Hutchinson, £20, 299pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, By Romeo Dallaire

The life of a child abducted and forced to act as a combatant in a rebel army in contemporary central Africa could not be more hellish. Former child soldiers, some taken captive as young as nine, report being drugged and then forced to slaughter their own parents. Deprived of food and sleep, completely dependent on their captors for survival, they undergo a crude form of basic training before being handed light weapons and thrown into combat. If they don't die of disease or from their wounds or landmines, they are easy prey for their enemies.

Even if they survive and escape through the bush back to their villages, they would find only charred remains. The fate of girl soldiers is often worse. They are used as sex slaves by male rebels in areas where HIV rates are extremely high. If they are lucky, girls are made "bush wives" and form longer-lasting relationships with commanders. But once the conflict is over, they have lost any chance of a respectable marriage and often endure lives as sex workers in cities rather than face the shame of returning to their families.

The former Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, who commanded the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, has written a book exposing these horrors and advocating that governments make this a humanitarian priority. Dallaire, who wrote a disturbing memoir about his time in Rwanda where "I was given strict orders from the highest commanders of the UN not to act, merely to observe", has now made child soldiers his cause. He writes with great passion about the need for international aid organisations and governments to focus on the terrible consequences of ignoring this growing problem.

These psychologically damaged children grow into adults who rarely find a productive place in post-war society. He describes the complexity of dealing with rebel soldiers during the Rwandan genocide, where children were used as front-line troops, "very well trained and indoctrinated". Youth militias from Rwanda's major parties were seduced into battle through song, dance, illegal enticements and aggressive behaviour that fostered their sense of omnipotence.

These young Hutus, who were already disenfranchised, without work, education or hope, were easy targets for recruiters. Commanders induced a form of psychosis so acute that these children had no sense of morality when they carried out orders to machete, maim or gang rape the "enemy". They were sustained, according to Dallaire, by their elders who supported their actions and urged them on to more effective ways of carrying out mass murder. "They wore the blood that splattered over them with pride."

Since 1994 the problem of child combatants seems to have spread. Their recruitment into rebel armies from Sierre Leone and Liberia to Sri Lanka and Congo reflect a terrible storm of factors; a breakdown in social order, rocketing HIV rates and adult mortality that leave children without parents or competent elders, vested economic interests and new, lightweight weapons that children can handle with deadly efficiency. These populations have high proportions of unemployed youths, easy prey for recruiters offering "a bit of hope, inclusiveness, money, drugs, uniforms, chants, rallies, power over peers, and even a cause".

They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, is a startling account of this deeply troubling issue. But it is a curious and awkward mix of academic writing, a rallying cry to action aimed at younger readers and a few rather clumsy attempts at fiction. This book lacks the drama, detail and brutal honesty about the moral dilemma Dallaire faced in Rwanda that made his Shake Hands with the Devil so compelling.

Rather than giving the reader a range of case studies, Dallaire has used "fictional narratives" to describe a child's abduction and experience in battle. Dallaire resorts to cliché here, while I was left wanting much more from the former child soldiers like Ishmael Beah, who provides an introduction, and from others quoted.

Rwanda scarred Dallaire. That he wants to devote the remainder of his life to saving these innocents who are warped by war is laudable. It's a shame that the veteran has not found a better vehicle for delivering this message to his readers.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz