There are an estimated 1,045,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in the Democratic Republic of Congo (GSI 2018). In 2016 several armed groups continued to abduct and forcibly recruit men, women and children as combatants and in support roles such as guards, cleaners, cooks and spies. In 2016, 184 cases of child soldiers were reported, with 1,662 children reported to have seperated or escaped from armed groups. Child soldiers who manage to escape remain vulnerable to re-recruitment as adeqaute rehabilitation services remain unavailable to children suffering trauma, stigmatisation and the continued threat of armed groups.
Michel Chikwanine was 5 years old when he was abducted by rebel soldiers while playing football with his friends. Driven for hours to an unknown location, when Michel and his friends finally stepped out of the trucks, they were drugged, blindfolded, given guns, and forced to shoot each other. For two weeks Michel was subjected to ‘training’ and then taken with other child soldiers to ‘take over’ a village. Michel was able to escape, running for 3 days and 3 nights through the jungle back to his home village. Michel now lives in Canada and is studying at university alongside working as a survivor advocate to eradicate the use of child soldiers.
Growing up in the Congo was such an amazing experience, and the reason why I wanted to tell you a little bit about Congo specifically, is because like many people who we see on the news today who are fleeing their countries, and they’re incredibly sad, and they’re running away, it’s not that they’re not proud of their countries, it’s not that they’re not proud of the communities they come from, they all are. As I was growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But unfortunately sometimes because of social, economic and political reasons, people just cannot stay in their homes.
So, today I’ll be telling you a little bit of my story, but I wanted to touch upon two things. Two things that have helped me overcome a lot of the challenges that I’ve faced in my life. And I think they’re so important if all of us in here are hoping, and maybe are passionate enough to make an impact in the world. And the two things are courage, the first thing is courage, and the second thing is a pursuit of knowledge. Now, I’ll talk a little bit later in the presentation about what that means to me But, I wanted to introduced you about where I’m from because I think it’s important to understand where my story started.
I grew up in the only eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo in a little town on the East called Beni. It’s the little red dot you see right there. And in Beni I grew up with my family and so I wanted to introduce you a little bit to my family. So, this is my father. My father’s name was Ramazani Chikwanine, he was a human rights activists and a lawyer. What you don’t see in this picture is my father’s height. My father was 250 pounds, and about 6’8”. My father was a giant’ So, for any of you who want to ask me where my height went, please do not ask me after the presentation [laugh]. But, my father was incredible at what he did. He loved human rights, he loved standing up for people. And, from a young age, he always taught me that it was so important to stand up for people. And he was always the coolest out of everyone that he worked with, he’s the one to my right with the glasses. This is my mother, her name is Chibalonza Enungu Byamungu. She was a stay at home mom, and most importantly she was also an entrepreneur. She used to, see these colourful African clothes, one of which she’s wearing right there. She would make them and sell them in the market in Beni. There again are some of the clothes that she used to make. This is my older sister, her name is Vicky, she now lives in Ottawa. My second sister, name is Vivianne and my youngest sister Marizia. And, growing up in my town of Beni, I loved being there with my family. But unfortunately, in the early 1990s, there was a little bit of conflict that was going on between the dictator who was in power and this group of people called Interahamwe, who were closely related to the Tutsis in Rwanda. So if you’ve ever heard of the Rwandan genocide, they were closely related to the people there. And they were fighting over the land rights, ‘cause before Europeans carved up Africa into different countries people used to access land freely, there was no need for papers of accessing into borders. And so growing up in my town of Bein, we used to see army trucks and soldiers coming through all the time. It wasn’t a weird thing to see a tank passing by your home early in the morning. But when grew up at that time my father had set a rule into my house that everyone had to be home before 6pm. But as a five year old kid, as a little bit of a trouble maker, and every time my parents told me to do one thing I always did the opposite of what they told me.
And so one morning as I was getting ready to go to school, I got out of my house, I was walking down the stairs and my father pulled me aside and he was extremely adamant that I had to be home before 6pm that day. Of course I looked at my dad and said, ‘I promise I’ll be back home before 6.00’. So I went to school and half way to school I met my best friend Kevin, who was 12, when I was 5. No the reason why Kevin was older than me was, ‘cause as a five year old child I used to get in fights with all the kids who were bigger than me, so I made friends with Kevin so he’d fight for me. And I’d watch him fight, and that was the only reason why he was my friend [laugh]. No. but I went to school hat day and I was sitting in math class and my teacher was teaching one plus one equals two. I wasn’t good at math so I wasn’t paying attention to him, and at the end of the day, the bell rang and all the kids were running back home and I stay on my desk and I started weighting my options and I kept thinking to myself, ‘should I go home and be daddy’s little good boy, or go to the soccer field, play soccer and have fun instead?’ I ran into the soccer field and I went to play soccer with my friends, and as I arrived and I was kicking a ball, we saw a group of army trucks racing towards the field, and they surrounded the field and we all heard, the next minute were gunshots and people screaming. The next minute we heard all these soldiers screaming in front of us. They grabbed us and threw us into different trucks and started driving away. And for hours we drove on bumpy trucks until we finally stopped.
They told us to get out and when I took my first step out of the truck, I heard a crunch underneath my feet. So I looked on the ground and I saw a skeleton. And then hundreds and hundreds of skeletons scattered all across this field, and I was terrified of what I was watching, so I started to cry. The rebel soldiers gathered all the kids and they put us in different lines and they started counting. One, two, one, two. And everyone who was given the number one was told to line up on the left side, and numbers twos were lined up to the right side. I was given the number one, now standing right in from of my friend Kevin who was given number two. And as we stood there we’re panicked and are having tears and crying and this rebel commander kept walking through the lines and he kept saying, ‘we are going to intimate you into our army. So they grabbed my left arm, they grabbed a knife and they slashed my wrist. As I started to bleed they took a substance called brown-brown, which as a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder, and they rubbed this into the wound, so I’d go crazy. They put a bandage over it, they blindfolded me, told me to put my hands out, as I did they dropped an AK-47 in my hand, but it was so heavy I couldn’t lift it. I just dropped it. The same rebel soldier came behind me and he picked it up and he grabbed my finger and he put it on the trigger, and he kept yelling at me to shoot, so I pulled the trigger. My hand shook and I dropped the gun on the ground, and the rebel soldier took off the blindfold and, remember looking at my right hand, and my hand was shaking, and there’s blood dripping from it. And as a kid I used to be terrified of hearing gunshots and every time I heard gunshots I was always told that you had to duck down on the ground. So when I saw Kevin lying there I through that he was doing exactly what we were told when we were kids, except I saw him and he was bleeding and he was crying so I grabbed him and I thought he was gonna be okay if we took him to the hospital. But Kevin never spoke again. The rebel commander came behind me and he grabbed me and he said ‘You’ve killed your best friend, now your family will never take you back. We are your only family’.
And for two weeks, this is what the rebel soldiers called training. And after being trained to be a military, we were taken to a village that had food and gun supplies that we had to take over. We arrived at this village, the rebel commander gave the signal for all the kids to attack, but to be very honest with you, and to this day I have no idea what happened to me, but I had this overwhelming fear of my father punishing me for not being home before 6.00pm. I had no idea what day was, or what time of the day was, so I just ran into this field that I saw and ran as fast as I could. For three days and three nights I ran through a jungle having no idea where I was going. And somehow, miraculously, I ended up in a town called Butembo that wasn’t far aware from where my family lived. And I was put in a bus called Stout and I ended up in Beni, where I was reunited back with my family.
To be very honest with you, every time I tell that story, it never gets easier. But the reason why I tell that story is because my story is not unique. In fact, in the world today there are 250,000 child soldiers who are forced to fight in the many different wars that we hear all around the world. And unfortunately 40% of those soldiers are girls. But when I wrote this story, when I tell the story, it’s not because I wrote it or tell it because I want you to feel sorry for me or feel pity for me. This has never been about my story. This has been about those children and the human beings all across the world that are suffering every single day. And I see that all the time and because of that I think all of us in here have the ability and responsibility to care for our fellow human beings around the world.
So I was addicted to brown-brown, which is a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder when I escaped? I was very lucky that my experience was only for two weeks. So I wasn’t in this experience for a long time, so I wasn’t as addicted as most people are. In fact, I wasn’t necessarily at all. Thankfully, no.
So what is it like for a five year old to overcome from given such a powerful drug? It was difficult. I remember when it first happened, I was sweating and I was panicking, and so the soldiers kept telling me to calm down and they blind folded me as they were trying to stop me from just panicking. But I just kept crying and crying and I didn’t know what was happening. But thankfully, again like I said, it wasn’t for a long period of time but I still bear the scars on my hand from that experience. It’s something that you can never forget. It will always happen that I went through this, but I overcame it very quickly, thankfully.
So her question is on post-traumatic disorder and if you can overcome them. Again, thankfully this is very lucky that I wasn’t in this experience for way too long for me to suffer severe post-traumatic disorder. However, I still do have an experience of it as not only did I go through being a child soldier but I also went through war in 1998 in the Congo. So the sounds of loud bangs for example will set off a lot of different memories. It’s not something you can recover from. I still have times at night where I have difficulty sleeping. It’s part of my reality. But again, like I said, I’ve overcome it by putting purpose to my story. By doing something about what I went through. And so that’s my way of overcoming it, is that way.
