Iraq crisis: Why you should be concerned about ISIS recruiting children

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By: Nick Logan

Watch above: Britain’s ITV News obtained video of young boys holding assault rifles in a convoy of ISIS-flagged vehicles in Mosul, Iraq. (ITN/YouTube)

Militants in Iraq appear to be luring young boys into the violent conflict that is stretching across a wide swath of the country.

Britain’s ITV News obtained video of two boys holding assault rifles in the back of an Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militant-flagged vehicle, as a convoy rolled through the city of Mosul on Monday.

ITV News reported the video was taken late Monday, as the convoy of captured Iraqi army vehicles.

While it has not been confirmed if the boys in the video are indeed child soldiers recruited by ISIS, the footage emerged just two days after Human Rights Watch reported the extremist group had “systematically sought to recruit children” in neighbouring Syria — where it is one of several groups fighting against government forces and other rival rebel groups in the country’s civil war.

“Islamist groups such as ISIS have more aggressively targeted children for recruitment, providing free lectures and schooling that included weapons and other military training,” the New York-based organization reported based on witness interviews.

“Residents of areas controlled by ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra say these groups have reached out to young people, including children, in systematic ways, entering schools and providing education in mosques that includes weapons and military training,” the HRW report stated.

The HRW report focused on several groups fighting in the Syrian conflict, not just ISIS.

But, the organization said it had credible reports ISIS and others have “used children under 15 in combat or support roles.”

According to the UN, under human rights law 18 is the legal minimum age at which individuals can be recruited for armed conflict, but the recruitment and use of children under 15 to be soldiers is “prohibited under international law… and is defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court.”

But child recruitment is still happening and it’s not a big surprise for some advocates that ISIS is doing it in Syria and possibly Iraq.

“Pretty much every major conflict that you’re going to look at in the news… children are being used and recruited,” said Dr. Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative at Halifax’s Dalhousie University.

Whitman said the use of children in armed conflict isn’t slowing down and the international community needs to put more focus on preventing that from happening in the first place, rather than de-mobilizing and rehabilitating children after the fact.

She took particular note of militant groups recruiting abroad, including in Canada, and suggested the luring of foreign fighters can begin with those who aren’t yet adults.

“Just because it’s young men that you might be seeing [in] the images going into some of these places, from Canada, it doesn’t mean that the recruitment isn’t starting much earlier.

“As long as one has access to a computer, it could start at a much younger age,” she explained.

With most children having access to the Internet and groups such as ISIS using social media and online forums to reach out to potential recruits, Whitman said this is an issue Canadians should be paying attention to.

Global News reported last week a Somali-Canadian man from Calgary was seen in a video, released by ISIS, burning his passport and warning Canada and the U.S. that ISIS “will destroy you.”

Farah Mohamed Shiradon’s appearance in the video follows the death of two other men from Calgary who were killed fighting with militants in the Middle East.

But unlike recruitment in Syrian and Iraqi communities, ISIS isn’t necessarily reaching out to those directly affected by conflict or even individuals coming from disadvantaged situations.

“In terms of the recruitment from Canada, it’s not the poor kids. It’s not the kids from impoverished backgrounds that we need to be worrying about,” Whitman pointed out. “It’s actually the kids that are coming from the middle class [who] are being recruited and used.”

She added groups such as ISIS present a “distorted version of reality” or a sense of belonging that appeals to young people who may be vulnerable to radical ideals.

Whitman said the Child Soldier Initiative has begun discussing the problem with law enforcement officials in Canadian cities, such as Calgary, and will soon launch a program with police in Toronto “to see how we can tackle this problem, with them, within their communities.”

She also said interfaith religious leaders from around the world have approached the Initiative to have training, similar to how the organization trains militaries, to prevent the recruitment of child fighters.

The UN estimates there are between 250,000 and 300,000 children who have been recruited as soldiers around the world.

There are 129 countries, including Iraq, that have signed the UN’s Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which prohibits the recruitment of anyone under the age of 18.

While the protocol is signed by governments, militant groups are bound to it and can be held accountable for recruiting underage fighters.

Roméo Dallaire doesn’t walk away from a fight

Roméo Dallaire’s resignation from the Senate may be seen by some as a sign of weakness, of a man retreating from public life. But they’d be wrong.

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By: Patrick Reed

Roméo Dallaire’s resignation from the Senate this week comes as little surprise.

His struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common knowledge. Bearing witness to one of the worst genocides of modern times as UN Force commander in Rwanda in 1993-94 continues to haunt him.

