Child Soldier: The Story of Michel Chikwanine
Michel Chikwanine has lived an extraordinary life and at age 27, he’s just getting started. Kidnapped from the soccer field outside his school in the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.), he and his childhood friends were “recruited” to be rebel soldiers. Chikwanine was cut, drugged, blindfolded and forced to do things unthinkable for a child, including shooting and killing his best friend, Kevin. He was just five years old. Two weeks into “training,” as the militia called it, he found the steely courage to escape. Running blindly into the jungle, he miraculously emerged three days later not far from his hometown of Beni and was reunited with his family who had presumed him dead.
Chikwanine is one of the lucky ones. 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. Though Chikwanine’s time as a child soldier lasted only two weeks, the experience altered his life and continues to impact him every day as he diligently battles the after-effects of his traumatized childhood.
Trauma, turned to depression, turned to anger, has now turned to inspiration. Chikwanine has channeled his experiences and emotions into a positive mission as a children’s rights activist, educating people all over the world on the use of child soldiers. His graphic novel, Child Soldiers: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War is written for children 10 and up; his story is told in a comic-book style featuring poignant illustrations. The subject matter is challenging to tackle, and more so when creating a book for children. But Child Solider was approached in an honest yet ever-mindful manner. Chikwanine’s objective is to enlighten readers and he invites us – young and old – to take a stand and help put an end to the use of children as weapons of war.
Chikwanine was at the Toronto Reference Library on Tuesday, October 6, to share his story in person.
“I am standing here happy and honoured and thankful that I have been given an opportunity to share my story, and to share a story that is connected to so many human beings around the world who are facing so many hardships right now. But on the other hand I am a little sad because every time I turn on the news, I still see children being abducted as child soldiers; I still see kids dying in oceans around the world. But I am honored because this is an opportunity to raise their voice.”
In a presentation to 300 Toronto high-school students, host YTV's Carlos Bustamante and illustrator Claudia Dávila took stage and participated in the conversation. Chikwanine opened up about his family, the state of limbo his life took when he fled D.R.C. to a refugee camp in Uganda, and the culture shock when he arrived in Canada. His take-away message is twofold:
- Have courage
- Pursue knowledge
Defining courage as overcoming fear, Chikwanine explained it as “overcoming the fear to stand up or stand out in our communities…and asking questions that need to be asked about what’s happening around the world. When I think of fear I think of how it stops us from achieving the things we need to achieve.” He expressed that in pursuing knowledge we empower ourselves to think forward, outside of the box and “challenge the status quo.”
Later the same evening, Chikwanine spoke again at the Reference Library, this time accompanied by his role model and Canadian hero Lieutenant General (ret) Roméo Dallaire and co-author Jessica Dee Humphreys.
Dallaire defines children who have been recruited into militia and gangs, not as soldiers but weapons. On finding solutions and working with governments, he states:
“It is seen as a socio-economic problem instead of being a security problem. And right now that security problem is even here [in Canada] because we are training, now, the police in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton about radicalization in [Canadian] gangs and their recruitment… Any organization that is willing to recruit children to do these evil deeds – and shooting is only one small part of it – is an organization that is willing to go to mass travesties, even genocide."
In 2007, Dallaire founded The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative. A non-profit organization, this initiative proactively seeks to eliminate the use of child soldiers globally through a security-sector approach. Chikwanine is also part of this organization.
Look for a video of Carlos Bustamante, Michel Chikwanine, Roméo Dallaire, Claudia Dávila and Jessica Dee Humphreys on the Toronto Public Library’s YouTube channel soon.