- Victor Ochen was born in northern Uganda in the midst of civil conflict.
- He spent his childhood in internally displaced persons camps and his brother was abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army.
- Today, he works to promote peace and justice and support the victims of conflict.
Victor Ochen was born in northern Uganda, into conflict and a childhood of displacement and years spent in camps.
He's the Founder and Executive Director of African Youth Initiative Network and in 2015 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
He spoke to the World Economic Forum's Robin Pomeroy ahead of World Refugee Day. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Q. How did you become a refugee?
I was born and raised in Uganda. I grew up in a district called Lira in the northern part of the country, which is one of the areas that has been affected by decades and decades of violent conflict between the government and the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), as well as several other militia groups that have been operating in the region.
So growing up in a war zone, as a child, we were always forced out of our homes, always displaced. Spending our entire childhood in conflict means we lived a life of displacement from one part of the country to another part of the country. Every few days we would set up a home, build up a place in a settlement or a camp setting somewhere. But, then a few days after that, the rebels would come and burn it down, abduct people, kill people, wound people and loot and in so many ways destroy entire segments of society.
This is the kind of life I grew up in, the life I grew up witnessing. So that's how I ended up in the camp settlement as an internally displaced person. The whole thing came about as a result of several military operations in my region that led to displacement that went on for about 20 years in Northern Uganda.
Q. How old were you when it all started? Were you born into that kind of conflict?
We were actually born into the conflict, because I remember Uganda was going through the post-Idi Amin era. From the time of colonial power the country had not been through peaceful political transition. There have been so many military coups in the region, and the worst of the worst was the dictatorship of Idi Amin. People were struggling to get back their lives after years and years of dictatorship and brutal leadership, and that led to a community that had so much guerrilla fighting going on, so many military forces were operating alongside each other – all in search of power.
So I was born into war. I was born in the community affected by war and a society where nothing was happening except the struggle for power. And there were so many military rebellions going against the central government.
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Q. So you were an internally displaced person. That means you were displaced from your home, but within the borders of the country of Uganda, is that right?
Yes, it means I was not displaced out of my country, it means I was displaced within my country, being displaced from one community to another community. But also everywhere we ran, whenever we took refuge, we would set up a camp. So camp life actually means so much to me because it's the community I was born in, the community I was raised in. I developed my faith and my hope, also my courage in the environment of displacement in the camp settings. So to me, life in conflict, life in the camp is not something new. It's something that shaped my discipline, my life choices, my preferences of the life I wish I was living without having to worry about the future. It also opened doors, opened my mind to think better about the society in which I belong.
Q. So your experiences led you to set up the African Youth Inititive Network. Can you tell us what that organization does?
Well, after being born and raised in the war zone, in the conflict environment, we were left with very little as young people. We were struggling with our own security, struggling with our own acceptance, not so sure about how tomorrow would look. You're worried whether you'll wake up to see the next day. And, of course, as a child, the most annoying bit was to see a parent walk out to look for firewood, to fetch water, to look for food. Your biggest uncertainty was if they would ever come home alive. This is the fear, because the majority of the parents who went looking for life for their children, for food, for water, for firewood, would never make it back. They were abducted, they were killed – there was sexual abuse. So the fear of knowing that your parents had gone to look for food was the most traumatizing.
So as a child, I grew up witnessing all this. Then came the moment when you were wondering, how long will this go on? Above all, you see that your peers, people younger than you, as young as 12 or nine, were being abducted and recruited as child soldiers, were being forced to kill their own parents, to sexually abuse their families, to traumatize them so much they would never want to come back home again. We grew up completely clouded by violence and hopelessness.
When I was 13 years old, we formed a peace club. The peace club mobilized a group of fellow youth, fellow community members, who did not agree with the forces recruiting children as soldiers. So primarily it was to mobilize a group of like-minded young people like me, who did not want war, who did not want violence, who did not want guns, to say we are stepping forward, committed and determined to say no to child soldier recruitment.
And this was being done by men in uniform, a cross-section of the rebels, but also on the government side, where the young people are to become auxiliary forces to protect their own communities. So primarily, we were saying let us come together and say no to this. Because, as a single voice, it was difficult to do it. But then I said, let me mobilize my friends. It was the most dangerous venture, most dangerous move, to talk about peace in an environment where there is no peace, to talk against war in an environment clouded by conflict. I was called a coward, I was called all sorts – weak and undetermined, unpatriotic. But I knew in my heart that all I wanted was that every child be given an opportunity to stay peacefully with their parents, to go to school and live a better life. So that was the peace club – primarily formed to mobilize youth to say no to child soldier recruitment.
So that spirit started when I was 13 years old, growing up in the camp, struggling with my own survival. This spirit and determination for peace kept on going up until 2005, at the peak of the war, when I was grown up and I could have joined the fighting forces. But, I said, no, I will not do that. I will instead use my energy as a young person to mobilize and set up the African Youth Initiative Network, which is an organization formed in 2005 primarily to mobilize youth and communities in promoting peace and justice. And this has been an opportunity for us to make peace and justice a reality for communities affected by conflict.
We, through the African Youth Minister Network, engage in community dialogue, supporting the return and reintegration of former child soldiers and working towards conflict prevention and, most importantly, supporting the victims and survivors who have been tortured or suffered sexual abuse, who have been beaten or been wounded. To date, we've provided reconstructive medical rehabilitation to over 25,000 young people, women and children.
People are living with chronic wounds as a result of gunshots, torture and beating. And right now we are working hard, hand-in-hand, to provide psychosocial support to the families whose children were abducted. Thousands are still missing to date – they have never been seen again. But these families hope that one day they will see them again – the chances are minimal, but it is a reason for us to keep on engaging, to mobilize and to support them. This has been the continuous work we have been doing since then. So I can say I started work as a child. I worked my entire childhood to survive, to eat, to educate. To resist the temptation of striking back, of revenge. I haven't stopped working since then.
Q. You've experienced this first hand, haven't you? Your brother was recruited by the LRA – are you able to talk about that?
Yes, it was in 2003, during the peak of the war. I was young and energetic and looking for what I could do to become part of the change I was looking for in this society. And I remember, I had made a commitment when I was a child, at the age of 13, to my mum, that regardless of the circumstances, I would always choose to be peaceful, to never pick up a gun. I would never learn how to shoot a gun and I would always pursue a community that is peaceful and where guns fall out of favour.
But as we were going through the journey and our commitment to promoting peace and on the peak of war, the hardship of life came a lot closer to me, when my own brother – he was two years older than me – and my cousin and other close family members were abducted by the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army. That was perhaps the most trying moment in my life, because I wondered if my choice for peace was the right thing to do then, because how would I be so defeated? How could I be so helpful and unable to save my own brother. I was lost in the deep emotion and I waited hours for him to come back. Hours became days, days became weeks, weeks became months, months became years and it is now coming up to two decades since he was abducted and he hasn't come back home alive. I am worried and I pray, because I also fear that my father, who is over 80 years old right now, is losing hope, because he says that after waiting for close to 20 years for his abducted son to come back home, the chances that he will ever see him again are dwindling.
Sometimes, I find it difficult to imagine what it would mean. To be a parent who loses a child to the hands of the unknown – you don't know whether he's dead or alive, but you just know that he's in the land of the missing people. And I think this is a wound that remains open for my family, like many other families and communities in northern Uganda – over 30,000 people have never been accounted for. And, it's a wound that risks escalating preexisting mistrust or bringing about another era of conflict if not well handled. And that's why I do what I can to use my personal experience, but also to identify with the victims and the survivors like me, to say, let us transform our trauma, our pain our suffering our tears into water to build a new society of hope, of kindness, of peace so that people will be able to celebrate life, but also bring an end to the violence that has torn apart our society. So that's about my brother and that's about brothers of many other people, who are still missing.
Q. What you went through and the situation in Northern Uganda is obviously particular to that place and that time. But there are conflict areas and refugees and displaced people around the world. Do you think there are things – experiences – that you have in common with refugees and displaced people from across the globe?