“I live every day what I lived 20 years ago and it’s as if it was this morning,” Dallaire told a room packed with reporters in Ottawa after announcing his resignation on Wednesday.

He approached the Senate like he did most things in his very public life — taking on intractable issues, shouldering a heavy burden and almost obsessively driven by a sense of responsibility.

This was apparent in his work on the subcommittee on veterans affairs, advocating for soldiers with PTSD; his founding of the parliamentary group for the prevention of genocide; and his very public stance on less popular files like that of former Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr.

Some may see his resignation as a sign of weakness, of a man retreating from public life. But they’d be wrong.

Dallaire isn’t, and never was, someone who walks away from a fight.

I’ve seen this many times and have gotten to know him well over the last decade. First in 2004, while making the documentary Shake Hands with the Devil with White Pine Pictures about Dallaire’s return to Rwanda on the 10th anniversary of the genocide. More recently, when filming with him in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, detailing his work on child soldiers in Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children.

Here’s one story, among many:

We’re in Nyabiando, a village in DRC, near the front line of an active civil war. Child soldiers are used here by all sides in the conflict.

Dallaire was meeting with two child soldiers, Serge, 15, and Ajefi, 16. Both had just escaped their armed rebel groups. Dallaire was there to hear their stories and help them get an airlift on a UN helicopter so they could return home.

Just before departure, with the children now aboard, a number of UN troops pile into the helicopter hoping for a weekend furlough. The crew informs Dallaire that the two child soldiers have to get off to make room.

His response: “You throw other people out or we don’t fly.”

As the standoff played out, Serge and Ajefi overcame their fear of being on a helicopter for the first time and stared at Dallaire. In their experience, commanders treated their soldiers like cannon fodder; here someone they just met was their advocate.

Arrogant? Perhaps. Effective? Definitely.

The company commander eventually ordered two of his men off and the helicopter departed, taking Serge and Ajefi from a troubled past to an uncertain future.

For Dallaire it was a victory of sorts, but a hollow one, once again highlighting the inherent bureaucratic frustrations of UN missions. And yet, unlike armchair critics, Dallaire is willing and able to work within structures (whether the UN or the Senate) that others easily dismiss. Flawed institutions, yes, Dallaire would readily admit, but the best we have at the present time.

Here’s another story:

Dungu, DRC, a remote town near the border with South Sudan. The Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been abducting children in the region for more than 20 years and using them as child soldiers, is active in the area.

Early morning UN patrol with Moroccan troops.

One of the lead vehicles is a beaten up Humvee with a 50-calibre machine gun precariously mounted on back with rope. Perched behind the gunner, seated on a rusty tin is Dallaire. It’s been a rough few weeks on the road. And as the convoy bounces along dirt roads, the 60-something Dallaire says: “For the last few days, there’s just sort of a rhythm that I’ve fallen back into that you want to stay with, you know, you want to relive.” His eyes intensify and focus, peering into the passing brush, lost in the moment.

Until he snaps out of it, looks over and smiles: “Damn. This is a nice break from Ottawa.”

He never seemed as alive and young and vital as when out on that early morning patrol.

Maybe the fact that Dallaire was more relaxed on front lines in DRC says something about the corrosive nature of the current political culture in Ottawa.

Or maybe it just says something about the man himself — someone who is never happier than when he is getting his “boots dirty.”

As he mentioned on Wednesday, “I’m leaving one job because I’ve got a more demanding job, I feel, internationally.”

The Senate’s loss is the world’s gain.

A map of where in the world most child soldiers are located. Source: A Window to the World

What We Can Learn from Child Soldiers

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UNITED NATIONS, Mar 10 2014 (IPS) – In 2003, Moses Otiti, a 15-year-old from Uganda, was walking in a group with his father when members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) ambushed them.

Because he was a child, Moses was the only one to survive. For the next 12 months, he was forced to serve the LRA as a soldier in the rebel group’s war against the Ugandan government.

“In the first month when I joined [the LRA], I was not comfortable with the things that were going on, but then I reached a situation where everything became almost normal.” — Moses Otiti

“The reason why they didn’t kill me was because they were really [looking for] people who were young…they really wanted to groom them as soldiers who can fight the battle against the government,” Otiti told IPS.

Conflicts in the modern age are being fought less frequently between states, and more often within them. And with this shift, the use of children in combat has emerged as a striking trend.

Researchers and those who work on the issue of child soldiers say that in conflicts where the phenomenon is present, there is a greater likelihood that mass atrocities will be committed.

