Michel Chikwanine didn’t set out to tell his story. Memories of being held captive as a child soldier, witnessing his native Congo go through two civil wars in the late 1990s, and fleeing with his family to become refugees in Uganda were painful ones to revisit, much less retell. Some stories, however, are too powerful to be held in. Sometimes, fate intervenes.
Long before becoming a United Nations Fellow for People of African Descent, before becoming an author, human rights speaker, and peace advocate, Chikwanine was a grade 10 student in Ottawa facing a moment many students dread: being called out by the teacher — all because of a desk and a chair.
“He points at me and says, ‘everyone who sits in that seat has an amazing story to tell,’” Chikwanine recalls. “I’m like, ‘what are you talking about?’”
The assignment was for each student to write about a pivotal moment in their life. In Chikwanine’s case, the real challenge would be in selecting just one.
Born and raised in Beni, a city of over 230,000 in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, he was just five years old when he was abducted after school and held captive by rebel soldiers. In the early 1990s, as Chikwanine tells it, the country was in a “moment of chaos.” Under a military dictatorship led by Mobutu Sese Seko, the country’s army had been stretched thin by war, fighting battles on all fronts. The military imposed a curfew: no-one was allowed on the streets after 7PM.
“When I was five years old, I was abducted. Just playing with my friends. Something that was so normal for us every single day.” – Michel Chikwanine
“As a kid, you know, I’m four, five years old, I’m growing up [in] this era of uncertainty. And when the military puts in this curfew, my dad turns around and he puts a curfew in my house. He tells us that we need to be home before 6PM,” says Chikwanine. “And so, the little five-year-old kid that I was, like any child, you don’t necessarily understand the bigger ramifications of things; you just see military all the time, so for me, it was an opportunity to test the boundaries of my curfew.”
At the time, Chikwanine would walk to school each morning and wait around for his older sisters to finish school before walking home together again. With no bus system to take kids to and from school, the walk would take two hours. One day, despite his father’s warnings, he decided to postpone his return home, opting to play soccer with his best friend, Kevin, instead. On that day, rebel soldiers surrounded the field, capturing Chikwanine and his friend and putting them in the back of a truck. They drive for hours.
“We arrive at this clearing after hours and hours of driving on a bumpy road, and we basically get told that we’re going to be trained and put into this military. I’m panicking at this time — a five-year-old kid, I don’t know where I am,” says Chikwanine. “There’s people with AK-47s yelling at all of us. Kids are crying. The smell of decay [is] all around you.”
“There’s (sic) people with AK-47s yelling at all of us. Kids are crying. The smell of decay [is] all around you.” – Michel Chikwanine
Chikwanine and his friend are separated, and the rebel soldiers begin to divide the children into two groups, giving each a number. They’re told they are going to be initiated into the rebel army. Someone slashes Michel’s wrist and smears a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder into the wound. As his head begins to pound, he’s blindfolded and handed a gun.
“They start yelling at me to shoot,” he says. “Yelling louder, and louder, and louder for me to shoot. At this time, I’m feeling so woozy — literally, like [I might] faint — and so I pull the trigger.”
When the firing ceases, the soldiers remove Chikwanine’s blindfold. His friend, Kevin, is lying on the ground.
“As I keep shaking him, he’s not moving,” he says. “The soldiers behind me are laughing, and they tell me, ‘You’ve killed your friend; now your family will never take you back. We are your only family.’”
“The soldiers behind me are laughing, and they tell me, ‘You’ve killed your friend; now your family will never take you back. We are your only family.’” – Michel Chikwanine
Chikwanine remained a captive of the rebel soldiers for two weeks. He was drugged and led through military training drills, told that he and the other children would be part of the army that would liberate the country.
“Every morning I’d wake up, and I was still in the same situation, so every day became this sense of hopelessness,” he says. “In many ways, this is the tactic with [creating] child soldiers. They try to break you down, and then rebuild you up in their own image.”
He finally escaped during a raid on a neighbouring village. The children were sent out in front of the other soldiers, intended as a shield meant to give the enemy pause before firing. As the crossfire began, Chikwanine ducked to the ground and lay still, waiting for the fight to pass him. He ran for three days and three nights through rainforest, surviving on bananas and mangoes.
“To this day, to be honest with you, I don’t know how I survived,” he says.
Chikwanine eventually arrived at a village he recognized from his mother’s and father’s business trips, Butembo, about 60 kilometres south of his hometown. The last thing he recalls before passing out is telling a shop owner who his parents are. When he woke up, he was in the hospital next to his mother and sisters. They were crying.
“I start to cry, and I say, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and I start to apologize,” says Chikwanine.
Still, the story continues. Chikwanine’s voice catches as the memories come back.
