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.