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Activist Stella Nyanzi Flees Uganda To Live In Exile In Kenya

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

She is known as Uganda's rudest woman. Stella Nyanzi is an activist who has fought an authoritarian government with vulgar poetry. Because of a broad crackdown against the political opposition in the country, Nyanzi is now in exile in Kenya. NPR's Eyder Peralta interviewed her at a safe house

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Stella Nyanzi says that in the last few weeks, she started feeling like the walls were closing in. Amid a contested election last month, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni sent his military to the streets, rounded up about a thousand protest leaders. And dozens of activists began disappearing. One day, her partner was arrested and tortured. And Stella Nyanzi, her sister and her three kids got on a bus and fled here to Kenya.

STELLA NYANZI: So I left because threat to life was real, right? I left because a dead fight - I cannot fight.

PERALTA: Nicholas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer in Uganda, says even in a country as authoritarian as Uganda, the repression has suddenly escalated.

NICHOLAS OPIYO: Yeah, abducting people. People are disappearing. Journalists are being beaten. Civil society organizations are being targeted.

PERALTA: President Museveni, who has been in power for 35 years, was declared the winner of the contested election. He was facing off with Bobi Wine, a hugely popular singer turned politician who had become the biggest threat to Museveni's power. Opiyo says the regime has taken a war stance to try to extinguish that threat.

OPIYO: So then, the young people who are supporting his opponent are not citizens exercising their rights, but they're people who are being prepared for insurrection.

PERALTA: In a national address, President Museveni did not acknowledge abuses, but said he ordered commandos to defeat, quote, "terrorists." Facing crushing violence, opposition activists have gone silent. Despite evidence of huge irregularities in the election, there have been no mass protests. Stella Nyanzi, who is one of the most vocal critics of the government, was forced to flee.

How do we not interpret this as a pretty serious defeat?

NYANZI: I have not been defeated. I left alive. (Laughter) How many Ugandans are in unmarked graves? How many Ugandans today are living afraid?

PERALTA: Nyanzi spent more than a year in prison for writing a poem on Facebook about the president's mother's vagina. Her poetry, vulgar as it is, has been credited with opening the floodgates of criticism toward the president.

NYANZI: My most dangerous weapon is language and words and the intelligence to string up words that provoke a response from a dictator who has pretended to be deaf.

PERALTA: Recently, Uganda blocked Facebook. Outside the country, she's free to keep writing. And Nyanzi says she's one of the lucky, privileged ones who could flee. It means, she says, she can be as dirty, as disrespectful as she wants to be.

NYANZI: This is freedom Eyder. This is freedom. This is not a defeat. A dead woman will do nothing to Yoweri Museveni. I'm alive. I'm alive. And, I think, because I'm alive, there's hope.

PERALTA: There is hope, she says, that one day she will go back to a free Uganda.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "DAWN PATROL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.