Romeo Dallaire tells the powerful story of driving through a section of Rwanda in a peacekeeping convoy during the crucial moments leading to the genocide that rocked the world and resulted in some 800,000 deaths in a short period of time. Their route was lined with danger, but General Dallaire, as commander of UNIMIR -- the United Nations mission in Rwanda -- felt he had to get out into the countryside and attempt to stop the madness.
Suddenly a young boy walked into the road in front of the convoy of vehicles. It was a moment of decision. During the previous weeks, children of young ages were used as bait -- a means for luring peacekeepers into traps that could end in slaughter. Dallaire opted to exit his vehicle and talk to the boy. What he discovered within himself at that moment provided him a moment of sanity.
"The world I was responsible for seemed to be coming apart in those few days, yet as I looked at the lad in front of us, I suddenly realized he was likely the same age as my own son. I looked into his eyes and for a moment they could have been the same person. Protecting him was what mattered in that moment, despite the danger we were facing."
General Dallaire told that story in the church our family attends and when he came back down to sit with me following his presentation, he muttered, "That kid's eyes still get to me."
But do they get to us? Dallaire has been fighting a kind of rearguard action around the world to prompt nations to dedicate themselves to safeguarding the future of the world's children, especially those used as pawns for military designs. At times he can be forgiven for feeling it has been a losing battle.
Writing recently in the The New Yorker, author Robin Wright noted that, "the specific targeting of children is one of the grimmest new developments in the way conflicts have been waged over the past fifty years." Indeed, the escalation of this trend is one of the modern world's most troublesome elements and helps us to understand why efforts like Dallaire's face such darkened backdrops.
In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, almost 50 per cent of all conflict deaths were civilian. The Second World War saw that number climb to over 60 per cent. Today, that number stands at 90 per cent. Children are increasingly being victimized in these conflicts and yet the world powers, and those agencies designed to protect children, have been unable to stop the carnage. These kids aren't just fatalities, but are being used as targets to create devastating emotional damage.
So much of the awareness depends on where such incidents occur. Much attention as been given recently to the tragic deaths of three Israeli teens and one Palestinian youth, but the vast majority of children falling as victims to violence occur in those regions where the developed world has little interest -- Sudan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and perhaps most troubling of all in recent months, Syria.
It's an easy thing in articles like this to tell the horror stories and prompt some kind of emotional response. But to what purpose? The issue is no longer about sympathy but action. Some of our ultimate values as a civilization have swirled around children. They have prompted our drive towards education, health, training and opportunity. What does it say about us, then, that we are willing to accept the increasing death of millions of children in conflicts in which they have had no responsibility? In the West we have let our guard slip even for our own kids. Child poverty is increasing. University costs are soaring. Child obesity is climbing.
At some point as citizens we have to re-enter the fray and begin demanding the safety, security, and well-being of the most precious responsibility left in our care -- the children of the world. If it's true, as Carl Sandburg wrote, that, "children are God's opinion that the world must go on," then we are undercutting our own future.
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