Former child soldier tells gripping tale


Michel Chikwanine has always loved soccer.

When he was five years old, he and his 12-year-old friend Kevin went to play at the field. Kevin passed him the ball, and he shot it in the net. He started celebrating, but then he was stopped.

“I never saw them stop at a soccer field,” Chikwanine said. “As I turned around to scream, ‘Goal,’ I heard a gunshot.”

It was the rebel soldiers, and they forced all the children into their trucks.

“They grabbed my left arm, and they grabbed a knife and slashed my wrist,” Chikwanine said. Then they put a mixture of cocaine and gun powder into his open wounds so he would become crazy and follow their orders, which involved killing other children.

“I looked in front of me and I saw my best friend Kevin lying in a pool of his own blood,” he said, adding that he was holding an AK-47 in his hand.

Chikwanine was a child soldier for two weeks, to which he said he was “very, very lucky.” He managed to run away, but “many child soldiers spend their whole lives as soldiers,” he said.

According to a BBC News article, the Democratic Republic of Congo has an estimated 30,000 child soldiers. Chikwanine, now 23 years old, is from Beni in DR Congo, and he has seen extremes of both evil and kindness. Now, he talks about his experiences at locations across North America.

His most recent location is SDSU. At 8 p.m. Oct. 21, hundreds of students filed into the Performing Arts Center to hear Chikwanine tell his story.

Chance Nkundimana, a freshman political science major, sat two rows from the stage. Like Chikwanine, he is from DR Congo, and he has scarring memories as well. He witnessed the Gatumba Massacre, a mass killing of more than 150 people. Nkundimana said he and Chikwanine “connected.”

“He talked to my heart,” he said. “My tears were rolling down.”

Chikwanine gave a brief summary of his life story, which included the importance of his family.

“The thing that I love most about the town of Beni is this man,” Chikwanine said as he brought up a picture on the screen, “My father.”

Chikwanine’s father was a politician in Beni who was a human rights activist, which caught the attention of the rebel soldiers. “The rebel soldiers hated my father,” Chikwanine said.

He went on to describe an experience he had as a 10-year-old in 1998.

“I remember it was a Friday afternoon when I was doing homework,” he said. “I heard gunshots.”

At the time, his dad was away from home.

“I remember I told my dad that if he left at anytime I would stand up and be the man of the house,” he said.

So he left his bedroom to check on his mom and sisters downstairs.

“I was 10 years old and I was forced to watch my mom and sisters raped right in front of me,” he said, explaining that one of the soldiers threatened to shoot him if he closed his eyes.

It became too much to watch, though, and Chikwanine ran at one of the soldiers, who ended up slashing his face with a machete.

“I fell to the ground,” he said. “And with a bloody face I heard my mom screaming for help.”

It was these memories he shared that left each audience member shocked and horrored. But, people did not leave the PAC describing the presentation as negative.

“I’m very hopeful,” Chikwanine said. “It’s very easy to be cynical, and it’s very easy to be angry. Being angry and sad will never take me anywhere.”

The Non-Profit Leadership Alliance has been working to have Chikwanine speak at SDSU since last spring. Finally, months of planning became a reality.

This year, the NPLA only has three members: Brooke Reiner, Kelsey Kummer and John Albreit.

Inspired by Chikwanine’s message, Reiner and Kummer decided to hear how SDSU students want to see the world changed. In weeks prior to the presentation, NPLA had a booth in The Union where student could stop to answer the question, “What is your hope for a better society?” They wrote their answers on paper footprints, which were displayed in a path down Main Street.

Reiner and Kummer said they noticed many students reading the footprints, as well as putting thought into their own.

“They think about it for like two minutes before they write their footprint,” Kummer said. “That’s when I realized … it must be something that’s really important to them.”

“There’s a genocide going on,” Reiner said. “A hidden Holocaust. It’s happening, so we just want to get the word out.”

“College kids are such a good market because they want to get the word out,” Kummer said. “If we get those problems and those issues inside their head now, maybe that will impact something they do in the future.”

“That’s what Michel really brings out in his message,” Reiner said. “He’s like, ‘We are a generation that has the resources and technology to change.’”

“I know we can’t all just go to Africa, or we can’t all do this big foundation,” Reiner said. “But [we are] just opening South Dakota students’ minds that there’s a bigger world out there.”

“I would like for SDSU students to be more willing to do something about the things they see,” Kummer said.

“I just don’t get it,” Reiner said. “Like Michel says, we have so much technology – so many things – but it’s still happening.

Because of the group’s small size this semester, they asked the College of Education and Human Sciences for support, which was readily given. The University Programming Council funded the event, and the total budget was around $4,000.