Roméo Dallaire: Are Child Soldiers Any Less Human Than Your Kids?

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By: Ryan Maloney

A single question struck General Roméo Dallaire when he stared down the barrel of that AK-47. Nearly 20 years later, it’s a question that haunts him as much as it keeps him breathing.

How do I get that child’s finger off the trigger?

Dallaire, sitting down for an interview on Saturday before the Canadian premiere of the film “Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children” at the 2013 Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival, says his life now revolves around that thought.

By now you know that in 1994, Dallaire served as commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. He received orders to stand by as a genocidal civil war ravaged the country, with 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus slaughtered in 100 days.

You know he shook hands with a devil.

You know he returned to Canada, broken, and tried to kill himself if only to put an end to the dreams.

You know he became a senator and Officer in the Order of Canada.

But chances are you’ll never know what it is like to have your life in the hands of a child soldier. So he opens up — this strong, proud man — about the day, almost two decades ago, when a frightened youngster in Rwanda put a gun to his face.

“They always have their hand on the trigger,” he says of child soldiers. “It’s sort of a thing.”

But what makes them so dangerous — and ultimately so useful to the warlords and tyrants who recruit them — is their wild unpredictability.

“Adults you can sort of gauge,” he says. “But in children, there’s no way of knowing.”

No way of knowing if there might be an accidental slip of the finger or deadly rush of adrenaline, he explains. No way of knowing what will happen next.

Survival began in that instance with convincing the child to get his finger off the trigger.

“After that you can negotiate, move the weapon aside and start using your physical presence,” he says. “Your adult presence.”

But it’s not just troubled children Dallaire wants to convince these days, it’s the men behind them.

The general’s new focus is to eradicate the use of child soldiers through The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative. The group says there are 250,000 children who have been recruited, often by force, to fight in armed conflicts around the world.

The film, directed by Patrick Reed, follows Dallaire’s work in Africa, specifically the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan where many boys and girls are stolen from their families, abused, raped, drugged and turned into killers.

It captures the innovative way Dallaire’s group is attempting to end this scourge of humanity, not just through research and training, but by staring down and shaming the commanders who put kids on the battlefield in the first place.

Dallaire says the use of children in Rwanda was prevalent. He recounts watching packs of “wild-eyed, drugged-up” kids use machetes to slaughter with reckless abandon.

“It was interesting that the adults always seemed to be more in the back,” he says.

Now, Dallaire aims to bring such people forward so he can, as he puts it, “take the bastards on.”

Founded in 2008 and housed at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University, Dallaire’s Initiative works with military, police and peacekeeping forces to interrupt the recruitment of kids by armed groups. It’s an international partnership that includes the United Nations Institute for Training and Research.

But where other programs focus on convincing kids to put down their weapons, the Initiative appeals to militia leaders directly and attempts to convince them it is disadvantageous, from a purely tactical side, to use a child in war.

“That’s something that nobody else is attempting to do on this issue globally,” says Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Initiative.

A key part of that process involves sending Dallaire to challenge these men on a personal level, often by appealing to their very manhood.

“When another military leader sits down… and says (he) has no respect for you because you use kids, it’s a very macho thing,” Reed says.

Dallaire is confident that speaking with militia leaders directly will ultimately reduce the use of kids as instruments of war.

He says his group has already been given the mandate to train the Sierra Leone army and police, as well as write curriculum for the primary school system to show children how to avoid recruitment.

And he’s willing to do whatever it takes because he knows that a child soldier with a bloody machete or a gun to the face of a general is still just a child.

“It’s sort of like a knight of old,” he explains. “He’s got all his armour on but inside that tin can, there’s a human being. The child soldier is sort of like that. You’ve got the child in there, suppressed, but the outside is absolutely warrior-like and projecting evil.”

And to Canadians who hesitate to get involved or believe the problems in Africa are a world away, Dallaire has more haunting questions.

