Roméo Dallaire's Fight to Make Child Soldiers an Oxymoron

05/16/2013 05:18 EDT | Updated 07/16/2013 05:12 EDT

I was profoundly moved by the new White Pine Pictures film, Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children, which follows LGen Senator Roméo Dallaire on a riveting journey to end the use of children as a weapon of war in East Africa -- a global campaign that demands a critical mass of attention, awareness, and action.

Based on Dallaire's groundbreaking book of the same name, the film brings the viewer into close contact with former child soldiers, United Nations officers working to demobilize children, and even militia leaders.

We see Dallaire speaking "commander to commander" with a suave Mai Mai rebel leader denying the use of children in his combat operations. We see him engaging, usually in French, with young boys who had been kidnapped, drugged, indoctrinated, forced to kill and mutilate even close friends or relatives, and girls forced into sex slavery and worried about their ability to find a husband and start a family.

We watch him play soccer and sing in church with members of communities that have been ravaged by conflict but whose spirit is undying. On a personal note, I became unexpectedly emotional during the segment on Dallaire's return to Rwanda -- where I worked last summer with Global Youth Connect and the Inara Legal Aid Service -- and his visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. Director Patrick Reed captures the pace and energy of East Africa with evident dedication. Indeed, the footage of Rwanda's rolling hills is simply beautiful.

Faced with enormous complexities and painful memories of the 1994 Rwandan genocide -- during which he commanded a UN force that, with an adequate mandate and resources, could have prevented the deaths of over a million people in three months -- we see Dallaire embarking on a personally demanding campaign. He speaks slowly and emphatically throughout the film, as he searches for precisely the right words to capture an overwhelming phenomenon and make it resonate with North American film audiences. As in his book, his is aided in this regard by fictional sequences illustrating the journey of a child soldier, here illustrated through animation and excellent narration by former Congolese child soldier Michel Chikwanine.

Whereas the Kony 2012 campaign -- discussed in the film -- dramatized and oversimplified child exploitation, Dallaire has provided us with a deeply personal and relatable call to action. On that note, the film offers useful insights for those interested in best practises. For instance, one young UN official in the trenches of demobilization notes that the child soldiers crisis cannot be addressed in isolation; poor governance, lack of accountability, and gross corruption must be part of the conceptualization. Moreover, Dallaire states that his intention is to combat the recruitment of children in the first place, yet the film largely profiles efforts to "pick up the pieces" - efforts that are often short-lived, as children return to their communities deeply traumatized, while their families remain under attack from the same groups against which they were indoctrinated to fight. The result: the rate of recidivism is high - about 30%, as noted in the film.

Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children humanizes the global struggle to end the use of children in armed conflict. Pushing aside the morass of international norms and NGO reports -- important and useful as they are - Dallaire asks a simple yet harrowing question: how is it that we can go "apeshit" - to use his word - when our own children's rights are violated, but passively accept the reality of child soldiers throughout the world? This question need not be answered directly, so long as we use this opportunity to engage immediately and wholeheartedly in the global struggle to revive the child, and put increasingly desperate militiamen in the docket of the accused.