To me, war destroys one key institution. Not the government, not the United Nations, not international organizations, not the politics – war destroys the family. Families are split apart, families lose members, families become so helpless, separated for life, they live in that endless sense of not knowing what will happen.
It's very difficult to see something good come out of a community where families are destroyed. To see something come out of a child that has known nothing other than violence. Worst of all, the risk of children growing up from being child victims to becoming adult perpetrators is so high in that environment of war.
The role families play in shaping society is huge, but once the families are destroyed, dismantled, disintegrated, it becomes so difficult for society to build and become peaceful. Many people's hopes get washed away when families are destroyed. Maybe I don't count, maybe I don't belong. I'm not good enough and marginalized and discriminated – I'm unwanted. That kind of feeling becomes stronger in every situation you lose your family. The sense of belonging disappears. The identity crisis becomes a big issue in your head and you don't know what to look up to, because your only hope, your only space for safety is gone – in this case, the family is gone. So, unfortunately, what I lived many years ago is still being lived today.
Two weeks ago, I was in the refugee camps in the West Nile region of Uganda. I met with South Sudanese refugees and Congolese refugees, talked with them, heard them cry aloud – their pain, their hopelessness. It felt good that I was at least coming back as one of them who has been through what they are going through, who understood their pain, to talk to them and engage with them. This gives them hope. An identity was built somehow between me and them, But they also raised that they feel that they have become a research ground. Their lives have become an opportunity for people to hand over money and grants. But, the question is, who really cares about our fate? Only when one of us comes forward and talks about our stories and tells our stories with hope, with dignity, with respect. Otherwise, we are not being listened to or being represented fully.
Families need a voice to rebuild a society, you need to reach a point of giving the voices to the families. The voice of a child, the voice of a crying mother, needs to be heard, but also needs to be told with a lot of dignity and respect. That is key to every child, every family member who has lost somebody.
Q. What would you like people, who've been lucky enough to grow up not having to flee their homes, to understand about being a refugee?
In every circumstance, there is an opportunity. What I realized is that life is a learning journey. And I must say that I have been so privileged to grow up in an environment of despair, but also to see the environment of prosperity. I've been lucky in life that I've seen the best life can give and the worst life can get to. I've been able to see extreme inhumanity and extreme humanity.
In a way, the challenge that comes out of the hardship of conflict is when you're struggling to manage the misfortunes, manage the hardship, manage the war, manage the effects of feeling not human. And that kind of feeling needs a very loving encounter. If you don't have a loving encounter, suffering that goes for too long stretches the nerves of your humanity. It's a very loving encounter in order to bring change into the community.
One area I've seen is when people transform their trauma, their pain, suffering into an opportunity for leadership – like I did. I said, I won't let this weigh me down and let me use it as a platform, a springboard to make this an opportunity for me to grow and become a new person in this society.
And then there is another part of humanity that is not struggling to manage its misfortunes. Those people are struggling to manage their opportunities. So there is a disconnect because these people have it all, but they are still very ungrateful.
From my side, from the side of people I work with, even though we may not have it all, we are grateful and glad for what we have. We have the gift of life, but also the gift to keep on doing more. So to my brothers and sisters in the communities where they are struggling to manage their fortunes, their opportunities – life can be tough, life can be difficult. But you need to appreciate what you have. You're crying for two new pairs of shoes, yet somebody is crying for their foot that was blown off by a landmine. It's a different equation altogether. But, the two need to come together. People who have lost it all, who are the neediest, coming and working together with people who have got it and who are willing to share.
Suffering in northern Uganda, suffering in Africa, is no different from suffering anywhere in the world. With COVID came a lot of understanding that we are all human, we are all powerless, we are all fragile. We shouldn't wait for suffering to knock on our doors before we act to care for those who are already suffering.
So it's a wake-up call that says, whatever we do right now, let us think about what would happen if we do nothing – not what will happen to my economy, what will happen to my money, if I give it away. Think about what will happen to them if you do nothing. This is what's important. I pray we navigate through this difficult moment of COVID and work towards building a society that is inclusive, that is human, that cares and that has each other's back.