“Are those children different than ours?” he asks. “Are those children out there less human than our children? Are there two standards of children in humanity?”

Dallaire: ‘The younger generation is screaming to get engaged’

By: Michael Posner

In 1994, a teenage soldier thrust a rifle under the nose of Roméo Dallaire, commander of the United Nations peacekeeping troops during the Rwandan genocide. Thus did Mr. Dallaire, now a senator, come face to face with the insidious use of child soldiers. Today, civil conflicts in Africa and elsewhere deploy about 250,000 child soldiers, all under 18, boys and girls callously used for fighting, logistics, sex slaves and bush wives. With an international campaign to curb the practice, and a new film on the subject opening at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival Saturday. Mr. Dallaire reflects on how his African nightmare shaped his own – and his children’s – views and what he thinks the next generation can do.

Opposing the use of child soldiers is a no-brainer. But how is your Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative trying to change the reality on the ground?

I recently met with a rebel commander in the Congo. I said to him, “Why are you recruiting children to do your fighting, and using girls for sex?” He denied both charges, because he’s no dummy. He knows there’s an international convention against the practice. So then I proceeded to shame him. These guys live and thrive on their male ego – their prestige. It’s a fundamental trait of leadership. They can never be seen as weak or wavering. They are in the most ruthless of wars and there is no room for nice guys. So, as a former commander, I say to him, “What kind of soldier are you that actually uses kids to do your fighting? You can’t recruit adults? You’re not good enough?You have to steal kids out of schools, drug them, indoctrinate them?” He got so pissed off. Because I was telling him he doesn’t have the balls to build a legitimate force. But, practically, the number of child soldiers in use at any one time has not dropped in 20 years.

You came face to face with child soldiers during the Rwandan genocide. You witnessed unspeakable atrocities. Your eldest child, Willem, was 15 when you came back. What impact did your experiences there have on your children?

There are still echoes for them, even today. It manifests as anger. None of them has been able to read my book, Shake Hands with the Devil. They’ve only dabbled with it. Because even though they were living in Canada at the time, they saw the effects it had on me.

Those effects were traumatic, to say the least.

They were. But when I stopped trying to kill myself, literally, I realized that maybe there was something I could do. But I also realized that I had to be ready for decades of work – and to die before I see the end of it. You can’t bring in a new weapons system to the military in less than 20 years. Similarly, if you really want to change the cultural framework of Afghanistan, you have to be prepared to spend 50 or 70 years at it.

That’s a huge, societal commitment. How do you inspire the next generation to embrace it?

The younger generation, under 25, is screaming to get engaged – to become activists. I call them the generation beyond borders because they are global. I recommend that we help get them into the world. Let them see the world and bring it back to influence our national policies. Let there be a rite of passage after high school or their undergraduate years. Let there be a pair of boots under their beds, soiled with the dirt of a developing country.

Financed by?

Themselves. Oh, yeah, none of this Peace Corps stuff. You are instituting a philosophical framework. Let them scrounge and work for it. It doesn’t have to be for two years. Let it be a month. Let them join a non-governmental organization or create a new one. The NGOs, I predict, will eventually supersede nation-states, in terms of moral force.

Have your own children followed this prescription?

My eldest son went on army missions to Sierra Leone and Haiti. My daughter went to South Africa and built a mission for abused women in Peru. My younger son and his wife saved $8,000, went to southern Uganda and worked their butts off for a month for an NGO. They came back with a difference in their eyes.

How did you talk to your children about what you had seen?

I didn’t. I didn’t talk to anybody – not to them, not to my wife. When I did talk, I’d be violent and impatient and intolerant. One fundamental difficulty of coming back from these missions is, we’re not sure where reality is. We’re here living in one reality, domestic affluence and opulence, but we know that another reality, poverty and suffering, continues where we were. So where is reality? Dealing with that breeds intolerance. Being traumatized is another complication. I tried to destroy myself by working myself to death, 20 to 22 hours a day, very little sleep. I was finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after having a row with a senior military commander. PTSD is an injury, not a disease, but it took a long time to recognize that. In the old days, we sorted out mental injuries at the legion, where guys went and drank. Those Saturday nights – my father was a staff sergeant who spent six years overseas during the Second World War – were the nights we, his children, were safe. But It’s only in the last three or four years I’ve stabilized and been able to talk to my children and take their questioning. They are still working through it, 19 years later.

