Suffer the Children, by the Millions

Suffer the Children, by the Millions

 

By Eugene Robinson

Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday , January 31, 2000  

 

The numbers are so big that they're heartbreaking, but also numbing: 2 million children killed in wars around the world since 1990; more than 6 million seriously injured or maimed; another million orphaned or separated from their families; up to 15 million more lost among the world's refugees, uprooted from their homes--from their childhoods--and marched away to muddy camps and squalid shantytowns.

 

Acclaimed documentary filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond spent the last few years trying to humanize those numbers by talking to children caught up in several of the world's most brutal conflicts. The result--"Children in War," which airs tonight at

10 on HBO--is more document than documentary, more a stack of indictments than a film.

 

The Raymonds could have had their pick of any number of obscure and unspeakably brutal little wars (Liberia, Angola and Sri

Lanka come depressingly to mind), but they chose four conflict zones whose horrors have already been extensively chronicled:

Bosnia, Israel's occupied territories, Rwanda and Northern Ireland.

 

Their method is to introduce the situation--who's been killing whom, over what ancient grievance, for how long, how many

dead--and then move with dispatch to a series of interviews with children who have been physically or mentally scarred.

 

"They came and killed my parents and others who were with us," says a Rwandan boy in a tone that is chillingly matter-of-fact.

The boy is a survivor of the genocidal rampage in 1994, in which around 800,000 ethnic Tutsi men, women and children were

murdered by ethnic Hutu killers.

 

In Bosnia, a Muslim boy shows the stump of his left arm. Injured in his own bed by random artillery fire from Serb gunners, he

shrugs at his fate: "A shell doesn't have any eyes," he says.

 

The four conflicts are similar in their senselessness--what could ever be sensible about killing children?--but different in their

particulars, and as a result, the 108-minute documentary feels like four separate short films. A couple of which should have

been shorter.

 

The Bosnia segment, which comes first, opens with footage of a 7-year-old boy being shot to death by a sniper during the siege

of Sarajevo. The rest of the episode is mostly set in the city of Mostar, which was thrivingly multiethnic before the war. A

13-year-old girl, who was herded into a concentration camp, describes in a monotone how other girls were routinely dragged

out at night by the guards, who raped them.

 

The striking thing about Bosnia is how affluent, how Western, how normal these kids seem. The teenage girls have multiple

ear-piercings and wear the latest lipstick shade. They could almost be hangers-out at a suburban shopping mall, except for the

great sadness in their voices.

 

The second episode, set in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, is less about war than about how hatred gets

passed down to the next generation. In Hebron, the conflict-plagued West Bank town where Palestinians live cheek by jowl

with Israeli settlers, youngsters look into the camera and make impassioned speeches justifying the unjustifiable--brutal

beatings, suicide bombings--on grounds that whatever bad was done, the "enemy" had done worse.

 

But we already know all about the Arab-Israeli conflict (we know it to death), and the Raymonds seem to be making such an

effort to be evenhanded that the segment quickly begins to drag. When three settler girls talk of how they'll "never" give an inch, and a Palestinian girl says that "of course" Arabs and Jews will never live peacefully together, the impression is of a movie that we've seen, oh, about umpty-zillion times before.

 

The Rwanda segment is the most effective, and it constitutes the film's emotional heart. It opens with the scene--captured from

a distance, with a very long lens--of several people being hacked to death with machetes. A person is alive, perhaps pleading

for his or her life (too far away to tell whether it's a man or a woman); then the machete falls, and the man or woman moves no

more. It is human death, and it is awful to watch.

 

Just about all the images the Raymonds shot in Rwanda are jaw-dropping--the church where hundreds of people were shot

and hacked to death, left untouched since that day as a memorial; rows and rows of human skulls, lined up on a long table; a

prison crammed with 8,000 accused murderers.

 

Jaw-dropping, too, is the testimony of the children. A boy saw his parents killed--"They started to chop their heads"--but

survived to join a rebel army and exact his revenge. A Hutu boy, detained in a juvenile camp for participating in the genocide,

says he was just following grown-ups' orders, as any kid would do. A little girl, her face disfigured by machete blows, says of

her assailants: "They did it for nothing."

 

Rwanda also offers one of the few happy moments in "Children in War"--the reunion of a group of children, lost for more than

a year, with their families.

 

Northern Ireland is by far the weakest segment. These are comparatively rich people who insist on arguing about being

Catholic vs. being Protestant. The only bright spot is that the children of Belfast seem to be getting as sick of this played-out

conflict as the rest of the world is.

 

"Children in War" is an ambitious, worthy and at times quite striking achievement, and HBO is to be commended for having the

seriousness of purpose to put it on the air. It's also both infuriating and depressing. Why do we find it so hard to teach our

children to read and write, and so easy to teach them to hate?