Culture | Children in harm’s way

Romeo Dallaire's new book challenges the world to respond to the plight of child soldiers

There are few people in this world to whom we should really open our ears when they have something to say. Romeo Dallaire is among those few. Having been to hell and back, having faced human chaos and brutality at its purest, and having spent the last fifteen years of his life struggling to learn to bear the horror he witnessed, Dallaire has picked himself up and stands today as a humanitarian whose experiences serve as a reminder for our collective responsibility as a global community to help those in need.

Romeo Dallaire led the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. With virtually no support from the UN or any armies of the world’s developed nations, Dallaire was reduced to a bystander while more than 800,000 Hutus and Tutsis were killed. Since his return to Canada, he has suffered from depression and alcoholism as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. In order to partially come to terms with the horrifying events that have shaped his life, Dallaire published the award-winning memoir Shake Hands with the Devil in 2003, adapted into a 2004 documentary as well as a 2007 dramatic feature of the same name.

Now, Dallaire is back and brings us a haunting truth: that child soldiers were not only prominent throughout the genocide in Rwanda, but continue to operate in great numbers in conflict-torn countries today. In his latest book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, Dallaire addresses the shocking reality of the issue by drawing on personal experience as well as years of research on the issue of child soldiers. Having confronted the devil both in the form of hate-driven individuals as well as in the form of his personal psychoses, Dallaire’s mission is to spare the youth of the world from experiences like his own. Dallaire’s goals are clear: “The ultimate focus of the rest of my life is to eradicate the use of child soldiers and to eliminate even the thought of the use of children as instruments of war.”

They Fight Like Soldiers serves as both a disturbing account of how child soldiers are made, trained and used, and an action plan for not only disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating child “veterans” back into their communities, but also for preventing the further use of children as soldiers. Dallaire splits the book into two narrative forms: an objective, non-fictional documentation of his experiences and his research findings, and a fictional first-person account of a child who is kidnapped, trained as a soldier, and eventually killed in combat. Although the fictional narrative is a strong attempt to relive the experiences of a young child forced into the brutality of warfare, the most striking stories come from Dallaire’s personal experiences.

One of the most interesting elements of the book is found in an early chapter in which Dallaire recounts his childhood growing up in Montreal and his summers spent in Quebec’s Laurentian mountains. Here, Dallaire draws on his adventures in the woods, inhabiting a world of freedom and innocence that he argues exists in every child. He recounts his experiences growing up in a culturally and linguistically-divided Montreal in a similar way, tracing the root from which hateful speech emerges: “[his neighbourhood] became confrontational terrain upon which hatred, anger, fear and even at times blood was spilt in the name of something we absolutely could not understand: they were the Anglos (les tetes carrées) and we were the French (frogs) and we had to be antagonists without question.”

The content of They Fight Like Soldiers is neither subtle nor restrained. Dallaire is clear throughout about his understanding of child soldiers: a weapon system that is easy to attain, easy to train, and ultimately expendable. In conflict zones and countries where civil war and violence are common, Dallaire describes in detail the process by which both boys and girls are kidnapped and forced to live in camps where they are often abused or raped, and trained to kill mercilessly. This “weapon system” is effective for many reasons, not least of which is the hesitation most soldiers experience when confronted with a child in battle.

They Fight Like Soldiers adopts a drier tone in its second half, focusing mainly on the national and international courses of action that should be followed in order to rid the world of the use of child soldiers. Though these chapters are important, they give the book a somewhat fragmented feel when contrasted with the earlier, more narrative chapters that may be friendlier to the general reader. Nonetheless, the policy-centred closing sections provide concrete steps toward helping the 250,000 children being used as soldiers in the world today, and preventing more from being used in the future. With the military trial of Omar Khadr having recently concluded, the question of how to deal with and solve the issue of child soldiering is one that Canada as a nation – but also the international community – must face up to. After all, as Dallaire says so clearly, we cannot “use humanity’s future in order to destroy humanity’s present.”