In 1993, five-year-old Michel Chikwanine was playing soccer in the Congo when army trucks arrived at the field. Amidst gunshots and screaming, he and his friends were abducted. Militants slashed Michel’s wrist and rubbed brown-brown—a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder—into the wound. He was blindfolded, handed a semi-automatic and ordered to shoot or be killed.
When the blindfold was removed, Chikwanine saw he had shot his best friend Kevin. “You’ve killed somebody now, your family will never take you back,” they told him.
Two weeks later, during another ambush, Chikwanine escaped and was eventually reunited with his family.
In December 1998, he, his parents and only one of his three sisters escaped to a refugee camp in Uganda. For one year they lived in a plastic tent, in absolute poverty.
“You never saw anyone from the UN (United Nations),” he says. “I got so angry. When I asked, ‘What can I do to end some of this?’ people said, ‘That’s just the way it is.’ ”
On Feb. 19, 2001, Chikwanine’s father was poisoned while waiting outside the UN office for a refugee number. After years of struggle, Chikwanine, his mother, and his sister finally landed in Ottawa on Jan. 21, 2004.
“I will never forget that day … there were no bullets flying by, no people screaming,” he says.
But being a refugee isn’t free: Chikwanine owed $25,000 to the Canadian government, and worked three jobs while attending high school. Since then he has become a highly accomplished children’s rights activist and inspirational speaker. He’s shared the stage with the Dalai Lama, Jane Goodall and former Prime Minister Paul Martin, and he’s now pursuing a degree in African Studies at the University of Toronto.
“There are a lot of parts of that story that I still can’t say,” says Chikwanine, but he tells his story because “there are still 250,000 child soldiers in the world today.”
The first step towards change is education and awareness. Chikwanine’s talk opened the “Children, Youth, and Security: Intersections of Research and Practice” graduate symposium at Dal on Mar. 6.
David Morgan, the symposium’s co-chair, is a PhD student in political science involved with the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.
“We need to start looking beyond our everyday, fairly minor problems and start addressing these bigger global development issues,” says Morgan.
Dr. Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Child Soldiers Initiative, insists we are empowered to make change through our thoughts and conversations.
“Make people uncomfortable. We need to be uncomfortable,” she urges. “We need to hold our government accountable for what it does and doesn’t do.”
Chikwanine lives by the words his late father taught him: “Great men and great women are not described by their money and their success, but by what they do for other people.”