“Children don’t have the same capacity to make decisions or to understand what may be right or wrong, or they might not have the same level of life experience or education to determine some of the things that an adult can,” Shelly Whitman, director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, told IPS.

“It is a time when they are very impressionable and they are still figuring out their identity and moral compass.

“Problems of economics, development and social dynamics [are important] to look at as well,” she added. “When we get down to that level, it shows you that there are a whole wider set of problems, it is possible that when that is allowed to happen the [societal] degradation can go further.”

The role of violence

Moses describes the centrality of violence to the recruitment process, explaining how the LRA soldiers threatened to kill him, just like his father, unless he joined their army.

“For them to recruit you, they would cane you until you are at the point where you are about to die, and if you survive that means you can be a soldier. But if you die, that means you would not make a very good soldier…and that would be the end of you,” Otiti told IPS.

A map of where in the world most child soldiers are located. Source: A Window to the World

Commanders like children because it is easier to manipulate their psychological capacity to participate in mass atrocities. For example, Cambodian child soldiers under the Khmer Rouge were, as a result of this malleability, more ruthless towards civilians than adult soldiers, state Jo Boyden and Sara Gibbs in their book “Children of War”.

“Children are particularly affected by excessive violence because it occurs at a crucial stage of a human being’s development,” Marie Lamensch, assistant to the director at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS), told IPS.

“The environment in which a child grows up affects his cognitive and affective development. Child soldiers, whether they kill or not, are exposed to physical and verbal violence, they are subject to fear and helplessness,” she said. “That trauma will affect the way they react to their environment, now and in the future.”

This is not to say that children do not have morals.

“[Children forced into military service] have their moral compass in the first few weeks of being abducted, and they know what they are doing is wrong, but the more they kill people, the more they rape or do other things like that, their brain and moral compass switches off,” Moses Makasa, director of development for Watoto, a Ugandan organisation which helps to rehabilitate former child soldiers like Otiti, told IPS.

Otiti’s experience echoes this process. “In the first month when I joined them, I was not comfortable with the things that were going on, but then I reached a situation where everything became almost normal,” he said.

“When I joined them (the LRA), I really felt that what they were doing wasn’t right, but then that thought kept on fading away from my mind…[But] I never liked it.”

Moses explained how this fading distinction between right and wrong made life with the LRA easier to manage.

Past, present and future

Several current conflicts display the correlation between child soldiers and the potential for mass atrocities.

South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) are “two situations where grave violations of human rights are taking place and where there is a great danger of mass atrocities,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a meeting of the General Assembly on Jan. 17.

On Feb. 4, the UN also published a special report on children in Syria’s civil war, which indicated the use of children in combat.

In 2002 the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict and the 1998 Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, entered into force.

These outlawed the involvement of children under age 18 in hostilities and made the conscription, enlistment or use of children under age 15 in hostilities a war crime. In 2004, the U.N. Security Council also unanimously condemned the use of child soldiers.

Child soldiers are “the most easily identifiable warning tool” for mass atrocities, said Roméo Dallaire, U.N. commanding officer in the 1994 Rwandan peacekeeping mission, Canadian senator and founder of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, connecting the recruitment of child soldiers as both a precursor and “primary weapon” of the genocide in Rwanda and any potential future genocide.

Since Moses Otiti escaped from the LRA during a firefight with government forces, he has worked to rebuild his life, and is now studying hard to become a doctor.

“When I was still there, there were certain things they would do, like killing people, and that is how I used to understand things. But when I came home…my understanding of taking peoples lives for granted really changed,” he told IPS. “Every person is very important.”

“These children who are suffering so much today are the ones who will either repair those societies or repeat the violence of these societies in the next generation,” Anthony Lake, head of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, said in February.

If the world does not seriously address the education and rehabilitation of these children, “we are going to lose generations,” he warned.

Child soldier – survivor

Michel Chikwanine recalls horrors of his youth, talks of ‘resilience’

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By: Michel Lightstone

The words are jarring: child, soldier, gunshots, death.

But for Michel Chikwanine, a young man originally from eastern Congo, the discordant terms were part of his life when he was growing up in Africa.

The former child soldier experienced horrors at the tender age of five, including being kidnapped and drugged and forced to kill a friend in an initiation ritual.

Now 26, Chikwanine has nightmares and says he shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the former refugee — Chikwanine and most of his family came to Canada in 2004 — is a survivor in the truest sense. With the help of many supporters, he’s made a life for himself in this country and is an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.

