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For Remembrance Day, Stories of Soldiers, Children and Child Soliders

11/08/2013 07:30 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

We all have childhood memories of Remembrance Day. And we should.

My first is an almost ritualized story that my dad would tell each year. He'd gather my 10 siblings and me. He'd tell us how lucky we were. Not for the usual reasons -- freedom and plenty due to others' ultimate sacrifice. His message was simple: "You're lucky," he would say, "you know both your parents."

My dad's earliest memory was when he was four. It was 1941, and his father was heading off to war, leaving behind a wife and two sons in a tiny home in Hamilton.

His father came home at the end of the war. His return was celebrated; then the dust settled, and a simple fact sunk in: Father and son didn't know one another. Intense experience and accelerated time couldn't be turned back. "Boys without fathers grew up pretty fast in my neighborhood during the war," said my dad.

Another memory of Remembrance Day. And this one is my own.

Each year, our class would file down to the gym for a school assembly. The usual rituals. Mass recitation of In Flanders Field. Still remember the broken cadence, the tripping over the words. Did the poppies blow or grow? A bugler playing Last Post and Reveille.

A World War II veteran would come up and share his experiences. It felt like we were witnessing a relic from a forgotten time. We didn't know war. We were kids.

One year, the veteran asked if there were any questions. After a long pause, one student asked what we were all thinking: "Did you ever kill anyone?" Dead silence. Finally, he spoke: "I never talk about the war. Not like that. But yes, I had to kill people. The worst was near the end of the war. I remember facing very young Germans. Thirteen- or 14-year-olds, I'm not sure. They shot at me. I shot back. I killed some of them. That haunts me. My baby brother back home was about their age." He walked off the stage. And left the school. Alone. I'll never forget it.

Fast-forward 30 years.

I'm now a documentary filmmaker. I've made a number of films over the last decade in various parts of Africa. Many explore armed conflicts and their aftermath.

We're in Nyabiando, a village in Democratic Republic of Congo, along with Canadian General Romeo Dallaire.

We've made a film with Dallaire before, Shake Hands with the Devil. That film focused on his harrowing experience as UN Force Commander during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, as he witnessed 800,000 people slaughtered over a 100 days.

This one, Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children, is about him trying to end the use of child soldiers -- ending up a child soldier is a fate faced by 300,000 children in 30 conflicts around the world.

Dallaire was meeting with two child soldiers, Serge (age 15) and Ajefi (age 16). Both had just escaped their armed rebel groups. Dallaire was there to hear their stories, and help them get airlifted on a UN helicopter so they could return home.

As they headed to the helicopter, Dallaire told them that during the Genocide, "I faced one kid, who had an AK-47 stuffed nearly up my nose. And in his huge eyes, there was anger and horror and fear, and excitement. And his finger was on that trigger. Anything could've made him pull it."

They looked at him knowingly, as if to say: "Don't worry General, we're not armed anymore."

The final image that will stay with me: Serge and Ajefi with fear and excitement in their eyes, looking out the porthole window of the aloft helicopter, seeing their troubled past recede, and their uncertain future filling the horizon.

This is the story I will tell my three children on Remembrance Day this year.

A story of a General, and two child soldiers.

Hopefully, one day for them it will seem like a relic of the past.

The world premiere broadcast of Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children airs on TVO on Saturday, November 9, 2013.

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