“The rage I have is towards our ineptness and sense of irresponsibility to those who expect us to be in a leadership role.”
Roméo Dallaire, 64, lieutenant-general (retired), senator and author of a new book on child soldiers, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, is engaged in a battle – this one for the moral soul of Canada. “This country ... is changing its fundamental philosophy towards humanity and values and moral standing. It has already happened,” he says slowly and gravely from his seat at the head of a boardroom table at his publisher’s downtown Toronto office.
A compelling mixture of despair, hope, commitment, pride and disappointment, Mr. Dallaire exudes the expected military tough-guy persona, but underneath a more sensitive, damaged side peeks out – an untucked shirttail in an otherwise impeccably kept uniform.
It is clear that part of his determined engagement in fanning a “growing backlash among average Canadians who are starting to sense that this country ain’t what it used to be” is his continuing fight for his own emotional equilibrium after suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal despair when he returned from Rwanda in the mid-nineties.
“You stay busy because it hurts less,” confides the author of the award-winning 2003 memoir Shake Hands with the Devil, his harrowing account of serving as commander of the United Nations forces during the Rwandan genocide.
Time doesn’t heal the wounds, he says with saddened eyes, adding that medication and therapy are still essential. “It didn’t happen 16 years ago,” he says. “It happened this morning. A smell or a sound or a discussion will bring it back immediately.”
The release of They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children comes at an opportune moment for Mr. Dallaire to lambaste the failure of Canadian foreign policy, as the case of Omar Khadr, the Toronto-born man convicted of war crimes, reached its controversial conclusion at a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Formerly recognized as a child soldier – he was 15 when captured in Afghanistan in 2002 after throwing a grenade that fatally wounded a U.S. soldier – Mr. Khadr pleaded guilty to all charges as part of a plea bargain with U.S. prosecutors and received a sentence of 40 years in prison, of which he will serve only eight.
“It’s going dead against the [Geneva]Conventions we have agreed to, the conventions that call for child soldiers to be handled differently and that those who use child soldiers to be seen as conducting crimes against humanity. We have pushed that internationally. We’ve been tested with one of our own, and we have failed flagrantly,” Mr. Dallaire says, shaking with anger.
The country’s recent failure to get a seat on the United Nations Security Council is also “unforgivable” and adds to his “level of rage against Canada,” the celebrated humanitarian continues.
Asked about his view on the decision to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan in 2011, he sighs. “It’s consistent with our movement away from our values. I consider the withdrawal in 2011 to be nothing more than political expediency.”
In his new book, Mr. Dallaire takes a hard look at the recruitment and coercion of child soldiers (250,000 boys and girls around the world), a phenomenon he has studied for more than 10 years (at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and at Dalhousie University in Halifax) after encountering some of them in Rwanda. Rather than focusing exclusively on their rehabilitation and reintegration – the picking up of their psychological pieces after the conflict is over – he describes them as a “weapons system,” in an effort to bring about the eradication of their use in the first place.
Understanding how they are abducted from their families, equipped with light arms because of their proliferation around the world, and forced through rape, drugs and other abuse to fight when they have no understanding of the complex issues involved should not leave readers in despair, he says, but rather with a sense of outrage and the need for intervention.
With the publication of his book, Mr. Dallaire, who also founded the Child Soldiers Initiative (CSI), is launching Zero Force, a movement aimed at high-school students and undergraduates to recruit 2.5 million young people around the world to engage in activism against the use of child soldiers.
Hope resides with the youth, he says. “Those who are mastering more and more the communications revolution, those who realize that there are no borders in the world, are the ones who are going to leap ahead.
“I’m using a Colin Powell doctrine of overwhelming force,” he says, cracking a wan smile.
The father of three grown children, Willem, 32, Catherine, 28 and Guy, 25, all of whom are involved as reservists in the Canadian Forces, Mr. Dallaire is a gentleman who often addresses his interlocutor as “madam” and slides easily into a fatherly persona, offering refreshments at the start of the interview.
Shyly, he asks for feedback on his book, which uses, in part, imagined scenes to help the reader feel shock and empathy for both the child soldier and the professional soldier who faces him (or her) in battle.
Drawing on his own childhood, in which he loved to disappear into the woods to play imagined games near the family cabin in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains, Mr. Dallaire deftly evokes the innocence of youth and, in the process, paints a portrait of himself as a dreamy boy who chafed under the strict demands of his military father. His sense of youthful vocation was directed at one of two things: the army or the priesthood.
Maybe that juxtaposition of choices is what is seen in his steady, blue eyes, because some kind of painful, unexpressed tension is there. A fragile but determined wish for the beauty of humanity is sparring with a memory of its evil that he can never hope to fully erase.