The Current

14-year-old combat veteran: retired Canadian major recalls child soldier

Any peacekeeping mission comes with its risks. But as Canadian officials ponder a mission to Mali, there's an especially troubling risk that needs to be considered: encountering child soldiers.
Combatants in Mali have deployed child soldiers, and that means there's a risk Canadian forces would have to engage with them — perhaps lethally. (AFP/Getty Images)

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Since April 2013, UN forces have been protecting local populations of the West African country of Mali from Islamic insurgents. Nearly 120 peacekeepers have been killed in the last four years — the UN's deadliest ongoing mission.

As the Canadian government considers where to send peacekeeping troops, an additional risk to this mission in Mali is the fear that forces may face attacks from child soldiers.

Terror groups and some government forces have been known to use children as combatants in Mali. And the idea of using lethal force against a child soldier is fraught.

Retired Canadian Forces Major Brent Beardsley encountered child soldiers on both sides of the Rwandan conflict in the '90s when he served in the peacekeeping mission.

"My personal bodyguard who was given to me to take me to various locations was 14-years-old and he'd been a veteran for three years of combat. And that was my first exposure on a personal level to a child soldier," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.
A Rwandan survivor of the 1994 genocide prays over the bones of victims at a mass grave in Nyamata, Rwanda, April 6, 2004. (Sayyid Azim/Associated Press)

Beardsley says that the solider had all the characteristics of a professional solider but he recalls a moment when that changed.

"I happened to have a pack of Tic Tacs with me and I gave him a Tic Tac candy and he apparently enjoyed it, and I gave him the whole pack and he sat there and he ate the entire pack of Tic Tac, one after another," Beardsley says.

"In that moment I actually saw through the soldier facade and saw the child."

Executive director of The Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative Shelly Whitman describes child soldiers as boys and girls that are used in support functions.

The group contributed to a recent report by the Canadian Forces.

"So that can be anything from being a spy to a sexual slave to being a messenger or a porter but it also means those children that are used on the front lines," she tells Tremonti.

"And we're talking about any person below the age of 18."

Beardsley says that in 1994 when the Rwanada genocide started, the majority of the  Interahamwe militia who were responsible for the genocide were children under the age of 18, usually supervised by adults older than that.

"They conducted most of the killing so as we were traversing areas trying to rescue people or trying to to get humanitarian assistance whatever through areas, we were constantly encountered them at roadblocks or viewed them at massacre sites."

He tells Tremonti that one of the techniques used to deal with encounters was to focus on the adult commander and engage him in dialogue.

"Make sure you've got a gun pointed at his chest so that he knows if anything goes wrong he's going to be the first one that's going down," Beardsley explains.

"And he would usually get the children into some sort of order. He didn't want the situation to escalate."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post — including an expert who supports Canada joining the UN's mission to Mali.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley and Sam Colbert.