“Always know that great men and great women are not described by their money or their success but rather by what they do for other people.”
The story of a son, Michel Chikwanine, begins with these words from his father, which he utters like a mantra, his voice catching, on a snowy day in Toronto, far away from where he was when he heard them last.
It was 2001 when Ramazai Chikwanine uttered them. He was crying, something his son had never witnessed, and he was holding his hand. A moment later, he died. They were in a refugee camp in Uganda.
Ramazai Chikwanine, a human rights activist from Congo, was trying to secure passage for his family out of Africa through the United Nations Commission for Refugees when he was poisoned.
But if his father’s words have influenced how Mr. Chikwanine, now 23, leads his life in Canada – he is a peace advocate and speaker for Canadian youth activist group Me to We – they also were an integral part of how he was raised.
Several times during the interview, tears run down his face. He wipes them away, impatiently, with the backs of his hands. “I still have nightmares every night about the things I saw and the things that might happen to my family,” he continues. “Sometimes when I hear gunshots here in town, I get scared and think that war is coming here and I get flashbacks.”
The horror began at the age of 5, when Mr. Chikwanine was abducted by rebel soldiers in his hometown of Beni, in eastern Congo near the Ugandan border. His family was well off; his father, a university graduate in politics, had begun buying land as a young man.
“Be back at 6,” his father warned him as he headed off to school one morning. The country had been plunged into a multiethnic, multinational conflict, which continues to this day; the casualties are in the millions.
But Michel and his friends stayed to play soccer behind the school. A gang of rebel soldiers arrived and carted them off into the jungle to train as child soldiers.
“They told us, ‘This is your family now,’ ” Mr. Chikwanine recalls. To initiate the children, they cut their wrists and rubbed a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine into the wounds to disorient them. Then they blindfolded some of them.
“I was the youngest of them all, and they put an AK-47 in my hands and grabbed my finger and put it on the trigger. ‘Shoot, shoot!’ ” he cries, imitating their instruction. He did. When they lifted the blindfold, he could see his friend, Kevin, on the ground, covered in blood. He begged them to wake him up. “They had forced me to kill Kevin,” he says in an even, deadened tone. “You cannot go home now, because your family will never take you back after what you have done,” they told him.
But he couldn’t get his father’s voice out of his head. “If I don’t get home he’s going to punish me!” he remembers thinking. When the rebels took them to a local village two weeks later, to get food supplies, Mr. Chikwanine fled into the jungle, and for three days ate mangos and bananas, sleeping in the trees at night. Finally, when near a road, he recognized a store he had been to with his father. The storekeeper took him home.
But the terror was not over. In 1998, civil war broke out in Congo. In town meetings, where rebels from the Movement for the Liberation of Congo had come to justify the burning of schools and the killing of authority figures, his father stood up to criticize them. Later, he was kidnapped, disappearing for seven months before escaping and seeking refuge in Uganda.
One night during his absence, soldiers came to the family home. “I could hear shouting and gunshots,” Mr. Chikwanine says. Then age 10, he wanted to stand up to the soldiers. But they simply laughed and put a gun to his head and told him that if he closed his eyes, they would kill him. They forced him to witness the rape of his mother and his two older sisters, then 18 and 16.
“I got so confused,” Mr. Chikwanine says, shaking his head. “My family in Beni was always known for being helpful. My father would go into the market and if he saw a homeless person, without asking their name, he would bring the person home, give them food and shelter and some work on the farm. So it was confusing to me that here were my mother and sisters in pain, and no one was coming to our aid.”
Acting as the man of the house, he found out where his father was in Uganda, and arranged passage for himself, his mother and younger sister. His elder sisters had run away, he says, out of shame over the rapes. The UN has named Congo “the rape capital of the world” but the international community has done little to help the hundreds of thousands of victims, who are often rejected by their families.
In 2004, Mr. Chikwanine, his mother and younger sister arrived in Ottawa, where he attended high school and worked part-time jobs, sending money back to Africa. It wasn’t until four years ago, when he heard Marc Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children, speak about child soldiers in Sierra Leone that he found his calling.
“I had always found it difficult to understand why friends in high school were saying ‘I hate my life. I hate my classes.’ They had everything, and they don’t appreciate what they have here. … That sparked me to tell my story.”
He and his mother have worked for years to bring his sisters to Canada. But because they were over 18, they were not entitled to expedited approval as family members. Four years ago, one was killed. But now, after seven years, the other will be joining the family in Ottawa, bringing with her six children, hers and those of the sister they lost.
Mr. Chikwanine is currently enrolled in an academic bridging program at the University of Toronto, with the hope that he will enter a degree program later this year to study international development.
“I always wanted to be like him,” he says of his father, laughing at the fact that the only thing that doesn’t measure up is his height. He is 5 foot 4, while his father was over seven feet tall. “He was not a perfect man, but he strived to be the best he could be and to do the best he could for other people.”