Michel Chikwanine has been through a lot, enduring and overcoming inconceivable pain, struggles and loss. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Chikwanine grew up amid the terror of the Great War of Africa in the ’90s.
Also known as the Second Congo War, it began in August 1998 immediately after the First Congo War and officially ended in July 2003. Despite the peace treaty signed in 2002, violence continued across the country. Hostilities have continued since the ongoing Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency, and the Kivu and Ituri conflicts.
Nine African countries and around 25 armed groups became involved in the war ultimately and by 2008, the war and its aftermath claimed 5.4 million deaths, primarily through disease and starvation, making the Second Congo War the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II. Another two million were said to be displaced from their homes or sought asylum in neighboring countries.
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Chikwanine would be abducted at age five and be trained as a child soldier to fight in the world’s deadliest war.
DRC was in turmoil in the early 90s and under the military government of Mobutu Sese Seko, the country’s army had been stretched thin, fighting battles on all fronts. To assume some sort of control, the army imposed a curfew. No one was allowed or to be seen on the streets after 7 pm.
Taking a cue from the military, Chikwanine’s father would also impose a curfew of his own on his household. No one should be out after 6 pm – a direct five-year-old Chikwanine ignored.
“… 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 6 PM,” 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.”
Chikwanine was abducted during his exploration of the opportunity to test the boundaries of his curfew with his best friend Kevin on a soccer field. The rebel soldiers surrounded the field, captured Chikwanine and his friend, dumped them in the back of a truck and drove away.
“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 are people with AK-47s yelling at all of us. Kids are crying. The smell of decay [is] all around you.”
Chikwanine and his friend were separated. The rebel soldiers divided all the children into two groups, giving each a number and told they were going to be initiated into the rebel army. Someone slashed Chikwanine’s wrist and smeared a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder into the wound as part of the initiation.
Head pounding and in a blindfold, the five-year-old was handed a gun with a hoarse instruction to shoot. “They start yelling at me to shoot,” he says in a chat with Story Untold. “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.”
The soldiers removed the blindfold when shooting stopped for Chikwanine to witness his handiwork. He had killed his best friend, Kevin who was lying in a pool of blood 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 rebel soldiers held Chikwanine captive for two weeks, drugged and took him through excruciating military training drills. He was told without number that he and the other child soldiers would be the liberators of 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 child soldiers. They try to break you down, and then rebuild you up in their own image.”
During a raid, Chikwanine escaped. They were deployed as the early battalion to give their abductors some shield. But as the crossfire went into motion, Chikwanine went straight to the ground. He waited patiently for a ceasefire to escape. For three days, he was on the run be it day or night through thick forests, 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, about 60 kilometers south of his hometown. The last thing he recalled before passing out was telling a shop owner who his parents are. When he woke up, he was in the hospital next to his mother and sisters.
Ramazi, Chikwanine’s father, a human rights activist was forced to flee the country for criticizing the government and its motives for war. Soldiers raided 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.
Feeling unsafe in Congo, Chikwanine and his family were smuggled out of the country to Uganda, where they reunited with his father in the north of the country. They were refugees for the first time in their lives.
“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.
In 2001, Chikwanine’s father was poisoned while trying to secure his family’s place on the refugee list. Ramazi left his son a message before passing: “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 were granted entry into Canada as refugees, arriving in Ottawa in the dead of winter.
Chikwanine’s experiences would lead him to raise awareness about the issue of child soldiers in the form of a novel. He wrote the graphic novel, Child Soldiers: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War with co-author Jessica Dee Humphreys and illustrator Claudia Davila.
“It chronicles my experience in escaping this deal and ending up in a refugee camp with my family and escaping a war that affected so many people in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo,” he says.
The book is targeted at children aged 10 to 14.
At the end of the book is an educational resource to help young people to know how they could get back to their communities, should they find themselves being used as child soldiers. “It’s one of the most important parts of the book because as much as my story is so important, taking action and ending the problem is just as important,” Chikwanine said.
The book also provides a wider view of the conditions that led to the conflict in his country.
“When we talk about Africa or any other part of the world, it’s always talked about in headlines,” he told The World Post. “Africa has a very stereotypical mention of being very violent and poor, but we forget to mention the context of the conflict and poverty. It leads people to conclude the very stereotypical idea of what Africa is, and that’s not what it is.”
Deploying children as soldiers in conflict is not isolated to Africa. According to Canada’s Toronto Public Library, “an estimated 250 000 children in Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, 40% of which include girls, have been kidnapped, stolen, forced and brainwashed to do the dirty deeds of violent captors in countries where political, economic, and humanitarian disputes have turned into lengthy and bloody wars”.
Chikwanine is also an accomplished motivational speaker, addressing audiences across North America. He has spoken to over 100,000 people and has shared the stage with such speakers as Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free The Children, Dr. Jane Goodall, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Mia Farrow, and former Prime Minister Paul Martin just to name a few. He was also a speaker on Oprah’s O Ambassadors Roots of Action speaking tour, largely reaching students at resource-poor schools.