Michel Chikwanine, a university student in Canada who was once a child soldier in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has suffered things no ordinary Japanese child will ever have to.
But, he says, that does not mean Japan has no connection to the widespread problem of child labor, including child soldiers.
Chikwanine was in Japan last week for the June 12 World Day Against Child Labor, set up by the International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency that, among other pursuits, works to end child labor.
“No one should ever see a child be forced to do things that they shouldn’t be doing, other than going to school. To be given an opportunity to get an education is a universal right for any child,” Chikwanine said during an interview with The Japan Times at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo.
Chikwanine gave talks and took part in events at institutions and schools from Hokkaido to Kyushu during his 10-day stay.
According to the ILO, 215 million children around the world work and do not go to school. More than half of them are exposed to the worst forms of labor, such as work in hazardous environments, slavery or other forms of forced labor. Many are involved in drug-trafficking, prostitution or armed conflict.
Chikwanine said although a lot of Japanese express interest, there are only “a few people who understand the issue.”
He noted, for example, most people never ask where their T-shirts come from, though they might have been made by an exploited child in Southeast Asia.
“Just because you’re in Japan doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t worry about issues across the world, because you’re connected to it whether you want to be or not,” he said.
“Japan is part of the world. Japan has to understand the role that it plays in making the world a better place.”
Chikwanine, 24, came to Japan at the invitation of Free the Children Japan, a Japanese branch of Toronto-based Free the Children, a nonprofit that encourages young people to find solutions through education to pressing issues around the world, including poverty and child labor. The Canadian organization was founded in 1995 by 12-year-old Craig Kielburger, who recruited 11 school friends to begin fighting child labor. Today, the activities are initiated mainly by children themselves in 45 countries.
As a staff member of Free the Children in Toronto from 2007 to 2009, Chikwanine traveled all over the United States, Canada and even Ecuador to talk about his experiences.
Born in Beni in what was then Zaire in 1988, Chikwanine was kidnapped at age 5 and turned into a child soldier. He grew up in the midst of armed conflicts in the central African country.
Although the Second Congo War, which began in 1998 and involved nine African nations, ended with the signing of peace accords in 2003, fighting still continues in the eastern part of the country.
“About 300,000 child soldiers exist around the world. I’m not a unique example of a child soldier,” Chikwanine said.
Chikwanine said he was forced to shoot people — even his best friend, another child soldier — with an AK-47 rifle. However, he managed to run away from the camp and return to his hometown after two weeks.
Rebel soldiers searching for his father, a human rights activist, raped his mother and two older sisters before Chikwanine’s eyes. To escape the rebels, the family moved between several towns in Congo before finally settling as refugees in Uganda. But, in 2001, his father was fatally poisoned.
After his father’s death, his mother fled with him and his younger sister to Ottawa in 2004, with the help of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
“We chose Canada, because my father had told me the country is very respectful of people’s rights,” said Chikwanine.
When he saw no bullets flying at the airport in Ottawa, “for the first time in my life, I felt so peaceful,” he said.
After some initial adjustment problems, Chikwanine soon adapted to his new environment.
“I’m quite adaptable. My surname, Chikwanine, means ‘the one who fits in with everything,’ ” he said with a smile.
Chikwanine said he wants to make sure that no other child goes through what he did because he knows “how difficult it is to deal with the trauma.”
“Those images come back to you all the time. There are still nights I have a hard time sleeping, because you get nightmares of things that you remember every single day,” he said.
However, he is eager to move on.
“I’ve grown to accept that that’s just part of my life and I can’t change that. What I can change is making sure that no other child goes through that experience,” he said.
Eager to carry on his father’s legacy, Chikwanine is currently a junior at the University of Toronto majoring in African studies. His dream is to become a professor and open a soccer academy for former child soldiers in Congo one day.
“I would love to go back to Congo when the war ends. I miss Congo a lot. Congo is my home,” he said.
Visit www.ftcj.com for more information on Free the Children Japan.