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.”

 

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