From Child Soldier to Catholic Priest: South Sudanese Cleric Who Lives to ‘Give Hope’

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New priest hopes to use his experience as a forced child soldier in Africa to help others.

By Katie Yoder. ACI Africa

A Catholic priest is returning to the land where he was once abducted and forced to be a child soldier to “give hope to those who have lost hope.”

For the past seven years, Father Charles Mbikoyo has studied philosophy at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome. But, as he told EWTN News In Depth July 9, his story starts in what is now South Sudan, where he entered the seminary at 12 years of age in 1988.

A year later his studies there were interrupted when rebels came knocking at the door in the middle of the night.

“There was a strong voice” that ordered the seminarians to “come out,” Father Mbikoyo remembered.

Aware of the threat posed by nearby rebel groups, the seminarians hesitated to open the door. But the men outside warned that if the boys didn’t open the door, they would “just destroy us together with the building,” the priest said.

Reluctantly, the boys walked outside where the rebels ordered them to gather their belongings and leave with them “for education.” Father Mbikoyo, along with 40 other boys and their rector, were captured.

“The first thing they said,” Father Mbikoyo recalled, was that “anybody who escapes will be shot dead.”

For the next three months, the boys underwent rigorous military training. “We have to jump like frogs,” the former child soldier said. “We have to learn to dodge bullets. How to shoot.”

“The doctrine was: ‘The gun is my father,’” he stressed. “It is for everything. Anything you want to get, just have this gun.”

According to Fr. Mbikoyo, he and his fellow seminarians just gave up. “We lost hope of returning home,” he said. “We lost hope of going back to school. We lost hope of becoming priests, which was our initial intention.”

But, he said, the seminary’s rector refused to be set free, and insisted on staying with the boys.

“The words of the rector used to give me hope, used to make me understand that, yes, there is a God who can protect us,” Father Mbikoyo said.

After months of captivity, the young Charles Mbikoyo found a way to escape with four other child soldiers. They survived a perilous journey that included crossing two rivers where deadly animals swam.

“When we escaped, we went to the town called Yei,” he said. He resumed his seminary training there until the rebels threatened him again. “We continued for one month, but then we started hearing about the rebels coming to capture Yei,” he said. “We said, ‘no.’ If they find us again … they will either kill us or they take us back to the front line to fight.”

The Red Cross returned him home, he said, and the seminary moved from Rimenze to Nzara to avoid the rebels. But the rebels still found them and attacked again.

That’s when Father Mbikoyo left the country and relocated to the Central African Republic. He remained there for for three years, until he traveled to Uganda to continue his education.

“I stayed for so many years without seeing my parents – around eight or nine years,” he estimated. “I was in exile. We were afraid that when we go back home, they can conscript us.”

He was eventually ordained in 2007, after the Second Sudanese Civil War ended.

“When I became a priest, I said, ‘This is a true vocation,’ ’’ he stressed. “Because, with all this suffering, maybe I would have gone away from the seminary thinking that this is not my call. Why should I have all this kind of suffering in my life?”

But, he said, “I realized that ‘no,’ that’s my vocation.”

Having finished his studies in Rome, Father Mbikoyo is preparing to return to South Sudan.

“My country is troubled, and everybody is traumatized,” he said. “So as a priest, when I go back, my role is, my mission is, to give hope to those who have lost hope.”

Among other things, he hopes to use his experience to help rehabilitate other child soldiers.

“I will encourage them to embrace their faith and to also pursue the vocation each one wants to choose,” he said, whatever that might be.

This story was published originally by Catholic News Agency.

Featured image: Father Charles Mbikoyo, a former child soldier in what is today South Sudan, sits for an interview for EWTN’s News In Depth program. Photo credit: EWTN News In Depth

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ACI Africa

The Association for Catholic Information in Africa (ACI Africa), officially inaugurated on August 2019, is a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya, this media apostolate strives to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent.