We caught up with our October spotlight, Victor OCHEN who is the founder and Director of the African Youth Initiative Network in Uganda, as he talks about his dream of an Africa of peace and security. Victor believes that peace and reconciliation have not been possible in the continent. In his interview, he directs our attention on the prospects for a politically reconciled Africa. Given that until the continent focuses on peace, even the enormous natural resources we have won’t benefit the people.According to Victor, saying yes to peace in Africa is saying yes to the future. It is on this curve that he calls for a transitional justice system that will heal the historical wounds of the past in a post-war Uganda.
You can listen to the interview by clicking on the podcast above or reading the interview excerpt below. Drop a comment if you have any question.
We would like to understand what you guys do. “Peace and justice for post-war victims.” Can you tell us more about that?
A lot of people when they think about Africa, they think about it in so many ways. They think about it in times of natural resources. They think about it in terms of poverty, wars and other things. And I think sometimes all these issues associated with Africa are not subjective, they are real situations. But in a more practical sense, we need to know that there is a huge potential among the young people and old people, those who have been through life-threatening challenges. So in a way, we thought it best in the interest of moving forward, to come up with a home-grown solution to an African problem. Then we came up with the African Youth Initiative Network, which is a Human Right organization created purposely to help mobilize the youth and communities to participate in promoting peace and justice in the face of all the insurmountable horde and hardship that have been rocking conflict-affected regions in northern Uganda. We had not only northern Uganda in our mind, but we looked through in and out, and we saw that what is happening in Uganda is happening across the continent. And probably, we don’t need a northern Ugandan approach to this kind of thing. It is a community issue that requires an international approach to addressing it. It has to be very holistic. That’s why we felt we need to embrace the local involvement, the young people who have suffered and were subjected to atrocities and use their experience to create change. So our position was, to mobilize and strengthen the youth leadership development, leadership in peace building, leadership in conflict prevention and a preventive approach to conflict resolution.
What made you decide to want to do this? If there some kind of experience you would like to share with us?
Yes. Myself I was born and raised in northern Uganda. And if you ask anyone about Uganda they will tell you that it is the country of Idi Amin, unfortunately. From the time Uganda gained its independence since 1962, the country has been through very turbulent processes and it has never seen any peaceful political transition. It has all been through military coups and even the current government that came about 28 years ago through military approach with all the promises remained in power for good and refused to go. So, when I was born in 1981 that was at the peak of war, when Idi Amin was overthrown from power and there was a power struggle. Then the war was all over and I was born and raised in IDP Camp (Internally Displaced People Camp) known as refugee camp. This is a camp where hundreds of thousands of people are living. It is a situation where you don’t have the opportunity to go to school. You travel with your own security and your own food. You don’t have anything completely and education is not a priority at all. And also it is a situation you are confronted with the possibility of military options other than a better education. This made life very complicated. But also in the camp we were the targets for abduction. I saw my peers being abducted as young as eight to ten years old. I had to struggle to survive this kind of abduction and all those things. Unfortunately, I was directly affected. Other than suffering like everybody else, my brother who I followed was abducted and my cousins and other family members. Up to date, they have not returned. We don’t know whether they are still alive or not. So all these things made life difficult in the society where people are wondering: ‘where and when will the solution come from and how will it end?’ I saw many young people of my age even volunteered to be abducted because they have lost hope and tired of their own suffering. That was the time I decided to make a choice towards a peaceful option for addressing our problems. So that kind of provoked in me the feeling that there is a need to come up with a program that will help us mobilize ourselves as young people who are opposed to military option to changing the lives in the society. We then tried our best amidst all the suffering to build a new alternative to addressing our problem. So I suffered, I survived, I lived that life and that’s why I am part of the solution to the life I lived not so long ago.
You just finished with the National War Victims’ Conference. So tell us what you set out to achieve with the event?
The whole point of the conference was: with all the experiences of war the country has been through, the government of Uganda was supposed to come up with a process of transitional justice to help the country to overcome the history of atrocities and conduct it in a way that will answer the historical questions of “What led to war?” “How can we avoid having a repeat of what had happened?” So we worked with the government in order to help come up with a way forward and how to handle the transitional justice program which the government is coming up with. It is a success which has the potential of creating a national reconciliation and providing justice for the victims and also ensuring accountability for the atrocities of the past. And mostly, helping the people and communities which have suffered to get back to the society. So we came up with the process of mobilizing the voices of the victims and affected communities in the entire country. We found that a vast majority of the population in the country do want to live in peace with fellow countrymen. But they are not engaged nor mobilized and as a result politicians take advantage of the historical, colonial differences to drag and trade on these differences for their own political gain. That’s why we came up with a countrywide program with the purpose of empowering war victims to demand that transitional justice brings about change. That’s why we came up with a program where we mobilized victims’ representatives, and experts like his grace Archbishop Desmond Tutu who gave a very powerful and remarkable speech about why we must come together as a country and put the country on an agenda for peace. A conference like that created a momentum that has never been seen before.
When you talk about transitional justice, what exactly do you mean by that?
When you talk about transitional justice you talk about taking into account the history which the country has been through which includes war, extreme violations of human rights which created enormous physical, emotional, and historical injuries upon the lives of the people in the society. So the whole process is, how can we help the community that has been through so many barbaric human right violations and try to come to terms with their history in a way that will help fashion a future of peace and security.
You wrote on your website, “…we must ensure transitional justice response to victims’ needs.” What kind of needs are we looking at here?
Let’s take it at individual level, when war happened so many human right violations were committed including mutilations, killings, abductions, sexual abuses and enormous amount of injuries in the society. So these are the realities that left deeper scars on people. So there are still tens of thousands of people who are still living with ‘war-wounds’ which have not been addressed. There are so many families, including my own family, that have their family members abducted and have never been told where they are. Those people are still missing and their families are still struggling to get to terms with the reality of not knowing what happened to their loved ones. There are women who were sexually abused and some of them had children as a result of that but when they come back to their families or communities they are not been accepted because they had children born in captivity by the rebel commanders. But also, the society was left crippled both economically and socially, losing both culture and family. These are the needs. There is need for economic recovery. There is need for social rehabilitation. While we lobby that, the transitional justice must provide opportunity for healing, both physically and emotionally.
You seem like a very strong-minded person, where does your fearlessness come from?
First of all, I do know that I lived it. I saw it all. I witnessed it and that’s why where I am today has been the longest journey I would say. Having to struggle for your own security, your own food, education not the priority and so on. I think this have just kept me stronger. Resisting the temptation to revenge that was my biggest undertaken where I felt so much like I could do it differently. I trusted in myself and did not lose focus when I chose that I am going to remain peaceful.
Can you share some light on your youth leadership and development program?
We look at youths as leaders and how do we engage them as people who are able to lead. But also taken to account that these are young people who are a risk and yet they are the people who can also be the game-changers in the society. That’s why we tried to create the platform that includes teaching conflict management and prevention skills and leadership skills.
Can you also share with us some impact stories your organization has achieved so far?
Because we chose to create a platform for meaningful human right answers, we have so far provided close to five thousand psychosocial rehabilitation and medical assistance to victims of direct human right violations. Especially with victims of sexual violation, gunshot, those who were tortured and so on. This has been very intensive, expensive and exhausting for us. Another one is that we have also been very good in organizing community voices and forums. But also we have a lot of community youth groups. We have established like the Youth Peace Clubs across Uganda. We also have an exchange program for our different youth groups.
What makes peace and reconciliation such an issue in Africa?
It is because peace and reconciliation have not been possible in the continent. People trade on their differences. We should look at the prospect for a politically reconciled continent. Not until the continent focuses on working on peace, even the enormous natural resources we have won’t benefit the people. So that is why we work so hard so that people can understand the need for us to become a united continent in order to strengthen our position globally.
What is your dream of a Third Millennium Africa of the future?
I would look at a future of peace and security. Before I even say that, there are still difficult days ahead. But we must remain strong and come to agree that we are the only ones who are going to bring about a profound, positive change. If we say yes to peace to the continent regardless of our differences, I think we are saying yes to the future as well. My dream is a future based on trust, mutuality and respect; where every African enjoys the support of what it means to be African.
Can you give a word of advice to other young leaders who might be struggling to lend their voice for change and peaceful reconciliation?
I think my advice to young people and colleagues is this: I think we do want a situation where, human rights have a human face. I think we must work hard to heal the historical wounds now. I think we need to work hard to heal the divisions of the past and put aside our differences. We need this in Uganda. We need this in Africa. We need this all over the world. Not until we heal we are not going to move on.