Interview with Victor Ochen “We Heal People”

Story by

Victor Ochen

December 9, 2020

I talk to Victor for the first time when I’m walking in the parc in the vicinity of my home. It is a truly surreal experience to listen to his life story and his wisdom while walking around in a life so different from his. My life that never experienced these hardships. I feel so close to him and at the same time we couldn’t be further apart. The journey that both of our energies make during this conversation, and that find each other somewhere along to way, is a travel that we continue some weeks later when I talk to him again. Below you read the written version of the conversation I had with him. I hope you will bring it further since I believe that people like Victor Ochen are the earthkeepers, the wisdomkeepers of our present times.

Unfortunately, our leaders continue to embrace the colonial strategy of divide and rule. 

Interview by Barbara van den Bogaard

Victor I never went to Uganda. Can you tell me about your country?

Well to begin with, there is a daily flight from Amsterdam to Uganda so you should come some time. Uganda is a country of about 43 million people I would say right now. It is the greenest African country. We have a lot of rain, unlike other countries where there’s only one month of rainfall per year. So, we are a rich country in terms of nature and also agriculturally. I see a lot of potential. I often think if only our leaders would agree with the fact that as a county we have to move forward, then we would have a very beautiful country with wonderful people and development would be unstoppable. We could all come together.

Like many African countries Uganda is a country that continues to battle with its colonial legacies. These legacies are about tribalism and ethnicity division. People in power were very smart and they made sure people would be divided among themselves. And of course, after Uganda attained its independence in 1962, the country unfortunately has been through much violent leadership where our leaders continue to embrace the colonial strategy of divide and rule. 

The independence and the dream of liberation has been abused in so many ways here in Uganda, and also in other parts of the continent, because people really define liberation as a matter of coming to power at the cost of others. Whether it is militarily or democratically, for us leaders coming to power have been predominantly violent. So in a way, we have had a country that has had a military coup since our independence, which is very contradictory. 

These old guys in my opinion should just go somewhere and relax and leave the country to young people.

Uganda is a country of wonderful people that are very resilient, although they have been through decades of conflict, hardship and suffering. They are still positive but oftentimes they have more reason to be negative. Politicians have made it very clear that the best way to practice politics is embarked on politics of poverty. You make people poor, and you deplete them of their rights and they become beggars. They become tools for manipulation. So basically, that is the country I live in. 

Uganda is a very young country because 70% of the population is below 30. It is a young country but with very old leadership. The average leader in political power is 70 years. These old guys in my opinion should just go somewhere and relax and leave the country to young people.

Can you tell me about your childhood?

I was born in war. I was born in conflict. And there was not much left in terms of what choices to make as a child, because every day and every night I was busy surviving. We were always afraid to be abducted and lived in fear of sickness. 

And then there was lack of food, lack of education, lack of clean water, lack of shelter, and lack of security. This defines my childhood and my struggle. 

I had malaria. Countless times I would say. A lot of people got killed by malaria. And I could have been killed but I somehow survived to the point that I don’t get malaria anymore. My body has built immunity. The last malaria I had was maybe in 2000. I know I still get bitten by mosquitoes. But it’s no longer a threat. 

When I was growing up, every day, year in year out, I saw my parents struggling to secure and protect me and my brothers and sisters. I saw my mom trying to feed us and taking all the risk in life to make sure she got us water to drink and food to eat and still give us hope. I could feel her desperation. We witnessed parents committing suicide because they couldn’t handle it anymore. We saw this desperation arise in many parents. And I thought about it also. How long can all this pain and horror and feeling of injustice continue? A lot of people my age voluntarily agreed to join the military. Many picked up the gun to confront, to resist, to rebel and to face the situation. I could see that my community started to protect themselves because they felt that the government was not protecting them. It was the government that was failing them, that was not there for them. So it became very difficult in so many ways for life to get better. 

“I felt really strongly that I wanted to live the alternative to violence.

Then there was one particular period of time when I saw military trucks come and they brought a lot of weapons to the community. They were calling people to come and learn how to use guns and how to fight. And that was the particular moment when I decided to never pick up a gun and start walking the road of peace. I was about 13 years. I decided to say; “No, I’m not going to do that. I am going to definitely say no to this call for violence.” And that’s when I told my mom that I will not pick up the gun. I will not fight. I decided to stay home and promote peace. So that’s how I ended up being in my community and making this choice that was unpopular. I started a peace club. At first it was me and a friend talking about what peace would be like. Nobody had ever experienced peace. And people weren’t so sure if they would ever experience it.

