They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers by Roméo Dallaire
For as long as there have been human beings on this Earth, armed conflicts have existed, over a variety of things such as power, material possession, territory, cultural and/or religious beliefs and more. Although the principles of war have basically remained the same (mainly, one side against another), the tools and rules have changed. Tremendously. When we think about war and conflicts around the world, we think about grown men and women fighting for causes they deem worthy. Each side defending what is right to and for them. Regardless of what side of the conflict you consider, this is the image that comes to mind. The reality is that, while these adults constitute most of the armed forces, children in many parts of the world are an increasingly big part of the equation, as weapons.
Child soldiers are in many ways the perfect weapon of war: they are available in abundance, they are efficient thanks to the proliferation of smaller and lighter weapons, they are easy to manipulate and mold, they are expandable and disposable, they are cheap, they are reckless and fearless, and they are deceptively dangerous, often posing a moral dilemma to those who face them on the front lines. That last point is often lost in the conversation: how damaging is it for adult soldiers to face child soldiers in combat? What are the implications? Roméo Dallaire, having been in that situation himself, speaks very efficiently to this surreal experience, its consequences and effects in the short and long term. In short, child soldiers are a virtually limitless resource used and abused on the battlefront and in criminal enterprises and very little is being done about it.
The child soldiers we do not save today will either die or grow up to become damaged adults we might never be able to rescue. Many will turn into adult soldiers who will continue wreaking havoc around them and might end up held responsible for a life – their own – they had no hand in shaping. It is common for former child combatants to, as they grow older, be the ones in charge of the new “recruits”, turning them into deadly war weapons. When soldiers are brought to justice to answer to the crimes they committed, how much weight is given to their past as child soldiers and the fact that the path they took was drafted for them? Those who are fortunate to be rescued from combat face incredible odds as they attempt to rejoin society. Where do they go from there? Literally and figuratively. Do they return home to their family? Can they return home? Are there a home and a family to return to? Even if it is technically possible for them to do so, if their parents are still alive and their village still stands, do they want to, after spending so many years away fighting under the influence and brainwashed? If they want to return home, will they be welcome there? Keep in mind that for some of those child soldiers, rites of passage might include participating in the slaughter of family members and the destruction of their village. Even without that, it can be hard for people to welcome them back as though they never left. Beyond a physical location and proximity to family, what can they do with their lives? What are their options? Can they aspire to a “normal” life? If so, what does it look like, what would it take to make it happen and how many of them will make it?
For every veteran who successfully reintegrates civilian life and is able to craft a second path for themselves after years of active duty, there are countless others whose return to the society they once called home is more than brutal. Rates of homelessness, addiction and suicide are staggering among veterans and these are far from being the only challenges their return home might include. And we are talking about trained adult men and women serving their country. Imagine now child soldiers getting out of years in outlawed militias.
The issue of child soldiers does not get enough attention and that of girl soldiers is even lower on the totem pole. Girls, who represent 40% of child soldiers, when they are “recruited” are used in a myriad of ways including armed soldiers, baits, sex slaves, sexual rewards for other soldiers, bush wives and bearers of the next generation of fighters, which increases their value in these militias and equally decreases their value as girls and women if and when they are able to return home. The stigma currently attached to girl fighters who have been subjected to sexual violence is still great, even greater when these assaults have resulted in physical damage, pregnancies and/or sexually transmitted diseases. In addition to this possible rejection by their community of origin, girl soldiers are often marginalized from rehabilitation and reintegration processes that traditionally target boys and men. This, too, has to change.
The idea of home is also very interesting to examine in that context. Around the world, in wealthy and poor countries alike, poor children are the most vulnerable. In the United States, for instance, poverty, disenfranchisement, and hopelessness might lead to gang activity, whereas in Sierra Leone, similar conditions might lead children to end up in rebel militias. What they have in common are, mainly the sense of belonging and of community, as well as the power and status, they can provide to youths who might not be able to experience any of that anywhere else. This, in part, explains why many of these children “voluntarily” join these groups, and why many choose to remain in them or to return to them, even when/as other options become available. This is home.
