Monday, April 29, 2013

Romeo Dallaire fights to end use of child soldiers in new documentary

Romeo Dallaire
Canadian general Romeo Dallaire witnessed the slaughter of 800,000 people in 100 days when he was the United Nations force commander in Rwanda in 1994. Something like that stays with you, and he's now embarked on a global mission to eradicate the use of child soldiers -- who played such a big role in that genocide.

Dallaire's return to the war-torn region of Africa is chronicled in a book and new documentary that was shot last spring and is making its Canadian premiere this week: Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children.

There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers fighting in 30 conflicts around the world, and Dallaire says: "If we can make them cry as a child again, I would think that they'd want to get rid of the weapon and not want to play real life soldier anymore."

Children who are kidnapped and used as soldiers, slaves and bush wives are all too common in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Uganda and Sudan. And while the Joseph Kony-led Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is the most notable exploiter, there are many other militias using similarly despicable tactics since child soldiers are relatively easy to corral and they offer an upper hand to those who use them.

Dallaire visited several camps and talked to UN representatives, rebel commanders and, most importantly, former child soldiers and bush wives who were taken against their will but lucky enough to eventually escape. Shocking, however, is the estimated 25-per cent recidivism rate since many of these kids often have no better alternative awaiting them in their home villages since they're often mistrusted and viewed as bandits.

Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children shows what's being done to try and stop kids from being used as tools of war, and features some poignant stories from people who've been on the front lines in one way or another. It also illustrates how some community groups are arming themselves and being trained to defend against rebel attacks, and we're introduced to a father and the two children he rescued from the LRA after they were kidnapped.

Dallaire admits that it will take years to achieve his goal, if it's ever to be attained, but one of the best sequences in the film is when two teens who fought each other in the bush for opposing sides become friends once they get out of it and are taken by helicopter to an ex-combatants' camp in DRC before they're reunited with their families.

Scenes like this leave some room for optimism, as did a conversation I had last year with a lovely young woman named Grace Acan who was kidnapped by the LRA and spent eight years in virtual enslavement as the bush wife a despotic commander before escaping. She's now getting a university education and using her horrifying experiences to try and promote the rights of children.

Dallaire has a fairly high profile through his past experiences and a previous Emmy Award-winning documentary he made with Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children director Patrick Reed: Shake Hands With The Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire.

The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative is a global partnership committed to ending the use and recruitment of child soldiers worldwide by researching practical solutions, advocating for policy change and conducting comprehensive, prevention-oriented training. It works with military, police and peacekeeping forces and equips first responders and humanitarian agencies with the necessary tools and training to demobilize child soldiers and protect children at risk of recruitment. It aims to end this crime against humanity community-by-community and country-by-country once and for all.

Hopefully this film can mobilize more support for the initiative and others working toward similar goals.

Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children will be screened in Toronto as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival at 2 p.m. on April 29 at Hart House and at 5:30 p.m. on May 5 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. It will play more widely in major cities across Canada starting on various dates next month.

You can watch a trailer of the film here.

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