For three years, from 1996 to 1998, he was sent to live with his aunt and cousins in Goma. His father, human rights activist Ramazi Chikwanine, was forced to flee the country for criticizing the government and its motives for war. When Chikwanine returned to Beni, soldiers broke into his family’s home, looking for documents his father might have left behind. At 10 years old, he was forced to watch as soldiers raped his mother and sisters.
“They grabbed a machete, and they slashed my left cheek — I still have a scar to this day,” he says. “And as I’m bleeding, they look at my face, and they tell me that this will be a day that I’ll never forget, and that this was brought down by my father, and I should never forget that.”
“As I’m bleeding, they look at my face, and they tell me that this will be a day that I’ll never forget, and that this was brought down by my father, and I should never forget that.” – Michel Chikwanine
No longer safe in Congo, Chikwanine and his family are smuggled out of the country to Uganda, reuniting with his father in the north of the country. For the first time in their lives, they were refugees.
“The experience of being a refugee is one of the most heartbreaking experiences a human being can go through,” he says. “We left everything that we had ever known in the middle of the night. No choice of our own.”
The family slept together under a plastic tent, often surviving on little more than bread and water.
“We had no mattress; we had no bed. We slept on a mat that my mom had made out of grass,” Chikwanine recalls. “For our pillows, she had her flip flops, and she put her bikwembes on top of them. That’s how we slept. At night, there were no TVs — we’d tell stories. And the only way that you survive a refugee camp, really, is that you have to band together as a community.”
In time, Chikwanine’s father was able to contact a connection in Kampala where the family could stay, in order to be closer to the United Nations.
“We knew that if we had any chance of getting help or someone giving us an opportunity to survive, we had to get in touch with the UN. And the best chance was not in the refugee camp, but in Kampala,” says Michel. “My mom and dad would wake up every morning at 3AM and walk for hours in some of the most dangerous streets for anyone to try and get us a refugee number.”
“The experience of being a refugee is one of the most heartbreaking experiences a human being can go through. You’re dehumanized to the point that you do not even exist in the eyes of many.” – Michel Chikwanine
In 2001, tragedy struck again. One day, while looking to secure his family’s place on the refugee list, Chikwanine’s father was poisoned. To this day, his family believes it was because of his political activism. That day, he had returned home complaining of severe chest pain. Michel recalls returning home to see his father in tears. Before passing, he left his son with one final message:
“He grabs my hands and he says, ‘Never forget that we are Congolese. That we have a home. That we have a culture. That we have a people. But most important of all, always remember that great men and great women throughout history have never been described by their money nor their success, but rather by their heart and what they do for others.’”
In 2004, Chikwanine and his family are granted entry into Canada as refugees, arriving in Ottawa in the dead of winter. (It is a cruel irony that it took his father’s death to expedite the process.) He learns to get used to the cold. He joins a school and makes friends. Some kids tease him for being an immigrant. Life goes on. Some years later, he becomes a student at St. Patrick’s Catholic High School in southeastern Ottawa, and in grade 10, sits at a desk that opens everything back up again.
“I never really wanted to tell my story,” he says.
Chikwanine remembers a classmate’s response to the assignment. Tasked with describing a pivotal moment in her life, one student had written about wanting a pink Motorola Razr, but getting a black one from her parents instead. She saw it as a lesson for parents to listen to their children.
“It was in that moment [I realized], they don’t actually understand what it’s like to live through a war — a war that actually feeds the minerals that create the cell phones that people have,” says Chikwanine.
It was a moment that stuck with him. Later, after joining Free The Children and becoming an “O Ambassador,” Chikwanine decided it was time to tell his story as a means of driving change. His first speech was delivered to a packed arena at Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum.
“Retelling my story became a sort of way of letting go of these huge things that I felt were on my shoulders, and I just didn’t even know how to express them.” – Michel Chikwanine
“I was told, ‘You’re going to be speaking to 5,000 people for four minutes, so choose your words wisely,’” he laughs. “I was a nervous wreck.”
Since then, Chikwanine has made sharing his story his mission, writing Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls are Used in War and speaking to audiences around the world — sharing the stage with the likes of Dr. Jane Goodall, the Dalai Lama, and K’naan. In the last decade-plus, his speeches have reached over 800,000 people.
“Retelling my story became a sort of way of letting go of these huge things that I felt were on my shoulders, and I just didn’t even know how to express them,” he says.
More importantly for Chikwanine, it’s a chance to change minds — and one day, to ensure that no other child endures his fate.
“I want to end the issue of child soldiers,” he says. “The world isn’t just our little bubbles that we live in; the world is very open. And when we only see the world through the screens that we have, we lose out on our ability to see the humanity in others.”