How long did it take you to get over that?

Who said I’m over it? A year ago, my granddaughter, seven months old at the time, hit her head on a coffee table. Everyone reacted, of course. But I didn’t move. I couldn’t move. Because I was staring at a mental Teleprompter showing the hundreds and hundreds of Rwandan kids I’d seen hacked and left to die in the mud. It took me a long time to pick up my granddaughter. I was afraid that if she started crying, I’d drop her, because I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I take a dozen pills every day. Blood pressure, anti-anxiety, downers to eliminate dreams. I am not me when I take them. I am a me that’s been modified by drugs. But the me that’s not on the stuff – you wouldn’t want to be around me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Fighting to let children be children

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By: Lois Legge

As executive director of Romeo Dallaire’s Child Soldiers Initiative, Shelly Whitman has seen a lot. It’s a constant motivator to keep going, she tells Features Writer Lois Legge

SHELLY WHITMAN has seen children holding AK-47s.

And sat across the table from warlords.

She’s spoken to girls who’ve been gang raped and forced to fight on the front lines.

And met boys who’ve had to loot, spy and kill just to eat.

That was a long way away from her office at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, where pictures of children aiming guns and posters of Canada’s most famous soldier hang on the walls.

Just past the small sign on the door: Romeo Dallaire’s Child Soldiers Initiative.

But the Tantallon native, PhD in international law and mother of four hopes what starts here eventually helps end the use of child soldiers worldwide — a mission the organization’s founder has declared “the ultimate focus of the rest of my life.”

The global non-profit — designated “subject matter experts” by the United Nations — is a small group, just Whitman (the executive director) and five other staff, with Dallaire as their founder and a “deeply involved” adviser who comes to the Dal headquarters regularly and “is not just here in name.”

Over the past two years, they’ve managed to teach military and peacekeeping forces everywhere from Sierra Leone to Uganda — 500 personnel from 46 countries — how to respond when they encounter these smallest victims of strife.

And they’ve urged armies to stop using child soldiers, whose numbers reach an estimated 250,000 worldwide, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, the same place that inspired both Dallaire and Whitman to push for change.

Dallaire commanded the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. More than 800,000 people died. He suffered post traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath but went on to become a Canadian senator (now retired), author, scholar and key advocate for children of war and other humanitarian causes.

Whitman — a Saint Mary’s University graduate who earned her masters and PhD in the United Kingdom — became involved with Dallaire’s then-mostly- virtual initiative in 2008. She’d just arrived back in Halifax after seven years in Africa, where she met her husband and where she first met child soldiers while working on the peace process in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I was interested in Romeo’s perspective on it because what I saw was that there wasn’t anybody else talking about this issue from the perspective that he was talking about it,” says the former SMU soccer player who’s worked with Stephen Lewis (Order of Canada recipient and Canada’s former ambassador to the UN) at UNICEF headquarters in New York and with former Botswana president Quett Masire on the peace process in Congo.

Dallaire, she says, had “unique” ideas about how to combat the use of child soldiers.

“He was talking about how children are used as weapons in war, how they’re viewed as tactically advantageous to groups. And if we’re going to try to address the problem, then we need to address how we convince groups that they aren’t an advantage.”

So Whitman, then working as deputy director of Dal’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, approached Dallaire to speak at the university.

He wasn’t able to visit at that time. But as time passed, she became more immersed in the organization’s work, eventually becoming executive director of an initiative whose primary focus is prevention.