What did you tell people about peace?

I think I was too young. I was not educated. But I felt really strongly that I wanted to live the alternative to violence. I wanted to live the opposite life of the life I was living. I was living the life of war, of conflict, of fear, of suffering, of starvation, of disease. All this anxiety, this uncertainty, the insecurity of being abducted, I wanted to live the total opposite of that life. And I did.

Where do you find the strength to oppose the violence with peace?

It was actually difficult. I was sick and tired of the life I was living. The life of being targeted, being unwanted, the life of not belonging. The biggest fear of all our parents was loosing their kids. The biggest fear of us kids was loosing our parents. We knew as kids that our parents were our only hope to survive, but there was this immense risk of them being taken away from us.

My parents loved all of us equally, and they had nothing but love to give us.

I was born in a family of 10 people and my mom and dad. I am child number eight, so it’s a big family. A big family without many resources. But I don’t regret being born in a family of many people. It’s not about the numbers. If the parents can’t afford to give their children the safety, the services they need, the support and the protection they need, that’s where the trauma starts. That is when the anger and bitterness comes in, and people get maybe more commoditized to suffering.

You have a real strong message about love though…

My parents loved all of us equally, and they had nothing but love to give us. They never loved us by pampering us. But they loved us. They put us on the right path. And to my parents, discipline wasn’t a negotiation. They dictated upon us although we lived in so much suffering, that we had to remain disciplined. And even though you live in so much violence, you have to love people. And nothing will come to you just like that; you have to work for everything you do. So stealing was not acceptable. This was never a negotiation. Even if you’re hungry, you’re not allowed to steal. So that is the kind of love that they had for us. 

So how is your family doing today? Your brother’s your sister? How are they?

We lost two brothers out of six, remaining four boys and four girls now. One of my brothers was abducted and unfortunately has not come back to us up until now. This abduction happened many, many years ago. My other brother we lost two years ago. All of my brothers and sisters are married and have their families. They’re still struggling. We are not the best yet, but we are also not the worst.

How would you describe you are doing?

I feel like we are not doing so bad compared to many people. We grew up from nothing. But we also finally build a home. And I feel like all we’re doing is pretty much measured by how we are impacting the community. I eventually became very much a global person while my father up until today has never been to the capital, Kampala. 

To me, my PhD is the number of people I provided with jobs. We heal people.

I’m doing well, because I share my time and resources, my knowledge with other people. And I think I’m doing what my parents would have loved me to do. Respecting people, treating people with fairness, also serving people, although I’m not economically rich. If with all my energy I would have chosen to take all for myself, I could have been richer. But I had to sacrifice my personal development for others. I’m doing well because I’m not sick. I’m happy to see my work brings hope and life and joy, and a smile to other people. That is my wealth. 

I’m doing well, because I share my time and resources, my knowledge with other people. And I think I’m doing what my parents would have loved me to do. Respecting people, treating people with fairness, also serving people, although I’m not economically rich. If with all my energy I would have chosen to take all for myself, I could have been richer. But I had to sacrifice my personal development for others. I’m doing well because I’m not sick. I’m happy to see my work brings hope and life and joy, and a smile to other people. That is my wealth. 

I decided to stay home and promote peace instead of pursuing my career. To me, my PhD is the number of people I provided with jobs. We heal people. All you need to do is to be human. And that is why I’m a strong advocate for creating economic inclusivity. You also need opportunity for the semi skilled and unskilled. Not everybody can be holding a master’s degree. When you want things to work, there are all kinds of people that you need. You need all sectors in a society.  And what a society really needs is the spirit of equality and fairness. That gives a chance to everybody.

How do you live and teach peace?

Peace is very difficult. What is peace? It’s not something physical; it’s no object that you are talking about. But I think until somebody gives a human face to peace, it is not easy to understand and to teach and talk about it. To me peace contains so many ingredients that need to be considered. 

We approach people with dignity to restore dignity.

One of those ingredients is the personal life struggle of people. There are stories of pain that nobody else knows. People are asking us: “How can I talk about peace when my children can’t eat? When my children can’t study? When I can’t defend myself in this society? When I’m seen as an outcast, as a problem to be solved?” 

These kinds of questions and feelings are suggesting a lack of peace. So how can we transform peace from being the invisible theoretical definition into a practical, tangible, dignified way of defining life? We always start with dignity. We approach people with dignity to restore dignity. This to me is very important. We build with dignity.