At different points in the book, the author introduces both fictional and nonfictional stories that break from the more matter-of-fact nature of the rest of this work. The fictional stories are meant to depict experiences on the ground from the point of view of child soldiers and an adult peacekeeper. I think it is more than fair to wonder why he did not simply recount one of his own personal interactions with a child soldier during his years of service or retold the story of another peacekeeper, and why he did not interview a former child combatant to get his first-hand account. He certainly could have. The subjects are available. He did not and although some might see it as a missed or a wasted opportunity I think it worked. Dallaire offers pieces of himself throughout the book with his childhood tales and recollections, he did not need to put himself as the peacekeeper in the story he told for anyone to be able to imagine that it could have been him. As for the child-soldiers’ fictional accounts, they are dramatic, vivid and heartbreaking enough for us to be able to put a face on them.
What makes Roméo Dallaire such a compelling and credible voice in this fight is his experience both at the military level and at the humanitarian level. The two parties that have to come together at the table to make any change happen but whose languages, philosophies and practices often conflict with one another, and struggle to find common grounds, as described in the book when the author walks us through the creation of the Child Soldier Initiative, for instance.
And then, there is us. All of us.
The last part of the book is a direct call to action from the author, and even though it seems to be directed mainly toward students in particular and young people in general, all of us have a role to play and we should all be inspired to follow the author’s lead and do more to raise awareness, educate ourselves and others, and ultimately eradicate the use of child soldiers everywhere.
This book was published in 2010 and was very well received, and so was the documentary of the same name (released in 2012), but how much has really changed since? How often has this issue made it into the news? How many of you who are reading this post right now have thought about this as a crisis that needs the world’s attention? If these children were stolen from the homes of rich white people in the wealthiest parts of the globe, do you think this practice would have been allowed to exist and go on for so long with the whole world turning a blind eye to it?
Roméo Dallaire’s first experience with child soldiers occurred when he was the Force Commander of the United Nations Mission for Rwanda, as the genocide was raging on, in 1994. At the conclusion of his military career, and in the years since, he has made eradicating the child soldier practice a priority and a lifetime commitment. A daunting but crucial task which starts with raising as much awareness as possible and educating the world about an issue all of us should feel responsible for. Why? Because every single day, by our greed, carelessness, disengagement, and recklessness we let down millions of children around the world, especially the poorest and most marginalized of them all. We brought them into this world; it is our duty to ensure their safety. Frederick Douglass wrote in 1855, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” We need to start doing a better job of this.
“I saw them being tended to in their field medical stations, their young bodies ripped apart by fragments of artillery shells. They would die far from home, from family, from the warmth of a last hug or kiss from their parents. Alone and often conscious that they were about to die, some would cry, not in pain but in sorrow, in loneliness, in despair. Their last conscious thoughts most likely were of loss and abandonment as their wounds silently stole the life force from their young bodies that had barely started to live. They fought like soldiers, like warriors for a cause they and their families believed in, but in their torn and bloodied soldiers’ uniforms, they died like children.”
“And there is a more insidious, and terrifying, impact on soldiers who have been attacked frequently by children from an unprofessional, borderline criminal force. Through fear for their own safety, the loss of comrades in battle, humiliating engagements that turn against them, and witnessing the scale of brutality drugged and indoctrinated children can visit on the innocent, they may begin to regard all children as potential opponents and commit abuses against any group of children they suspect.”
“There was a day when land mines were part of the inventory of available tools one could use in warfare. The international movement, which roused public and media support around the world, led to a ban that took this weapon completely out of the inventories of arsenals of most nations. We aim for the day when the use of children provokes the same reaction. If we can do this for a chunk of metal, surely we can do it for living beings who are the most vulnerable in our society.”
“It will be a long struggle with evil and ignorance and often seemingly implacable intransigence and downright pigheadedness. But so what if we have to battle? So what if it takes forty or fifty years to end the use of the child soldier weapon system? It will have been worth it for the betterment of humanity and the protection of our youths.”
About the author: LGEN THE HON. ROMÉO DALLAIRE (Ret) served thirty-five years with the Canadian Armed Forces and now sits in the Canadian Senate. His Governor General’s Literary Award-winning book, Shake Hands with the Devil, exposed the failures of the international community to stop the worst genocide in the twentieth century. It has been turned into an Emmy Award-winning documentary as well as a feature film; it has also been entered into evidence in war crimes tribunals trying the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. Dallaire has received numerous honours and awards, including Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002, Grand Officer of the National Order of Québec in 2005, the Aegis Award for Genocide Prevention from the Aegis Trust (United Kingdom) and the United Nations Association in Canada’s Pearson Peace Medal in 2005. As a champion of human rights, his activities include work on genocide prevention, the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the Child Soldier Initiative, which seeks to develop a conceptual base for the elimination of the use of child soldiers.