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Roméo Dallaire Is Fighting to Get Children off the Battlefield

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Roméo Dallaire found the two teenage deserters at a remote United Nations outpost in the northeastern corner of the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. They were in opposing militias, but shared a few things in common. Both were kidnapped and forced into war. Both managed to escape, and neither wanted to be a soldier any more.

But the clock was ticking. Dallaire knew it would not be long before the teens' former commanders showed up to reclaim them. If they came in force there would be little the few UN troops could do to stop them, so he rushed to get the boys on a departing UN helicopter.

Sitting on the chopper with Dallaire awaiting takeoff, it seemed they were home free. Suddenly the pilot ordered the boys off the aircraft to make room for two UN soldiers.

"Absolutely not. They're coming with me!" Dallaire replied, bristling with outrage. He forced the pilot to back down and got the boys out of the war zone.

Dallaire tells us it is his most vivid memory from his return to Africa last year, filming a new documentary to raise awareness about child soldiers: Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children -- based on his book of the same name. We spoke with Dallaire and director Patrick Reed about the film and Dallaire's crusade to end the recruitment of child soldiers.

More than 250,000 children under 18 are involved in at least 17 conflicts around the world today. Forty per cent are girls who serve as soldiers or sex slaves. Child soldiers are abducted from their homes, often put through brutal initiation rituals and forcibly addicted to drugs.

In 2008 Dallaire, now a Canadian Senator, founded the Child Soldiers Initiative to raise awareness, pressure world governments to take action, and train police and military forces from around the world to protect children and prevent them from being recruited as soldiers.

Dallaire saw child soldiers first hand while leading the ill-fated mission in Rwanda in 1994. He tells the story of one encounter that almost cost his life.

Dallaire's UN convoy arrived at a makeshift checkpoint manned by militia soldiers -- all of them young boys. The moment he opened his truck door an AK-47 was pointed at his face.

"On the other end of the rifle I saw a quivering, wide-eyed young boy, sweating as his finger danced with the trigger," he recalls. With a mix of bravado and terror, the boy pressed the muzzle against Dallaire's nose.

Certain he was about to die, Dallaire slowly pulled a chocolate bar from his pocket. The boy's eyes fixated on the candy, and his finger eased off the trigger. He took the peace offering. To this day Dallaire believes that chocolate bar bought his life.

In Rwanda, South Sudan and the DRC, Reed says he saw what makes Dallaire unique in his approach to the issue of child soldiers.

"Although he is a humanitarian in many ways, he is first and foremost a military man."

Reed says he saw militia commanders and child soldiers talk to Dallaire because he approached them first as fellow soldiers.

He filmed Dallaire playing a game of verbal cat and mouse, trying to make a DRC militia commander admit his use of child soldiers. Dallaire was unable to force a confession, but did get a shot past the commander's defences. Ending the conversation, Dallaire said as a general himself he would feel less of a soldier if he relied on children to fight for him. They left the commander in a stunned and shamed silence.

In South Sudan they met a former "bush wife" -- sex slave -- of infamous warlord Joseph Kony. After courageously escaping Kony, she was forced to wait months to get the UN paperwork she needed to return to her home in the DRC.

Canada led the world in taking a stand against landmines. There is no reason we cannot lead again on child soldiers. Not simply dealing with the aftermath by rehabilitating former child soldiers, but preventing the deployment of children on the battlefield and making it easier for them to escape through measures like training for peacekeeping police and military forces in the protection of children.

Dallaire's Initiative is already providing this kind of training overseas in countries like Ghana and Botswana, and right here at home through a program at the Canadian Forces Camp Aldershot in Nova Scotia.Canada can also push the UN to improve policies and procedures to protect children, and prevent incidents like what happened on that helicopter.

After all, Canada has one of the world's most passionate experts -- a soldier for peace who has dedicated his life to protecting children from the horrors of war.

They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children will be appear in Canadian theatres starting in May.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

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