Seventeen years ago, Michel Chikwanine stood on a pile of skeletons. His favourite Superman shirt, once white, was stained red. Rebels in his African nation had just forced him to shoot and kill his best friend. He was five years old.
“I looked in front of me and my best friend Kevin was laying there in a pool of his own blood,” he said. “One of the rebel soldiers grabbed my shoulder, looked at me and said ‘You are a killer now. Your family will never take you back. We are your only family.’”
After two weeks as a child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo, however, Chikwanine managed to escape from his captors and find his way back to his real family.
Chikwanine told his story at the official launch of Zero Force, a human rights initiative by Canadian Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire. He wants the world to stop the use of child soldiers. Hosted by CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti, the event Thursday night in the MacMillan Theatre at the U of T included speeches by Lt.-Gen. Dallaire, Stephen Lewis and a performance by former Sudanese child soldier and hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal.
Lt.-Gen. Dallaire, who commanded the ill-fated United Nations peacekeeping force during the Rwandan genocide in 1993 and 1994, wants to eliminate the use of child soldiers. Today, according to Amnesty International, there are approximately 250,000 child soldiers fighting in war zones around the world.
“The aim is not just to get these kids from being used,” he said. “It’s to eradicate even the thought of people turning to kids to make war. And that is going to take even longer.”
In order to reach his goal, Lt.-Gen. Dallaire believes the world’s youth need to step up.
“The first thing to be done is to create a momentum within the developed world … to engage their youth in recognizing that their peers are being used as weapons of war,” he said. “That revulsion in itself, I hope will create that sort of energy of activism that is going to stop it.”
The retired lieutenant-general said that military and political intervention is necessary to make the use of child soldiers a liability for those who would employ them.
“In this era of so many imploding nations and abuses of human rights and power struggles out there, inaction by a nation like ours is irresponsible,” he said.
As a former child soldier, Jal agreed with Lt-Gen. Dallaire’s assessment.
“The worst people on Earth are not the people who make the evil,” he said.“The worst people on Earth are those who sit and watch the evil happen and do nothing.”