Michel Chikwanine recalls horrors of his youth, talks of ‘resilience’

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By: Michel Lightstone

The words are jarring: child, soldier, gunshots, death.

But for Michel Chikwanine, a young man originally from eastern Congo, the discordant terms were part of his life when he was growing up in Africa.

The former child soldier experienced horrors at the tender age of five, including being kidnapped and drugged and forced to kill a friend in an initiation ritual.

Now 26, Chikwanine has nightmares and says he shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the former refugee — Chikwanine and most of his family came to Canada in 2004 — is a survivor in the truest sense. With the help of many supporters, he’s made a life for himself in this country and is an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.

Chikwanine has gone from a forced child soldier to human rights advocate and sought-after public speaker. He addresses school and conference audiences, sharing his “African stories” of violent trauma and other things about the continent, and his message of hope for a better world.

“I talk about resilience,” Chikwanine said. “The fact that there were so many opportunities in my life where I would have given up. It would have been so easy.”

Another message Chikwanine likes to deliver is “using the resources around you” to improve your lot in life.

Chikwanine was in Halifax on Thursday for a speaking engagement at an international conference covering children, youth and security. Graduate students from universities in Canada and elsewhere researching the well-being of young people in war zones and other hot spots are in the city for the symposium.

In war-torn Congo, after school one day, Chikwanine was playing on a soccer field and was kidnapped by rebel soldiers in his town near the Ugandan border.

He said he was five years old, born into a family with two older sisters and a younger one, and was a child soldier for two weeks before escaping his captors.

“I was drugged, I was manipulated and I was forced to kill my best friend as a way of being initiated into an army,” he told The Chronicle Herald. The 12-year-old boy was shot to death.

After two weeks of “training,” Chikwanine managed to flee into a jungle for three days and three nights. He ended up in a town, and a local shopkeeper returned him to his home.

“It was a very difficult experience,” said Chikwanine. “It still haunts me to this day.”

The troubles didn’t end when he was reunited with his family, Chikwanine acknowledged. The family ended up in a refugee camp in Uganda for five years. His dad died there at age 52.

He said his father and mentor, Ramazani, was a lawyer and an outspoken human rights activist who was assassinated in 2001. Also, female family members were raped, The Globe and Mail reported in 2011.

Chikwanine said his family, which moved to Ottawa 10 years ago, still doesn’t know where one of his older sisters is.

“While living in Kampala, she disappeared,” he said.

In war zones, there’s a thin line between disaster and survival. Chikwanine, who became a Canadian citizen in 2007, is articulate and speaks with a measured tone when he says he’s lucky to be alive.

“It’s almost like a miracle that I’m even standing.”