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Dallaire exposes use of child soldiers

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They Fight Like Soldiers,

They Die Like Children

By Roméo Dallaire

Random House Canada, 320 pages, $35

RETIRED Canadian Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire is a man with a mission -- to eliminate the use of child soldiers in combat. In fact, his latest book is a stirring and thought-provoking exposé of this global phenomenon.

Dallaire asserts that adult soldiers face an ethical dilemma whenever they encounter child soldiers during war. "Over the hilltop right in front of you comes a troop of marauding rebel soldiers with rifles and machetes," he writes. "Shock hits you as you realize this soldier is not a man or a professional ... This child is a soldier ... with dozens more children behind him."

"Do you treat this person aiming his weapon at you as a soldier or a child?" Dallaire asks. "If you do nothing, dozens will be slaughtered and you will put your own life at risk. If you fire to frighten or disarm, you begin a doomed and bloody shootout. Fire back to kill, as you would an adult, and you will save a village, but at what cost?"

Dallaire, who grew up in Montreal, first encountered child soldiers in 1994 during the civil war in Rwanda. His first book, Shake Hands with the Devil, describes the atrocities he witnessed there as commander of the UN peacekeeping force. The book won the 2003 Governor-General's Award for non-fiction, and a feature film was based on the story.

In his second book, Dallaire once again writes about war, but with a different purpose; this time, he seeks to edify readers and galvanize their support.

Despite his lucid prose, Dallaire's book is didactic in tone. At the outset, he provides us with details about his upbringing and reasons why he initially chose to join the Canadian army.

However, most of the book focuses on the making of a child soldier via topics such as recruitment, training and rehabilitation. The final chapter considers the progress of Dallaire's advocacy efforts; it also suggests how readers can help.

Three of the chapters are fictional narratives that contextualize the reality of child soldiers and their level of vulnerability. In particular, many of the training and recruitment methods he outlines in resemble the experiences former child soldier Ishmael Beah recounts in his 2006 memoir A Long Way Gone.

The first narrative presents the natural world of an African child growing up in the forest. The second passage deals with recruitment methods, such as starvation, drugs, indoctrination and sexual abuse. The final story documents what happens during the crucial moment when a child soldier and a UN peacekeeper meet in combat.

Yet another chapter explains a process called DDR -- the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers after a conflict.

Within this section, a chilling and lesser known fact emerges; girls, too, are used as soldiers. Many have been raped and used as sex slaves or bush wives by male commanders. Girls who have borne children are more likely to contract AIDS, TB, hepatitis or malaria than non-mothers. Often their families disown them. Thus, the reintegration of these girls is very difficult.

On a side note, Dallaire first spoke publicly about child soldiers in Winnipeg in 2000 at an international conference on war-affected children. For the past six years, he has worked to improve their lot through Child Soldier Initiative, a Halifax-based group that he founded.

If landmines have been banned, so can the use of child soldiers, says Dallaire. Here's hoping this book will bring his goal closer to reality.

Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 6, 2010 H8

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