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Disarming the children


Three men who grew up in war zones have joined the fight to rescue 300,000 young soldiers



By Stewart Bell

March 07, 2007

Behzad Pilehvar was still a schoolboy when Iran's Revolutionary Guards started training him for war. They taught him how to fire machine guns and make bombs.

"They told you if you go to war and die, the blood will open the gates to paradise," the 25-yearold Toronto resident said yesterday. "They're killing the minds of children."

Mr. Pilehvar is now fighting back against the Revolutionary Guards, Tamil Tigers, Taliban, Lords Resistance Army and every other armed faction that uses children as canon fodder.

He and two other young men who grew up in war zones were to speak about their experiences at the University of Toronto last night to bring attention to the plight of the world's 300,000 child soldiers.

It is not a new cause. Graca Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, urged the United Nations to ban the recruitment of children back in 1996, and that was followed by a world conference in Winnipeg in 2000.

But child soldiers are now having their moment in the spotlight. The newly released A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier debuted last week at No. 2 on The New York Times best-seller list. The author, Ishmael Beah, will be touring Canada starting on March 28.

Hollywood has taken notice as well. Benin-born Djimon Hounsou was nominated for an Oscar this year for his role in Blood Diamond. He plays a father trying to rescue a son kidnapped by rebels and transformed into a drug-induced killer.

Celebrity goodwill ambassadors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have also helped highlight the issue, visiting a jail for child soldiers in Haiti last year along with singer Wyclef Jean.

But has pop culture's acceptance as a worthy cause translated into action? "I would like to say yes to that, but I'm not sure," said Samantha Nutt, the founder and executive director of War Child Canada.

With so many issues competing for attention, the current favourite being global warming, it is not easy to be heard, she said, especially since many Canadians feel far removed from war.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, northern Uganda, Sri Lanka and the Darfur region of Sudan top the list of today's hot spots for child soldiers. While children continue to wage war, there is at least a growing recognition that it is morally wrong and a violation of international law, Ms. Nutt said.

Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor, is now before a UN-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone charged with 11 counts, including conscripting children under 15.

"It is increasingly being seen as something that eventually you're going to pay the piper for," Ms. Nutt said. "I think it's lessened the appetite for recruiting kids. At the same time it's still a huge problem that we need to continue to address."

Romeo Dallaire, the Senator and retired General who tried to stop the Rwandan genocide, is writing a book about child soldiers, following upon his best-seller Shake Hands With the Devil.

And Western governments have been meeting to address the problem. France hosted a "Let Us Free Children of War" conference in Paris last month. The result: the Paris Commitments, in which governments pledge to "spare no effort to end the unlawful recruitment or use of children by armed forces or groups."

Winnipeg resident Chol Kelei, 27, one of the speakers at last night's event, said while governments are saying the right things, they are not doing enough. "People talk about it and they don't take action."

Mr. Kelei was six when war broke out in his native Sudan. His father was killed two years later. He fled to Ethiopia, then back to Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and eventually to Canada in 2003.

He was not a child combatant, but he saw enough of it firsthand to make him want to put an end to the wars that pit armies of children against each other. "We have a responsibility to do something."

Kimmie Weeks, who also spoke last night, said there are a lot of things people can do -- such as lobby their governments and raise money for non-profit groups that help rehabilitate child soldiers.

His own activism almost cost him his life.

Born in Liberia, he led a children's disarmament campaign that ran afoul of the government for exposing Mr. Taylor's child recruitment efforts. He spent three weeks hiding in friends' houses until a foreign embassy helped him escape, disguised as a member of a cultural dance troupe.

He now lives in Philadelphia, where he runs Youth Action International, which gets young people involved in helping war affected children. In his experience, once war breaks out, it is too late to help the kids. The work needs to be done in peacetime, he said.

"People do have power over their governments, and governments do listen."


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