Read, Debate: Engage.

Alain Alwak’s journey from a child soldier in Congo to a journalist

July 23, 2018
topic:Child rights
tags:#DR Congo, #child soldier, #African Union, #Africa
located:Democratic Republic of the Congo
by:Bob Koigi
Democratic Republic of Congo has had one of the longest, protracted and deadliest inter ethnic conflicts that has claimed millions of lives and displaced tens of millions more.

In one of the deadliest phases of the conflict (between 2000 and 2005) warlords Thomas Lubanga and Bosco Ntaganda went full throttle in solidifying their military base. This included the recruitment of child soldiers. Alain Alwak was one of them. Kidnapped at only 14 years and forced to fight and kill while watching his fellow young fighters die in combat, Alain has lived to tell the tale.

He is now a journalist working for various international media outlets. He spoke to FairPlanet on the harrowing experience since being forced to join militia group, his decision to quit years later and how he is using the media to foster peace and change the Congo conflict narrative as depicted in international media.

FairPlanet: What is the most memorable experience you had as a child soldier?

Alain Alwak: The entire experience in the bush was the toughest period of my life. I was taken by force one morning in 2000 when I was going to school by people brandishing guns. On getting to some unknown destination I found some 1,000 very young boys who were all below 15 years old. We were told that we would be trained to fight the enemy. We were working under Thomas Lubanga, a war criminal. 

Our duty was to defend the Hema tribe from any aggression. Lubanga made a deal with the current Uganda president Yoweri Museveni to have us taken to Jinja to receive special training on war. We were taken by plane. About 4,000 of us. It was a harrowing 8 months experience being trained on how to operate guns and use lethal force. When the international community made a lot of noise about the recruitment of child soldiers and pressured President Museveni to release child soldiers in training, we were sent back to Congo. But we continued fighting, with renewed vigour. I remember once Lubanga was arrested and we took a government minister hostage and demand the release of Lubanga in exchange for the hostage.

When Lubanga was selecting who would be in charge of child soldiers, he would look for who was the most educated. Most of the boys who had been kidnapped and taken to the bush never went to school. I had just joined high school so being the most learned, I was picked. I was like the military secretary informing Lubanga on all happenings in our camps and preparing reports for him on war strategy.

Then something happened that gave the tribal conflict a new and deadly face. Lubanga fell out with his closest lieutenant, Chief Kahwa Panga, who then created a new faction that would fight Lubanga. It had the backing of the neighbouring Ugandan government. I joined this camp because Chief Kahwa was from my community. I was then made the third in command in this new unit. I was the ears and eyes of the Chief. He had so much faith in me because I never took alcohol or entertained women, two factors that the enemy used to finish opponents. Every day however the thought of what I was doing and the lives that were being lost in this war kept pricking me. I kept yearning for a good normal life.

What made you quit and how did the transition happen from being a child soldier to joining media?

While working for Chief Kahwa I used to be in charge of a whole battalion of the army and I commanded a lot of power. I was still under 16 years. One day our area was attacked by the enemy. They invaded hospitals, tortured our people and up to 270 homes were torched in a conflict that lasted some six hours. When I went to evaluate the damage, I found that among those who had been killed were 28 children. They died a very painful death. Some were bludgeoned with machetes, others shot at close range and others kidnapped. Their deaths haunt me to this date. I come from a family of ten. I am the only boy. My mother was always in agony, crying every day for me to return home. When I saw the death of the children, I decided I needed to leave the militia group.

When the government announced the disarmament programme for child soldiers and anyone in the militia group in 2005, I decided to take the offer. I was the second most powerful individual in the militia ranks to agree to the disarmament. I was recruited by the UN to assist in the process. It was easy getting back to society. My family welcomed me back well and the society forgave me. It was a very important step in my journey to healing and being reintegrated back to normal life. The chance to work with various journalists has given me the chance to tell the correct narrative and be a voice to thousands of former child soldiers who have worked so hard to rebuild their lives.

What fans the never-ending conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Politics is at the centre of the conflict. Tribal leaders know how to play the politics card to incite different communities because they know that there is a scramble for resources among these communities. So they will feed one community with ideas about how they are marginalised or how another community is set to take up their resources. They know about our history in militia groups so they are always taunting us because they know we can do anything to defend our people. It is all politics.

Having a good background on the conflict and the political situation in DR Congo, has the international community done enough to restore peace in your country?

The United Nations, African Union and the community of nations stepped up promptly and aggressively when the conflict had reached fever pitch and they were quite instrumental in disarmament which we are beneficiaries of. However, I still think they are not doing enough, in terms of putting pressure on government officials and other leaders to force them to find a lasting solution to the very delicate peace we enjoy. More pressure is necessary to make the leaders toe the line.

What is the situation like for child soldiers - former and present?

I am glad that the majority of those we were in the forests with,  as child soldiers, have now found new life and rebuilt their destinies. I meet with some of them who have now become teachers, doctors and business people. They are contributing to the economic growth of DR Congo and that is quite heartwarming. It is also because of the sustained international pressure that the issue of child soldiers has been somewhat tackled.

What do you consider the greatest threat to stability in DR Congo?

Politicians and local leaders who are constantly making careless utterances that can easily spark a war. But they don’t want peace because that would then be a threat to their positions of power when communities are united. Truth be told we have serious issues like scramble for resources and inter-ethnic differences. But addressing them starts and end with good leadership.

As a local journalist who works with international media, what do you think of the coverage of your country and what is the image you would like to see portrayed?

I first have to register my displeasure with how particularly the international media has portrayed DR Congo since the war began. True we experience intermittent ethnic conflicts but the sustained narrative of DR. Congo as a country now in ruins is sadly skewed to achieve some agenda. Investors and tourists come here and they can’t believe this is the same country they have been seeing in the news for all the wrong reasons. There has been a major expansion of vital infrastructure like roads, the country is now more than ever doing business with its regional peers and we have an economy that is taking shape. None of this is ever reported in the media. It is the reason I decided to join media; to help change this narrative.  

Having been involved in militant groups do you think it is possible to end militant groups and related conflict in Africa?

Yes, it’s easy to end militia led conflict in Africa, but it depends on how leaders take control of local conflict. Majority of militia-led conflicts are because community leaders and government don’t nip local conflicts in the bud. When one faction or tribe feels aggrieved or frustrated by another they are likely to defend themselves and that is how most of these conflicts in Africa start. Our Africans leaders always take advantage of local conflicts to justify their political ambitions. As long as there are no strong institutions to address these mushrooming conflicts and protect ordinary people, citizens will always be tempted to find ways to protect their communities which fans proliferation of militia groups across the continent.

What is your ultimate plan now that you are in media?

My plan is first to sustain this new life I have been living for the past ten years. I went to school and acquired three diplomas one of them being in journalism. It feels good working for international media. I am also preparing to write a book about my experience as a child soldier. The objective is a clarion call to the community of nations to put extra efforts to ensure no children ever participates in conflicts because they will never recover from that experience.

I want to also open a media training centre in order to give a platform and chance to the young boys and girls in Ituri region where I come from and who have borne the greatest brunt of the conflict in Congo.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Embed from Getty Images
"The entire experience in the bush was the toughest period of my life."
Embed from Getty Images
The Uganda president Yoweri Museveni has taken us to Jinja to receive special training on war. We were taken by plane. About 4,000 of us.
Embed from Getty Images
After the war i went to school and acquired three diplomas one of them being in journalism. It feels good working for international media.
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