The Founder and Executive Director for African Youth Initiative Network, Victor Ochen, was born in northern Uganda, and spent 21 years as a refugee. He transformed his experiences into leading a anti-child soldiers' recruitment campaign during the war in northern Uganda. In 2015, Forbes Magazine named Ochen as one of the 10 most powerful men in Africa. In April, he attended Wilton Park's Next Generation African Peacebuilding: New Voices, New Networks and New Strategies where he told AllAfrica how engaging with the "rebels" is the path to peace.
My name is Victor Ochen, I am the director for the African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET). I am from Uganda, If I may, I can share with you, one experience among many international interventions that we have done across the continent and the region where a group of Militia youth groups in South Sudan approached me and told me that they identified with my story: "We are the Militia youth groups, we are in the bush. We are fighting, we want to meet with you because we want to tell you something".
It was the most difficult decision to make when I was invited by the Militia groups In the middle of the jungle, I decided to go. I went, I met with this group of young people, the leaders, armed as they were, expressed their concerns and asked me "we want to know how did you not fight even when you had the reason to fight because we are going through that dilemma, we had no choice but to fight but tell us how did you not fight even when you had all the reasons to fight".
I asked them "why me" and they said "we are asking you because you live like how we live now we identify with you". I remember telling them that choosing not to fight was the difficult choice to make because I had all the reasons to fight. Then I told them because you trusted me to talk to me I also trusted you to come here but nothing will be more tragic and feeling that I will lose you because you will remain in the battlefield fighting.
I know you are killing people in order to survive. People are looking for you to be killed, but how long can this go on? So I told them you have an opportunity to dialogue but also to walk away from the battlefield and join your brothers and sisters who are living in Uganda as refugees.
The move that was difficult but it yielded the results at the end of the day after engaging into several discussions, close to 2,000 Militia youth groups from South Sudan came out of the bush under our small move, the behind the scene dialogue. We are grateful because that move has saved so many people from being killed, many women from being raped and many communities from being destroyed.
We feel like until we engage the fighters, the young people, those that we regarded as violent extremists, if we don't listen to their stories we will never understand how to better address their concerns. But we open our space, open our doors, open our hearts and engage, even the so-called rebels. For us to have sustainable peace, we need to go beyond the enemy lines.