The reason stories never grow old is because they are timeless. They live in the embrace of longevity. They linger on as life happens. They grow to become bigger and better. They are always with us and within us. They bring us to remember and celebrate the moments of our lives that we could have forgotten. That way, we are reminded that we are our stories. This is Victor Ochen’s story.
Growing up, Victor saw his parents; Mzee JB Ogweno and Ms Pophia Alum(RIP), stand up to the occasion of parenting. Of course he did not realise they were doing that. But what he realised was that he was always playing with his parents. As the eighth child of ten, all he clamoured for was the attention of his parents. He has come to appreciate his now that himself (he) is a proud father of three. “There comes a time when the child that once needed the parents’ attention is the one whose attention is being sought after.”
When you are born in a time of war, your childhood is interrupted. You are forced to mature up earlier and soon your innocence disappears down the drain. With war comes poverty. Where there is poverty there is hunger. However, a child of war quickly learns that they have to survive. Here survival is not about missing your favourite breakfast or lunch coming in an hour late, it is to learn to live without. It is learning to cope with nothing and understanding that you are helpless to the situation that you are facing. It is being ready to run for your dear life when the enemy is detected to be in the neighbourhood. In the running you are supposed to be vigilant, not to lose your family but also to make sure that you do not fall prey. As a child you learn the tactics of hiding, that in hiding you keep quiet and become dead still. That way you survive to live yet another day which is also not necessarily promised.
This is the kind of childhood that Victor grew up seeing. He saw his father, just like all the other fathers, become powerless at the hand of the powers that were. There were a number of rebel groups from the Lord’s Resistance Army, Alice Lakwena, the Karimojong rustlers and the government forces. The challenge was every force was always recruiting. They targeted the children in schools. After primary one, Victor had to pause his education. School had become a threat that was worth avoiding.
And as if remaining at home was not problem enough, soon he had to begin hiding when the tax man came around. At the time, every man above the age of 18 in Uganda had to pay graduated tax. As the rebel chased to recruit you, the tax man waited on the other side of the line to see whether you’re of age. But in a community where there was no work, where everyone was always on the run, money was the last thing to come by. As a young adolescent, his body quickly exhibited masculine features that easily gave him away as a qualified candidate to pay graduated tax. He remembers standing along with other boys to have his teeth counted. That was the only thing that saved him. He was only a tall adolescent boy.
There was a lot of growing worry and concern especially among young boys. They soon became tired of the norm of dying. Seeing their friends die of landmines, seeing the mutilations and the butchering of parents before their own children amidst a lot of hunger. Many could contain it no more.
The leaders of the different fighting camps were all after recruiting the young and the energetic and putting away anyone that opposed their agenda. Out of this frustration was the birth of anger. Anger drove many young people to abandon their lives to join the rebels. This left many families wounded. Life with the rebel camps was considered better. One had a gun and could use it to get what he wanted.
In that confusion, Victor made an uncommon decision. “I told my mother that I would never touch a gun.” This decision seemed light but he meant it. It became the gospel he preached among many of his peers. At that time, a window to continue with education had opened but the boys were not interested. Many looked at their lost time as the ultimate thing and the only way to make up for that time was to pick up the gun. To many the word hope was nothing but a hopeless word itself. There was nothing much to look up to. They had suffered a great loss at the hands of the various powers. No one was willing to listen to Victor’s wishes. Many branded him a weakling, a woman for refusing to do what his colleagues were doing – with ease.
“The moment you choose to become peaceful in the presence of injustice, they look at as being weak and unpatriotic.”
Soon the community realised that Victor was not about to change his mind. His family became a target and soon they had to move to another camp. A women’s group at his church under the umbrella of the Mothers’ Union bought into his idea of preaching peace and began popularising it as well. At school, Victor opened up a Peace Club through which he mobilised fellow students at school to choose peace.
“Am lucky that today I don’t know how to shoot a gun and I will never. I will never. Regardless of the situation.” Says Victor with a very grave voice.
The majority of the young people who went to fight did not come back. Those who did came back with heavy mutilations on their bodies. Some had lost their hands, others their legs and others had their ears or nose mutilated. When people saw this, the idea of choosing peace began sinking in. No one knew when this war was going to end. No one had an idea. Death had come closer. It manifested in form of reckless killings, hopelessness and powerlessness to fight even simple ailments. The conditions in the camps were very horrible. Women and children were dying of treatable diseases. Men ad since resigned on trying to change the situation. Most of their colleagues and been consumed by war. They turned their pain to alcohol.
All this happened as he negotiated his studies. He had joined Lira Town College where he was able to finish his A levels but unfortunately, he did not make it to the university of his choice. His mother had since passed on in 1996 and home was always calling.
He shelved his dreams of joining university and retreated to help the family back in Abia. In the pursuit to raise money for tuition, he wanted to sell a few cows they had. Because of the insurgency, they could not travel together. On the fateful day of 10th December 2003, his brother was to follow him to the market with a bicycle as he ran with the cows to the market. He was able to cross through the enemy line to the market but unfortunately his brother did not. He disappeared. To date, they have no trace of body, bone or rumour of the whereabouts of his brother. This broke his soul. He was crashed. He too lost hope this time round. He became a depressed young man.
His attempt to join Gulu University which was just opening up had just been blown up out of the window. He had survived death not once and yet all the time it was by a whisker. He thought he would go to school and someday salvage his family, and now his brother was abducted. This reality tortured him. The war had broken the spirit of men. They had been rendered powerless. They could do nothing. Many of them gave up. Not only did they give up on their families but also on their children. And there was a community of broken people, broken by war whose interest they could not tell. They were broken beyond hope or ambition.
The only way he dealt with his depression was to wander off. One time he stopped at an Internally Displaced People’s Camp where the WHO truck was distributing food. The child led families whose parents had died in the war, lined up with able bodied men and women along with the mutilated to fight for rations of maize flour and beans. What shocked him was that the authorities that were distributing food did not bother to help the vulnerable groups get food. Instead they heaped them together. When the truck was driven away, the vulnerable groups came and gathered the flour that had fallen down and mixed with the dirt as the portions they were carrying home. This left him raging. He was disturbed at such an inhumane act by both the WHO staff but also by the other people for being inconsiderate. When he saw the children, he remembered his brother because his own children could have been going through the same.
The next day, he decided to show up for these marginalised groups fighting for them to get food a deed which ironically landed him in trouble. Was he a rebel? What was he fighting for them? Who was he? Why was he feeling bothered? However, he was determined to fight for the vulnerable groups. He was irked by the lack of dignity for the living.
“My brother has just been abducted and I look at these children as they’re my brother’s. am doing it because I feel they deserve it.”
The next time the truck came back, they made sure that the marginalized groups were catered for. This marked the beginning of his fight for peace and dignity of the human kind. Ideas of forming an organisation through which he could preach the work of dignity and peace. Using his bicycle, he reached out to the camps carrying the sick and taking them to hospital. It was through these simple deeds that the African Initiative Youth was founded.
No one knew it would grow. In 2004, he moved to Kampala as a staff for Straight Talk Foundation which gave him a chance to earn an income.
Today, his team has grown to accommodate 35 members of staff mainly working in the greater north where they are drowned in national reconciliation. AYINET has worked on a number of projects on reconciliation and justice with projects running across the work.
“Our country is a very good country. We’re very good people. Our only problem is the politics. God makes you a leader but it is one’s choice to be a good leader. We shouldn’t be surprised when people do good things.
We can have good laws in the country but the actions should be equally lawfully. Law means nothing if it undermines the principle of justice. And justice is not about verdicts; who is guilty or not. Justice is about fairness. Justice protects, prioritise and uplifts the vulnerable in society. That is where fairness comes in. If it is not fair, it is nothing. Fairness humanises us. It brings in dignity. It gives a human face to everything one is doing.
All our problems as human beings end the moment we all become fair. Where there is law, there is justice. Justice gives you fairness which gives you dignity.”
Victor Ochen is a 2015 Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
Image source: CVE Symposium