From Uganda to Ukraine, this young leader and Nobel Prize-nominee is healing the wounds of war

For his work, Ochen has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and is a valued member of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders network.

For his work, Ochen has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and is a valued member of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders network. Image: African Youth Initiative Network

Chris Hamill-Stewart
Writer, Forum Agenda
Share:
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale

Listen to the article

  • Victor Ochen was born in Uganda during a time of war and spent his entire childhood in a refugee camp, at risk of violence, starvation and even at risk of being forced to fight.
  • But he chose peace — and has since dedicated his life to helping the victims of war, healing their physical and psychological wounds.
  • For his work, Ochen has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and is a valued member of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders network.

If everybody runs away (from war and poverty), change will not come. That’s why we chose to remain in the community at the grassroots level, and worked to care for people who suffered at the hands of those who did not care.

Victor Ochen, founder of the African Youth Initiative Network

Born into a refugee camp and raised in the fire of Uganda’s civil war, Victor Ochen is no stranger to injustice. But this Nobel Prize-nominee refused to let the hardships he faced become a burden to him, instead dedicating his life to helping the victims of violence — first in Uganda, and now in Ukraine.

Ochen, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, is the founder of the African Youth Initiative Network, a human rights organization that has provided reconstructive medical repair and psychological assistance to over 21,000 victims of rape, mutilation and other violence during war.

Speaking with the World Economic Forum’s Head of the Forum of Young Global Leaders, Wadia Ait Hamza, Ochen said: “It is true that I did spend my entire childhood, over 20 years, in a conflict zone in northern Uganda in a camp. Of course, like any conflict around the world, it was the most horrifying experience of injustice, atrocities, and with episodes of crimes and suffering.”

Now Ochen is all too familiar with the challenges facing children growing up in instability and conflict.

“A child born in war would always be faced with the debilitating crises of conflict, ranging from what to eat, where to sleep, worries of being abducted, but also struggling with your health and safety, with your education, with your food and all these kinds of things,” he said.

“This is the reality that I grew up in, and that the majority of people living in conflict zones around the world now live in.”

Discover

What is a YGL?

Overcoming injustice and choosing peace

His experience taught him discipline and to ultimately choose a path of peace, however hard.

“Living in this kind of reality, you're exposed to all forms of injustice in life … I've had a very difficult past. But also, most importantly, it's the environment that I learned my discipline, to choose to become peaceful, to choose to live a life that I never wanted to leave, because a life of suffering, struggling for survival every single day, was a life I was sick and tired of.”

From Uganada, across Africa and now in Ukraine, Ochen has dedicated his life and career to easing the suffering of the victims of war.

He said he actively chose peace, and then asked himself: can we make peace and justice a reality?

"Globally, like in my community, war had become something that was taking individual human life. And we thought, with so many people in general, with so many wounded and so many children abducted and conscripted to becoming child soldiers, we needed to heal the wounds — the physical and emotional wounds, historical wounds. And that’s why we embarked on mobilizing the victims and survivors of violations and torture, the survivors of brutality like rape, to provide a productive, surgical rehabilitation.”

To this day, over 21,000 people have received care from Ochen’s African Youth Initiative Network. The organization also provides psychological support, for those traumatized by the violence they have endured.

“Most of those who have been sexually abused have been getting medical and psychosocial rehabilitation.”

Young Global Leaders like Victor Ochen, learn discipline from experience, and choose the path of peace, however hard.
Young Global Leaders like Victor Ochen, learn discipline from experience, and choose the path of peace, however hard. Image: African Youth Initiative Network

Throughout, he has remained laser-focused not just on helping victims, but also preventing the resurgence of violence.

“As much as we are not responsible for what happened to them, we feel we are responsible if it happened to them again. And that's why we're saying let us promote peace so that we all don't (only) treat the wars, but also prevent the war.”

It is this work that earned Ochen’s organization a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. Ochen was the youngest ever African to be nominated for the prize.

“If everybody runs away (from war and poverty), change will not come. That’s why we chose to remain in the community at the grassroots level, and worked to care for people who suffered at the hands of those who did not care.”

