Young And Dangerous: What can be done to prevent peacekeepers from having to fire on armed children?

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

Roméo Dallaire, the retired Canadian army general, is perhaps best known as one of the rare Western heroes of the Rwandan genocide: His insistent warnings about the scope and severity of that unfolding horror went unheeded. He is also a tireless campaigner against human-rights abuses in Africa, not least the use of child soldiers in the many wars there.

But a more intimate sense of Mr. Dallaire comes from a personal anecdote in “They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children,” where he reflects on his Canadian childhood and on the ways in which boys, even before reaching adolescence, can become acutely aware of tribal allegiances and enmities. Growing up in Quebec, he and the other children broke into hard-edged camps. The “French-Catholic/English-Protestant tension” was a constant in his parish. “At times, blood was spilt in the name of something we absolutely could not understand: they were the Anglos (les têtes ca rrées) and we were the French (frogs) and we had to be antagonists without question.”

However much those children battled, though, they remained children, free to indulge their imaginations, to develop their minds and revel in the freedoms that childhood affords. Later in the book, having attested to the potential for an awful tribalism that lurks in every young heart, he shows us what happens when “inhuman adults” strip away all the trappings of childhood and shove a machine gun into little hands.

Mr. Dallaire writes in chillingly personal terms about the experiences that have fueled his determination to take up this cause. Describing peacekeeping work in an African conflict zone, he writes: “You raise your own weapon and peer through the magnifying gun sight at the leader. Shock hits you as you realize this soldier is not your equal in age, strength, training, understanding. This soldier is a child.”

Such stunned realizations are at the heart of one of the book’s main inquiries: What can be done to head off confrontations that might put international peacekeepers in the position of having to fire on armed children? Mr. Dallaire tries to bring the subject to life with fictional sections in the book. One story involves the tragic encounter of a peacekeeper and a marauding militia member who approaches him with machine gun blazing. In their split-second confrontation, the peacekeeper’s instinct and training take over and he fires his weapon, killing the attacker—who turns out to be a young girl.

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