It wasn’t a single event that caused me to change. In fact, for a long period of time, I had a really hard time dealing with my story. I was extremely depressed. But I think what really moved me ahead was my father’s influence in my life. My father had all these corny lines as you can tell, he always had something to say and I didn’t understand what he meant by all of them. But I think as I grew up, I started thinking about what he was telling me as a child and it was those thoughts that started moving me to think about my position in life and what I need to do. And then I kept seeing other people who went through experiences like mine and just felt sorry or pity for themselves, and then they just overcame into their shell. And it’s understandable but I didn’t want to be that way. My father wasn’t that way, and he was my role model for me. And so, when he told me to overcome my fears, when I asked him if he’s ever afraid of dying and he told me, ‘it’s not you dying, it’s the legacy that you leave for your community’. That was the single word to me that moved me ahead and I thought, ‘how can I use my story to help other people, to inspire other people?’ And so that was literally what helped me moved ahead with my story.
For me, I truly believe that you can do it in three ways. One, you have to be passionate about this issue and understanding it. So knowledge as I’ve said, the pursuit of knowledge is so important because so many times when we see people tell stories like mine or when we seem them on the news, they’re always told without context to it. So they never talk about the history that led up to people using children as weapons of war ‘cause it’s not just on the continent of Africa, it’s in South America, even here. We have gangs that recruit children as young as I, right? So if it happens all over the world but in order for us to change that, I think we have to do it through education. And what I mean by that is empowering communities all across the world who are affected by, I don’t want to call them gangs because they are, literally, they’re recruiting children and most of them is because they have no hope, and for me education gives a lot of communities hope, by empowering them to get themselves out of poverty. And so I think that’s one way that you can do it as a young person here is to be knowledgeable about how you can empower communities around the world rather than us going there to change it, how can we empower them to change it for themselves?
So, if I were to meet the people who had put me through the experience as a child soldier what would I say to them? […] If I could talk to my past self what would I say? If I met the people…if you asked me that question meeting them what would I say when I was 12, it would be a very different answer than it is now, because when I was 12, I was angry and upset and I would have lashed out, maybe even been violent towards them. But as I’ve grown up a little bit and reflected upon my story and the things that I’ve gone through, knowing that there are so many other people who go through what I’ve gone through, there’s no point in being violent because trying violence with violence is not going to create peace. It’s just going to create more violence. So I would forgive them. I would forgive them and I would ask them why they did what they did.
And if I was to go back to my past self, what would I tell myself? Honestly, nothing. Just be courageous because as much as hurtful of what I went through is, there’s nothing I would change about it because it’s made me who I am today.
So have I met other child soldiers here in North America and what are we doing together to try and further, I guess tell these stories and try to do something about them? I have met several actually. Ishmael Beah, who wrote a book A Long Way Gone, I’ve never met him personally but I met his adopted parents in New York. As well as Emmanuel Jal, who wrote a book called War Child, and he’s a musician as well. He’s a really good friend of mine who lives in Toronto. So we meet constantly, and always debate and talk about issues that are affecting Africa. And so on a day-to-day basis, we’re all traveling and doing so many things. And being a student, I’m mostly in school or I’m traveling speaking. So it’s hard to sort of meet all the time, but when we do, it’s always talking about how can we make the continent into a better place, how can we give young Africans a chance to continue with their own lives as well? So that’s the extent of our conversations, it’s more of an intellectual conversation now more than trying to do something. Although Emmanuel Jal has his own organisation that strives to empower teachers, especially in South Sudan. And I think what he’s doing is incredible because, as I said, education is a huge, huge part of the continent of Africa. And being, to empower teachers who carry the message of education to students across the continent is amazing. And so I commend him all the time on his organisation and the work he does. Yeah.
How did my family react when I came home? They were shocked. In the graphic novel there’s an illustration of me with my parents in the hospital. My dad did not wanna let go of me. He grabbed me and held me for a long time. We cried for days, literally, ‘cause they thought I was dead. They thought I was dead. I thought I would never see them again. So it was a huge shock but a relief that I got to see them again.
I arrived in Canada on January 21st, 2004. It was the coldest day I had ever felt in my entire life. It was minus 42 degrees Celsius. Minus 42. Think about that. I arrived in Ottawa and I had never heard of minus anything weather, so I thought in Canadian, English people add the little minus symbol to warn you that it’s really warm. Yeah, so [chuckle] I learned very differently. But what did I think of Canadians? I just through how, how peaceful Canada was ‘cause I remember getting off the plane and there was no gunshots or bullets or anything, and one of the amazing things I loved what Claudia did in the graphic novel is, one of the first images that you see is of me standing in the airport literally looking at snow falling from the sky and that’s really what I thought. I thought I was going to live in this freezer and one of my question was ‘why would anybody want to live in a freezer?’ but yet people were so happy and when we arrived people were so welcoming. And so it’s a cliché that people say about Canadian people that we’re too nice and it’s true. Canadians are too nice. And you only have to travel to the United States and back to kinda see that. But I think one of the things I’ve loved about now being a Canadian citizen is jut traveling all across Canada and seeing the incredible amounts of people, different people. Canada isn’t one thing, its many things and that’s what I’ve loved about just living here and Canadian people in general. Yeah.
Testimony given at the Toronto Reference Library on Tuesday, October 6th 2015, courtesy of Toronto Public Library