Chikwanine has gone from a forced child soldier to human rights advocate and sought-after public speaker. He addresses school and conference audiences, sharing his “African stories” of violent trauma and other things about the continent, and his message of hope for a better world.

“I talk about resilience,” Chikwanine said. “The fact that there were so many opportunities in my life where I would have given up. It would have been so easy.”

Another message Chikwanine likes to deliver is “using the resources around you” to improve your lot in life.

Chikwanine was in Halifax on Thursday for a speaking engagement at an international conference covering children, youth and security. Graduate students from universities in Canada and elsewhere researching the well-being of young people in war zones and other hot spots are in the city for the symposium.

In war-torn Congo, after school one day, Chikwanine was playing on a soccer field and was kidnapped by rebel soldiers in his town near the Ugandan border.

He said he was five years old, born into a family with two older sisters and a younger one, and was a child soldier for two weeks before escaping his captors.

“I was drugged, I was manipulated and I was forced to kill my best friend as a way of being initiated into an army,” he told The Chronicle Herald. The 12-year-old boy was shot to death.

After two weeks of “training,” Chikwanine managed to flee into a jungle for three days and three nights. He ended up in a town, and a local shopkeeper returned him to his home.

“It was a very difficult experience,” said Chikwanine. “It still haunts me to this day.”

The troubles didn’t end when he was reunited with his family, Chikwanine acknowledged. The family ended up in a refugee camp in Uganda for five years. His dad died there at age 52.

He said his father and mentor, Ramazani, was a lawyer and an outspoken human rights activist who was assassinated in 2001. Also, female family members were raped, The Globe and Mail reported in 2011.

Chikwanine said his family, which moved to Ottawa 10 years ago, still doesn’t know where one of his older sisters is.

“While living in Kampala, she disappeared,” he said.

In war zones, there’s a thin line between disaster and survival. Chikwanine, who became a Canadian citizen in 2007, is articulate and speaks with a measured tone when he says he’s lucky to be alive.

“It’s almost like a miracle that I’m even standing.”

Students help kick off child soldier exhibit

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By: The Vanguard

Students from Yarmouth Central School and Barton Consolidated School in Digby County presented a brief dramatic performance at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia Western Branch in Yarmouth Thursday evening, Jan. 16, to help open The Plight of the Child Soldier – Innocence Lost, an exhibit of photographs from the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative at Dalhousie University.

The student project – led by Yarmouth resident Linda Marie Coakley – gave the participating students a chance to learn about the problem of child soldiers in some parts of the world.

The problem is getting worse, according to a child soldier fact sheet made available to those attending the exhibit’s opening in Yarmouth.

In recent years the use of child soldiers reportedly has spread to almost every region of the world.

Some children are under the age of 10 when they are forced to serve.

Those who are poor, displaced from their families, have limited access to education or live in a combat zone are more likely to be forcibly recruited.

Children who are not forced into being soldiers may volunteer to become soldiers because they feel societal pressure and believe volunteering for military service will give them income, food or security.

The Yarmouth exhibit will be up until Feb. 23.

The exhibit was made possible through the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s ArtsSmarts Nova Scotia program in partnership with the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, with funding from Arts Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Department of Education.

Trio honoured at B’Nai Brith Dinner

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By: Bill Brooks

The 63rd Annual B’Nai Brith Dinner held Nov. 27 at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue saw more than 700 guests attend to congratulate this year’s honourees — Alfred Balm and Senator and Lt.-Gen. (Ret’d) Romeo Dallaire and to salute Lee Richardson on being awarded the Ben Doktor Award.

Past honourees at the prestigious dinner read like a who’s who, including: Gordie Hoffman, Q.C.; Lanny McDonald; Ken King; Frank Sisson; Ralph Klein; Art Smith; Phil Libin; Ron Ghitter; Gail Asper; and Harley Hotchkiss, to name but a few.

Balm’s list of accomplishments is nothing short of astounding and includes interests in dozens of companies around the world — not the least of which is his role as chairman and owner of Emergo Group — an international investment firm. Yet it is his extraordinary generosity — much of it anonymous — that garnered Balm the prestigious recognition from B’Nai Brith Calgary Lodge No. 816. Whether the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) Regimental Society and The Poppy Fund to the Veteran’s Foodbank and the Calgary Drop-In Centre, Balm’s significant support to myriad organizations has changed thousands of lives for the better.

Dallaire is one of our country’s most celebrated humanitarians. He is the founder of the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative — an organization aimed at eradicating the use of child soldiers; an outspoken advocate for human rights, particularly war-affected children, women, First Nations and military veterans; a champion of genocide prevention initiatives and nuclear non-proliferation; and a bestselling author.

Among the 700-plus guests in attendance this night were: better half of Alfred Balm, his fabulous and stunning wife Phyllis and their two sons Roger and Mike and their wives Lana and Sherri; Aron Eichler and his son, Creative Outlet’s Jeff Eichler; Soup Sister founder Sharon Hapton and her husband Brass Monocle’s Garry Hapton; dinner committee co-chair Joel Grotsky; Mayor Naheed Nenhsi and his chief of staff Chima Nkemdirim; Calgary Herald editor-in-chief Lorne Motley; Hotel Arts’ Mark Wilson and Simon Chamberlin; honourary master of ceremonies Lou Pomerance; the Met Centre’s Howard Silver; Century 21’s Darrell Nowosad; Royal Le Page’s Darren Abrahamson; Prostate Cancer Canada Network Calgary executive director Bob Shiell; WestJet’s Richard Bartrem and Yehudi Altman; ahead-turners Penny Smith and Mandy Smith-Haber; Councillor Andre Chabot; brothers Dr. Stuart Yaholnitsky and Dr. Bruce Yaholnitsky; and media legend Darrel Janz in the role of MC this night.

Best way to end use of child soldiers is to shame the commander: Dallaire

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By: Jocelyn Edwards

One of the most effective strategies in preventing the use of children as weapons of war is shame, according to retired lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire.

“You hit (a commander’s) ego,” he said. “You stand your ground and continue to try to break that individual’s power base with his peers by insulting him as not a real commander if he has to use children to do his fighting.”

Dallaire, the commander of the ill-fated United Nation’s peacekeeping force in Rwanda during that country’s genocide, was in Calgary this week to be honoured at a dinner held by the B’nai Brith Lodge and to raise awareness and support for his organization, the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.

Shaming leaders who recruit children as soldiers is a tactic that worked in Sierra Leone at the end of the country’s civil war, according to the retired officer, who also serves in Canada’s Senate.

Retired lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire. Photo: Stuart Gradon

Dallaire recently returned from Sierra Leone, where his organization is in the first year of a countrywide initiative to train soldiers and police on how to prevent the use of children in war. In addition to training leaders, the organization has introduced picture books to the country’s school system to warn children against the dangers of becoming involved with armed groups.

The organization has also trained Canadian soldiers and RCMP likely to be deployed on peacekeeping missions on methods preventing of child soldiers. Peacekeepers can assist by providing families and children with information, by “making families and the youth aware of the extend to which (children) are being exploited in becoming child soldiers, versus thinking that they are going to get food and clothing and money,” according to Dallaire.

The celebrated humanitarian first encountered child soldiers as the commander of the UN forces in Rwanda.

“They were not only on the front lines as combatants but they manned all the road blocks and checkpoints and conducted a significant amount of the killing,” he said.

Facing children in combat can be particularly traumatic for those trying to keep the peace, said the general who has been public about his own struggles with PTSD.

“It causes an ethical dilemma for peacekeepers after they come home and start looking at their own kids after they have been engaged in fighting child soldiers. How do you face your own?”

Dallaire has declared in the past that he is dedicating the rest of his life to the prevention of the use of children in war.

“I consider it the most horrific possible degradation of a society,” he said.

In 2010 Dallaire published a book on the topic, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, and earlier this year, a film based on the book was released.

The former general goes so far as to advocate international intervention in situations were children are widely used as soldiers. “I think that we should be considering conflicts where children are used massively as a worthy enough cause for us to intervene,” he said.

While there are many international groups doing the work of rehabilitating and reintegrating child soldiers, Dallaire’s initiative is the only organization in the world dedicated to prevention.

There are more than 250,000 children being used in armed conflicts worldwide, according to the Child Soldiers Initiative. Forty per cent of these children are girls.

The use of child soldiers is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of warfare. According to Dallaire, child soldiers were first seen in Mozambique in the 1980s.

“The proliferation of small arms has made (children) easy to arm and to train to the absolute minimum standard,” Dallaire said.

The use of child soldiers is not just limited to Africa. Children have also been employed in Asian countries such as Sri Lanka and in the drug wars in South America. In Canada, law enforcement is becoming more concerned about the use of youth in diaspora gangs, according to Dallaire.

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

Original Article Link

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.”