AllAfrica speaks to the Founder and Executive Director for African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET), Victor Ochen who was born in northern Uganda. Ochen spent 21 years as a refugee. He transformed his experiences into leading a anti-child soldiers' recruitment campaign amidst the war in northern Uganda. In 2015, Forbes Magazine named Ochen as one of the 10 most powerful men in Africa. Part two of the interview is here.
I am happy to be here today because it's a long journey from where was born to where I am today. I was born in the northern part of Uganda, in the district called Lira.
And as a child I was born in a community of conflict, I was born in war, I grew up in war, I learned so much from war -- a life in conflict that has probably made me develop a new culture, a new faith and a new hope in life.
My early childhood tells me how much war destroys. War does not destroy only the government or institutions like the United Nations, but I learnt as a child that war destroys the most important institution, that is the family.
I witnessed my family go through the destruction of conflict, but also I witnessed other families who were destroyed completely. So then as a child with all the challenges of survival, struggling to survive, I was 13 years old when I formed a peace club. The peace club came in at a time that was totally unexpected. It was the peak of abductions of children and recruiting them as child soldiers by the Lord's Resistance Army and other armed forces in the region, it was the most difficult thing to talk about a peace that didn't exist.
My choice to promote peace was seen as betrayal to my community because it was seen as an act of cowardice, refusing to be patriotic, to promote and protect the society. But I realised we can't pick up a gun to fight our brothers and sisters who are abducted and fighting on the other side. All we can do is make an effort and agree that no matter the outcome we choose to stand by doing what's right, that's what I chose to do. I decided to do what is right by accepting that I was not going to pick up a gun to fight.
As a child I made a commitment to my parents that I'll never learn how to shoot a gun. Today, I don't know how to shoot a gun because of that commitment I made as a child. Then, continuing with my life, I became somebody who was so involved in community peacebuilding, mobilizing young people like me. People who are struggling with day to day life, acceptance and security, what to eat, health and education.
And I thought ... how do we transform our trauma into an opportunity for leadership that will bring about seeds of peace. And we knew that even killing one warrior or one rebel leader would not bring an end to war because it's like cutting a tall tree which will fall down and the seeds will spread all over. So the question is if you want to stop the war, is killing the warlord the most important thing? No, uprooting the seeds of conflict, the seeds of violence is what we decided to do.
Let us practice that, let us do that and let us work on that. And that is what I have been doing through my organisation, the African Youth Initiative Network. We mobilise youth in the community, provide opportunity for leadership, sensitise the population and above all promote the spirit of unity, peace and reconciliation.
And I am happy that our small initiative that was started way back, in Northern Uganda, has today become a renowned initiative that is driving change on the continent. And we're being approached by young people from different parts of the continent who want to work with us.
PART TWO: Hear and read about how Victor Ochen and his organisation work with young people elsewhere in Africa, especially in South Sudan.
AllAfrica's reporting on peacebuilding is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.