For me building peace with dignity is to answer human questions like; what is bothering people? Is it fear? Is it anger? Is it sickness? Is it lack of education, lack of opportunities, lack of recognition? These are all ingredients of vulnerability. It takes a dignified peace approach to deliver peace. And it will also be a reason for a dignified outcome. When life is beautiful for one, then that life is peaceful for one. If you give people a chance to regain their humanity, to repossess that dignity, that’s when building peace gets a chance. 

One of those ingredients is the personal life struggle of people. There are stories of pain that nobody else knows. People are asking us: “How can I talk about peace when my children can’t eat? When my children can’t study? When I can’t defend myself in this society? When I’m seen as an outcast, as a problem to be solved?” 

These kinds of questions and feelings are suggesting a lack of peace. So how can we transform peace from being the invisible theoretical definition into a practical, tangible, dignified way of defining life? We always start with dignity. We approach people with dignity to restore dignity. This to me is very important. We build with dignity.

For me building peace with dignity is to answer human questions like; what is bothering people? Is it fear? Is it anger? Is it sickness? Is it lack of education, lack of opportunities, lack of recognition? These are all ingredients of vulnerability. It takes a dignified peace approach to deliver peace. And it will also be a reason for a dignified outcome. When life is beautiful for one, then that life is peaceful for one. If you give people a chance to regain their humanity, to repossess that dignity, that’s when building peace gets a chance. 

Instead of teaching peace from a theoretical perspective, we work for the wounded, we work by healing people who were tortured and brutalized. People who had lost hope and had lost their sense of humanity. We heal them with them. And finally, they walk out of that life of misfortune and suffering and despair, to become a force, a renewed force. We empower the capacity of people and then people recover their function in life and in our society. Letting go of the pain that has been a burden for the last 20 years, this is what this means to me and this is what I see happening. People start feeling that they are not a threat anymore, that they are no longer a burden to society. This is what we are doing instead of talking about peace, instead of preaching about peace.

Tell me about the people, the lives that changed because of the work that you at AYINET do?

Well we have thousands and thousands of people whose lives became better at the virtue of what we do. More and more I become aware of that. But let me tell you about John. He is one of over 30,000 people who we have provided with medical reconstructive surgery for rehabilitation. I met him when he had just been mutilated. His lips were cut off. His upper lip, his lower lip, his nose, his ears were cut off and also his fingers. He needed somebody to treat him. But John was very suspicious of people. He didn’t trust anybody. He told me that he was sick and tired of being interviewed and photographed by journalists, by researchers that had come up to him and ask him questions. They took his stories, but nobody helped him. I started providing support treatment. And then after some time he said to me: “For the first time I find somebody who loves me, and that’s you.” He is doing very well now. I’m so proud of him.

Where does your enormous drive of helping others come from? 

If you know what it means to be loved, through feeling the lack of it, by feeling hate instead, that teaches you a strong lesson in life. I grew up wondering and imagining how all this hurt could happen. And I was wondering how the world would be if things were different. What would that mean? What would it mean to be taken care of, to be supported? To know peace and safety? 

And then what you do in your community is more and more seen globally. How did that happen?

Well I always remained in my community and I remained community focused. I think I kept my vision, my passion, my determination. I let things grow organically. So, it is me working in the grassroots communities that took me to international communities. We didn’t know this was possible. It is very difficult for an African initiative to grow because the world has got a very clouded mindset when it comes to Africa. There are opinions that say; they’re corrupt, they’re incompetent. This makes it really difficult for an African initiative like ours, an NGO like ours, to get visibility and to get the influence, take the space, to get the platform. 

So, how do you feel about our conversation? I’m a Westerner taking your story in a way…

Well I feel we have a shared vision to tell stories to bring solution, to bring about justice, to bring about peace, and to promote, most importantly, humanity. That’s really something that you can’t compromise. And if stories are told, they should be told with the intent to heal. To heal the mind and to heal the soul. To me, a dialogue like this is important. The integrated dialogue is important. The integrity and the maturity of our choices are even more important and most importantly is the accountability for our actions. Because maybe a story like mine represents many stories around the world. And that is why I believe sharing stories with the world is important.

I do see truth in the need to come together and share our pain just as we share our dreams.

Do you think there is something that we might call a Global Story? This is really my search at this point in my life. As a child I never understood why we always talked about the differences between us. I still don’t understand. I always felt that we have so much in common. Of course, we might look different, talk different, we can acknowledge the difference, but why emphasize the difference? Why can’t we talk about what we share? In the stories we tell the emphasis is so often on what divides us. This is also why I wanted to talk to you today because I feel a mutual view on what might heal the world. And even though I have never been in your life, I do connect. I do feel you.

I appreciate this. We cannot be everywhere. But we can be there for people that need our help. This is what common humanity means. You don’t have to be in pain, to feel the pain. That is not shared humanity. You don’t have to wait until disaster knocks on your door before you start acting to prevent this. Sometimes, when we hear people talk about suffering, we take it as a good case study, as a good research opportunity. And this is exactly what we have seen now with COVID. We talk about how it has taught us so much. But how I see it, is that even if one of us is suffering from a disease that could have been prevented, we are all suffering. And now, the whole common human race is affected just because of one step that we failed to address early on. This is the human ignorance. We think: “If it doesn’t affect us directly, It’s okay.” Well, it is not okay because then we let our own brothers and sisters suffer. I do see truth in the need to come together and share our pain just as we share our dreams. Our shared vision for the world should come from shared pain and shared love. 

Is there a way to help you and your organization in the peace-building process?

This is a very common and human question. I see a lot of support coming to our government and to our international organizations. But it comes and goes away and it does not leave impact. In the next four or five years our agenda will be all about promoting peace by fighting hunger. Can we transform the energy of the youth and let them direct the pace of change? By moving from being angry and frustrated to becoming energetic and productive. It’s about creating a platform, giving them a chance to thrive. And we want to embark on promoting agriculture as a tool to create jobs but also as a chance to fight against hunger. So the whole game is to fight for peace by promoting human safety, and also by eradicating hunger. That’s our goal.

The challenge comes if we allow that widening gap to continue.

We of course have young people that are developing into grown up human beings and I feel that this is a very, very sparkling generation with a lot of possibility. I think the strongest way to accelerate change is to join forces in how we bring knowledge to our educational systems. We should not only be talking but we also should be doing. What I see happening here in the Netherlands is that people take distance from discussing difficult issues, because they find it tiring. Your message about non-violence and your personal learnings is so important to people here because we just forget…

It is about what we can do now. Because the next generation is very energetic and they’re connected, and they’re willing to explore many opportunities. But the challenge comes if we allow that widening gap to continue. That’s when we’re also moving away from our commitment. Let’s embrace progress. Let’s welcome technology. But let’s maintain humanity in the face of advancing technology. That’s important. We have seen that technology has made things either worse, or it has prevented things from getting worse. It can do both. 

In a short interview I saw of you, you said: “I know I will see world peace in my lifetime.” How come that you dare to say such a thing? It is such a beautiful and powerful thing to say.

Well, my lifetime has already been a lifetime of many colours. Colours of pain and struggle. Dreams that turn into nightmares. Frustration that turns into hope and hope that turns into fear. It has been depressing and empowering at the same time. 

Let us plant seeds of peace, plant seeds of justice and seeds of tolerance.

At the end of the day, I feel like we have also seen so much, we have learned so much in this lifetime. We have also seen that when good people put their hearts together, everybody is a good person. And if we join our good hearts towards the good cause, something remarkable happens. We can co-create and co-design a new dream, a new vision for our life and our lifetime. It is not that long. Let’s embrace the humanity and humility of life and the fact that we are just here for the time being. We cannot be a winner. We don’t know how much longer we have in life, but we have to do good for the time that we are here. Let us plant seeds of peace, plant seeds of justice and seeds of tolerance. Love is not only something that we should expect, it is something that we should give. So that’s why to me, I have a beautiful life lived when it is a life of dignity and a life of supporting others. And I hope I will remain committed. I pray that we get more people to come on board, more people that truly care. 

Meet the storyteller

Victor Ochen

Victor Ochen is the Founder and Executive Director for African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET). Born in northern Uganda, he spent 21yrs of his childhood as a refugee in the camps, where he survived on one meal-a-day for over 7 years. He grew up amidst violent conflict that displaced over 3 million people, where 60,000+ children were abducted and forcefully recruited as child-soldiers, including his own brother. His organization has so far provided reconstructive medical repair to over 30,000 war victims of rape, mutilation and gun shots. Challenged by the hardships of war and poverty, while living in the camps at the age of 13 years, Victor formed a Peace Club and bravely led the anti-child soldiers’ recruitment campaign amidst the war in northern Uganda. He grew up to become one of the most important figures in Africa, a key reference when it comes to struggle for human rights and justice.

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