“We always talk about it as this being our bite of the elephant,” she says, noting many organizations are trying to help child soldiers.

“There’s an African saying: One cannot eat an elephant alone and this is our bite of it.”

Today, when she plans training programs in places like Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Botswana and Congo, memories of what she’s seen there and heard from the children themselves are a constant motivator to keep going.

It’s “common” to see girls and boys, some as young as six, carrying weapons, she says. Some have been kidnapped from their homes; others “volunteered,” thinking it could mean a better life. Others are orphans or have been offered by their parents for money in poverty-stricken countries where food and other necessities are scarce.

“You’re not going to see six-year-olds out on the battlefield. But if they’re around that lifestyle, they’re learning how to do things like clean weapons, to collect the food, to spy. Then that way of life is all that they ever know, and later on, when you try to rehabilitate those children, they’re the most difficult because they can’t remember what life was like before.”

Girl soldiers — who number almost as many as boys, an estimated 40 per cent— endure an extra level of degradation — “domestic servitude” and “sexual slavery.”

“We were interviewing a girl soldier in the (Congo) back in 2010 when I was there and we were asking her about the roles that girls undertake, and she was saying it depends on what day it is.

“Sometimes you choose to go to the front line because it’s better than being raped by three men. Some days you choose to stay off the battlefield because you’re thinking that it’s going to be such a horrific situation that I’d rather stay back and face the sexual slavery. So it’s not much of a choice.”

Teaching armies to make a different choice is a big part of the organization’s education process, says Whitman, who also teaches a summer course at Dal called Children and War.

Commanders often see children as cheap, malleable and convenient. They are small and can spy or get into small places without being detected. They’ll often take more risks because they’re not old enough to consider the consequences. And, says Whitman, their leaders don’t even have to feed them. They can just give them permission to loot villages.

But Whitman and her staff turn that around, stressing the potential disadvantages, everything from a child’s unpredictability to how easily they might be manipulated by the enemy.

“Also there are times when that physical size is a disadvantage as well. Children who use AK-47s, there’s increasing evidence showing that the kickback from the AK-47 is too powerful for the children and creates a lot of hernia problems for them and if the child becomes injured, then you have a liability.

“Some of the tactical disadvantages too are also things related to the emotions of the children,” says Whitman, whose group receives office space from Dal (falling under its foreign studies department) and funding from individuals, corporations and foundations.

“So they may not cope that well with being away from their mom and their dad if they have never had this situation before so that can be a detriment in terms of them thinking about those issues when you want them to be thinking about the battlefield.”

Whitman has managed to keep her own emotions in check in often-demoralizing or dangerous situations.

While in the Congo, she met many commanders who ordered adult and child troops to commit atrocities. One of them, Jean-Pierre Bemba, is now being tried in the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

Like many other leaders of rebel factions, he didn’t come with “horns on his head.”

He came across as “very charming,” she says, “well spoken, well dressed —someone who would have had an Armani suit on and a Rolex watch.”

But then, in the world of child soldiers, things are often not entirely as they seem.

These boys and girls of war carry AK-47s and they’ve been trained to kill. But, says Whitman, always in her mind is that they are still children.

“This could make me cry,” says the mother of children aged 21 months to 20, recalling an encounter with about 85 of them at a UNICEF transition centre in Congo.

“They had just been released (from the battlefield) within the last two months, and I remember walking into that centre and not really knowing what was going to face me when I walked in. There was no security or anything, and I just went in with the people who were running the centre and it was remarkable. All of them looked like they were between the ages of about eight and 12, 13 and I thought, how do I start to have a conversation with these boys?

“And what I just thought immediately was let me go up to them and just put out my hand and say ‘Hi, my name is Shelly.’ And when I did that, they were coming from every corner to come over and line up to just touch (my) hand. And at the time, I realized they just wanted the human touch, and I had to gather myself together for a minute and turn away because I saw my own children.

“The only difference is that my children weren’t born here.”