Hardly a day goes by that we are not exposed to the horrors of war as news reports from around the world bring the carnage into our living rooms. But you can’t get the whole story from pictures – you can’t experience the smells of death, decay and cordite; you can’t feel the pain of the wounded; and, you can get no real sense of the horror and fear pervading the lives of those caught up in conflict. Only by being there can you truly understand the meaning of war.
Soldiers understand; they see war first hand, up close and personal. Michel Chikwanine was a soldier, so he knows. Nothing unusual in that you might think, until you learn that he was just five years old when he was “conscripted” into an army.
Growing up in Beni, a town in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo not far from the Uganda border, Michel was playing football after school with friends when they were grabbed by rebels. Hauled away into the jungle to train as soldiers, they were drugged and blindfolded. Young Michel was handed an AK-47 and told to shoot it. When the blindfold was removed he found that he had killed his best friend.
In a way, Michel was one of the lucky ones. Two weeks later, he managed to escape, surviving in the jungle for three days before finding a storekeeper who took him home. Sadly, however, tragedy was to return to Michel’s family.
When civil war broke out in 1998, Michel’s father criticised the actions of the soldiers of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo and was subsequently kidnapped, remaining in captivity for seven months before making his escape to Uganda. While he was away, soldiers broke into the family home and forced Michel to watch at gunpoint as his mother and two older sisters (aged 16 and 18) were raped in front of him. He was just 10.
Michel managed to locate his father and arranged for his mother, younger sister and himself to move to Uganda too, the older sisters having run away due to the shame of being raped. In 2001, his father died in a Ugandan refugee camp after being poisoned.
Three years later, Michel found refuge in Canada with his mother and younger sister. It was to be another seven years before one of his older sisters, the other having been killed, could join them in Canada with their children.
Michel was inspired to talk of his experiences and become a motivational speaker by Free the Children and worked as an O Ambassador with Oprah Winfrey’s roots of Action tour. His hope, he says, is that his story will help other people overcome their own struggles.
And, in all he does, he tries to aspire to the last words spoken by his father before he died: “Always know that great men and great women are not described by their money or their success but rather what they do for other people.”
Free The Children is an international charity and educational partner that believes in a world where all children are free to achieve their fullest potential as agents of change. Follow them on Twitter @freethechildren.