due in November and his second term ends.
After sentencing the group to two years in prison for inciting public disobedience, in a mock trial that made headlines, an appeals court reduced the six activists' prison sentence to six months, on 4 March. On 16 June, Rebecca, who dreams of a "New Congo where peace and justice; the security of citizens and their property is secured" will commemorate the four-month anniversary of a sad day in the history of the LUCHA. It will be exactly 121 days since the group was arrested.
Rebecca's activism is 'innate'
The most prominent activist in the DRC who has been detained, 26-year-old Fred Bauma, has resided in the capital Kinshasa on trumped-up charges since February 2015. Bauma met Rebecca when she joined the movement two years ago.
To IBTimes UK via his lawyer, he recalls how impressed he was when Rebecca attended her very first day of action in November 2014. Helping villagers victim of floods in Kalehe, South Kivu, the 21-year-old girl played a crucial role that day, even though she was new to the movement.
"I knew Gautier, who is a respected militant of the civil society of Goma. But when I met Rebecca, she was like a miniature Gautier. So young but already so committed," Bauma says. "It's rare to find find people, especially young women, with such commitment."
Before her arrest, the young woman was a student at the Université Libre des Pays des Grands-Lacs (ULPGL), where she was a third year student in Psychology, something Bauma says also differentiates Rebecca from other activists. "I found the highest qualities in her. Many activists have a background in politics or law, but because she studies psychology, it seems her commitment is more personal and not influenced by any political theories. It's something that is innate."
Bauma was in jail when he heard of Rebecca's arrest. "I was sad that she'd been arrested, but in my heart it made me smile because it meant that, within our movement, we had some young people you'd just joined but had stayed within the same engagement despite the repression, and whose engagement even deepened."
While Bauma says he has not spoken to Rebecca since she was hospitalised for three weeks (for bouts of malaria and typhoid fever) a few months ago, he said she still had the same warmth, the same courage. "She even joked that she had become the oldest of us both, because she'd already been sentenced while I was still waiting for mine. She joked her condemnation was like her baptism.
"She really has this potential that I believe is a lesson for all of us within LUCHA, and for all the youth who think they are too young to become involved, or for all the older activists, who think you need a lot of experience to understand DRC's evils and give lessons to the youngest instead of listening to and learn from them," Bauma says.
The activist says his message to Rebecca is that she inspires him as she inspires other activists in prison and many young people across the country. "I'd like to tell her her sacrifice is not in vain, but an important contribution to our fight for democracy. She needs to stay strong: we are on the good side of history and we'll soon get there."
'A girl who continues to inspire'
Juvin Kombi, a 27 year old LUCHA militant, was arrested on 28 November in Goma during a peaceful demonstration in honour of victims of the ongoing killings in the Beni area of North Kivu.
Having grown up with Gautier, the pair are very good friends, and it was natural that Juvin met Rebecca in 2014, when she joined the LUCHA. "I was one of the activists who sensitised her," Kombi told IBTimes UK from Goma.
While the young man was eventually released after serving "three months and 12 days" for inciting civil disobedience, Kombi pays regular visits to the young woman who he says continues to inspire in spite of her detention. "Every time I go and visit her, I am worried for her, because she's alone in a female pavilion. While the other male activists are all together, can discuss things and act like a small LUCHA branch, it's difficult for her to hold out," he says.
While Rebecca spends her days talking to the other women in her pavilion, her entourage believes she is staying strong, and trying not to be brought down by the mentalities of some of her do-detainees.
Kombi recalls how discouraged she was after her mother lost her older sister. "She was authorised to go to the mourning ceremonials but had to wear her prisoner uniform. Everyone could see her, she felt like a criminal and that really frustrated her.
"I know she doesn't tell me everything, but I know that being all alone is very difficult for her. However, you would expect someone in her situation to not be able to cope. And her courage is what inspires me so much about her," Kombi says.
The young man explains how he sometimes feels he didn't give enough when he was in prison, that he should have been more like her. "Her situation hurts me. It's not right that citizens are forced to serve such harsh prison sentences for having expressed themselves," Kombi adds.
Concerns about Rebecca's health and education
The worries are echoed by her older brother, who last visited Rebecca on Tuesday 31 May. Misonia describes her as keeping her spirits up and staying serene and calm. However, he says, her health has taken a serious blow, and Rebecca is now suffering from high blood pressure and has put on weight as she can not do much.
"At first, they blamed me, accused me of driving my little sister in the activist movement. But after a while, they realised she campaigns for a right cause," Misonia says. "To be jailed in Congo is not a situation you would wish for anyone, but when it is your little sister, who is so young, it is even worse. My conscience tells me I should be in her place, but she took the lead. I have mixed feeling: on the one hand, when I think about what it means for my country I am proud of her, but when I look at my parents, I have a sense of guilt."
Rebecca's main focus is finishing her third year of studies this year. Her parents, who insist she completes her education before continuing her campaigning, are now negotiating with the Goma prison director and hoping he will allow her to have a laptop to finish her thesis.
"That makes me happy: that my parents are not precluding her continuing her fight after she leaves prison," Misonia explains, adding the family is now proud of having an activist "fighting for a just cause, went through a fake trial and is completely innocent".
"My mother sees how important it is that my little sister just doesn't wake up to go to school like everyone else, but instead that her situation brings big changes to our country. My mother believes that we will speak of justice and rights when we'll look back at her situation", he says.
"Those who thought they could oppress her are actually giving her strength. I feel, by acting that way, they are creating real soldiers for change in DRC, and she is one of them. I am confident that, after prison, there will be another life for Rebecca."
Rebecca is expected to be released from prison in September.