Former child soldier turns his story into a graphic novel

Children’s rights activist Michel Chikwanine was kidnapped as a five-year-old and used as a child soldier in Democratic Republic of Congo. Now he has turned his story into a graphic novel. It is aimed at children from 10 years old and up. He wants to educate that age group about the issue.

Image description At the age of five, Michel Chikwanine was kidnapped and forced to become a child soldier. He has turned his story into a graphic novel. (Image: Screengrab via YouTube)

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Priya Pitamber

When Michel Chikwanine was just five years old his life changed irrevocably during a soccer game near his school in Democratic Republic of Congo. Rebel militiamen kidnapped him and the other children and forced them to become child soldiers.

In a drug-infused daze, he was blindfolded and told to shoot. His victim was his best friend. “I was forced literally to kill my best friend as an initiation process into the army,” Chikwanine told US news website The World Post. “That’s something I will never forget, and I still fight with every single day.”

He was one of the lucky ones who managed to escape after a few weeks and find his family again. They eventually fled to Uganda, and in 2004 made it to Canada as refugees. His father, a human rights activist, was killed in the conflict at home.

But his experiences have led him to raise awareness about the issue of child soldiers, and he has become a children’s rights activist.

Chikwanine wrote a graphic novel, Child Soldiers: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War, with co-author Jessica Dee Humphreys and illustrator Claudia Davila. It’s aimed at children aged 10 to 14.

“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 said.

More than just a graphic novel

Chikwanine said illustrator Davila did a great job of depicting the story “in a very real way but also not making it too violent for young people”.

Image description Michel Chikwanine commended the illustrations by Claudia Davila in his book, Child Soldiers: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War. (Image: Screengrab via YouTube)

There was an educational resource at the end of the book to help young people figure out how they could get back to their communities, should they find themselves being used as child soldiers, Chikwanine said. “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.”

Another educational aspect of the book is that it 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 the poverty. It leads people to conclude the very stereotypical idea of what Africa is, and that’s not what it is.”

Worldwide problem

Using 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”.

Image description Children are used as soldiers across the world, according to the United Nations. (Image: Human Rights)

“Young people have to understand the complexities of what’s happening in the world,” Chikwanine told Toronto’s CBC Radio. “We can’t hide it from them — because whether we like it or not, it’s happening to five-year-olds in the Congo, in South America, in the Middle East and there are gangs here [in Canada] as well.”