The nomination, Ochen said, “cemented the fact that we can go through the worst in life and something good can still come out of us.”

Healing the wounds of war, from Uganda to Ukraine

We are brothers, as Africans. We are stepping forward to help our brothers and sisters who are caught up in conflict in Europe, especially in Ukraine.

Victor Ochen, founder of the African Youth Initiative Network

He has since taken his work further afield — most recently in responding to the humanitarian emergency created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“When the war in Ukraine started, and the world was struggling with response, mobilizing weapons, mobilizing all sorts of support to support the victims and survivors, we also were approached by a group of psychologists and psychiatrists about working there.”

This group, he was told, would be working with the survivors of sexual abuse and rape during the war, and children affected by war.

“They were very qualified people with PhDs and Master’s degrees, they had fantastic academic qualifications — but they lacked practical experience of working in a warzone.”

It was the African Youth Initiative Network’s deep experience of helping the survivors of sexual abuse, of helping children separated from their families and exposed to the horrors of war, that those coordinating support for Ukraine needed so desperately.

Ochen and his team became leaders in coordinating this response, providing other organizations in Ukraine — frontliners, psychologists, psychiatrists and caregivers — with the skills needed to support the victims of brutality in Ukraine.

In one case, he and his team dealt with a family divided between the Russian and Ukrainian sides of the conflict. The children, as with all conflicts, were caught in the middle.

“We had the case of a family, with sons of 11 and 14 years old, whose parents are both Russian and Ukrainian. The father is on the side of Russia, the mother is on the side of Ukraine — the parents took sides, and they’re fighting on each side in the war. These are the kinds of cases we’ve been working with, providing factual training for the Ukrainian frontliners, psychologists and psychiatrists working directly with the victims.”

Sometimes, he added, his team works directly with victims with the support and translation of the Ukrainian responders.

Have you read?

“We are coming in from Africa not because we know it all. But we are coming from Africa because we know it means to be bombed, we know it means to be displaced, we know what it means to lose your parents, to lose your children and what happens to children caught up in the mix of conflict.”

“Our painful experience in Africa is what is happening in the world today, so we are stepping forward as people with experience that can help heal the wounds somewhere in the world.”

He and his team are coordinating a pan-African effort to bring psychologists and other conflict responders to Ukraine, and he hopes one day he will bring those he has trained in Ukraine to Africa on another learning journey.

“The message is very clear: when it comes to global mental health crises, when it comes to global humanitarian situations, we cannot maintain that humanitarian support is merely Eurocentric or super power-oriented. It is all of us coming together. With all of our experiences all over the world, we can all contribute as well.”

“We are brothers, as Africans. We are stepping forward to help our brothers and sisters who are caught up in conflict in Europe, especially in Ukraine.”

Leadership and the Young Global Leaders network

For his lifetime of dedication to humanitarian efforts and the world-leading knowledge he holds in responding to conflicts and humanitarian crises, Ochen has also joined the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders (YGL) network.

“I know people always think you must be economically, intellectually, academically powerful to succeed in that space,” he said. Ochen explained that he wants to bring a new perspective on success to the YGL.

“I'm coming to bring in a new perspective of wealth, a new concept of humanity, and saying that I am not coming in as somebody who has economically succeeded, but I’m coming as somebody who has thrived in a space of amplifying human dignity, but also making sure that the community work is inclusive.”

“The YGL became a space for me, a space for many people, that could identify with not merely wealth, but with the community of humanity. That’s the spirit I got from the YGL community. It’s been transformative.”

Now, Ochen has travelled across Asia, Africa, North America and Europe on YGL programmes and initiatives, attending educational courses and sharing his own unique and powerful expertise with other young leaders.

For aspiring leaders, Ochen has profound advice. Leadership, he said, “is about restoring justice and sanity into the institution of leadership.”

And in this endeavour, he points to his own inspiration: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who “always brought a different nature, the feeling of leadership, into a space. A perfect person whose presence will always be felt. A leader with a powerful sense of invocation and humanity, he was never afraid to tell truth to power.”

Ochen added: “One thing I learned from him: he always told the truth, but with a lot of love and care.”

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum