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.
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.