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film review

Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children.

"It's not just a crime against society, it's a sin."

The subject is the deployment of child soldiers and the speaker, his voice as urgent as his face is weathered, has witnessed the sin far too often and much too close. Of course, Roméo Dallaire, the now-retired Canadian general who led the United Nations forces during the genocide in Rwanda, is no stranger to documentaries – he revisited that nightmare in Shake Hands With the Devil. Now, Patrick Reed's film follows Dallaire back to Central Africa to promote the cause that he pursued in his book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, and that has become the noble obsession of his once-broken life: to confront the sinners and to eradicate the sin.

Although no horror is more abject than the wanton ruination of children, it can't be said the world is unaware of either the tragedy or its scope. Many other voices, no less eloquent than Dallaire's, have been raised. In The Shadow of the Sun, the late and brilliant Ryszard Kapuscinski traced the practical origin of the problem to the development of smaller and lighter weapons, the easier to be cradled in callow hands. And in A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah wrote with heart-rending poignancy of his own shattered boyhood, the abduction and the indoctrination and the drugs and the slaughter.

So the world is aware yet somehow hardened, and the Canadian government is hardly an exception. At one one point here, citing the case of Omar Khadr, Dallaire concludes with a mix of astonishment and frustration: "We aren't even recognizing that he had been a child soldier." Coming from a man who has engaged in battle, who has seen the "anger, fear, excitement" in the eyes of a child aiming a gun directly at him, who can admit that "the adrenalin rush of combat is stronger than sex," such a conclusion carries real weight. The politicians can posture, the columnists can prattle – the ex-general knows of what he speaks.

That intimate authority accompanies him, and us, on his return to war zones in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. There, he freely acknowledges the military utility of the child soldier: "It's the most sophisticated low-technology weapon system in combat today." Obviously, the countless militias, fighting for their countless causes, have embraced that awful truth. As an African observer in the field bluntly puts it: "They use children because they're trigger-happy."

But not happy for long. We watch two boy combatants, 15- and 16-year olds, turn themselves over to a UN base only to face "not much of a future." We see a pair of wily negotiators, attached to a demobilization unit, struggling through the "huge, crushing, Byzantine bureaucracy" of the UN to work with militias in extracting kids – maybe, of the thousands involved, 20 per week, five of whom will return. And, most depressingly, we hear that the deployment of children, like the militias themselves, is a symptom of prevailing social and political ills, of the lack of governance and the widespread corruption. Until that broad disease is treated, the symptoms, and the horror, will continue. Not a hopeful prospect.

Nevertheless, in the interim, the world's passive awareness must give way to active attention. That's where Dallaire serves as a shining example. Like all of us, he has felt like a sinner. Unlike most of us, he is out there labouring hard, one child at a time, to wipe clean the sin.

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