Two years ago, Roméo Dallaire was watching his granddaughter when she fell and banged her head on the coffee table. The toddler immediately started wailing. All of the adults in the room leapt up to help her – except Dallaire. The retired lieutenant-general sat frozen in his armchair. “I was so triggered by that sound,” explains Dallaire. “It brought me right back to scenes of the horrible destruction of children I saw in Rwanda 20 years ago. I was afraid if I picked her up I might drop her.”
As Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in 1993 and 1994, the Montreal-born military man was infamously denied permission to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. Over 100 days, he witnessed the killing of 800,000 people by armed civilians as young as 10. While most nations withdrew their peacekeeping troops, Dallaire remained with just a few hundred soldiers, defending areas where Tutsis – a group of people who were killed en masse in Rwanda – had taken refuge. His actions saved 32,000 lives. When he returned home, Dallaire received the Meritorious Service Cross, the United States Legion of Merit and the Aegis Award for Genocide Prevention. But he was also a broken man, haunted by flashbacks and despair. He attempted suicide four times.
With the help of professionals, peers and nine prescription pills a day, he eventually stabilized his symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and found the will to draw on his horrific experiences to instigate change. “I felt as long as people are listening to me, and I can influence them, life is worthwhile,” says Dallaire.
A Soldier’s Second Act
After leaving the army, the lieutenant-general sat in the Canadian Senate from 2005 to 2014, but resigned seven years before retirement age. “I’ve got a more demanding job, I feel, internationally,” he told reporters at the time. He now devotes his life to eradicating the use of child soldiers. It’s a big job – one that he wishes he had more time to complete. “The thing that makes me the most mad is that I’m 68 instead of 48,” says Dallaire.
Dallaire sees a correlation between the rise in recruitment of child soldiers and in PTSD cases in the military, in part because it’s extremely difficult for people to fight kids. “Not only are the children being affected horrifically, but these soldiers also facing children who are drugged up, armed to the teeth and indoctrinated to use lethal force against them,” he says. “[Soldiers] find themselves in this terrible moral dilemma.”
In 2007, at Dalhousie University in Halifax, he founded the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative – the world’s first organization that works with the security sector on recruitment prevention. It has already run programs in Somalia, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Botswana. As extremist groups such as ISIS recruit more children, it’s devising programs for the Middle East, as well.
In Sierra Leone, Dallaire’s team uses comic books to illustrate the methods and traps recruiters use. They’ve also trained former child soldiers to share their experiences. Through reconstructed scenarios, they teach military police and prison guards how to handle child soldiers without immediately reaching for their guns or – just as bad – backing down.
Helping soldiers combat PTSD is another cause that Dallaire has been championing since leaving the military. In 2013, he became the first national patron of Wounded Warriors Canada, which runs programs for PTSD sufferers and their families. As hard as it is for soldiers to deal with PTSD, it’s just as difficult for their loved ones. “Imagine living with someone who has changing moods with no discernible triggers – it could be a word, it could be a smell. This creates horrific tensions in the family, especially for children, who never know what to expect from a parent who’s injured,” says Dallaire.
“With the technological revolution, particularly in communications and transportation, people under 25 are global citizens already.”
Wounded Warriors offers family wilderness retreats as well as canine and equine therapy programs. “The dogs sense when the veterans are getting hyperexcited or stressed, and are trained to calm them down,” explains Dallaire. “We’ve got one dog who actually reminds its master to take his pills.”
While there’s still work to be done with child soldiers and PTSD, the father of three and grandfather of two has great hope for the next generation. He was encouraged by the Arab Spring, which saw young people stand up to the dictators running their countries. He also thinks technology will ultimately help the world become a better place. “With the technological revolution, particularly in communications and transportation, people under 25 are global citizens already,” he says. “They’re the generation without borders. They’re going to make the next significant leap in advancing humanity.”
In the meantime, Dallaire will keep fighting in their corner.