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Childrens' Crusades

An HBO documentary brings home the heart-wrenching reality of war's impact on kids.

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Haunted: Survivors from Rwanda, above, and Gaza, left, in Children in War.  

Charles lamb, the English essayist and critic best known for his Tales From Shakespeare (1807), a prose retelling of the plays for children, never had any of his own, probably because he spent most of his life taking care of his sister, Mary, who had killed their mother in a mad fit. It was Lamb, nevertheless, who advised his readers: "I am determined my children shall be brought up in their father's religion, if they can find out what it is."

If they can find out what it is . . . an irony but also a curse. We meet dozens of young people in the depressing course of the Alan and Susan Raymond documentary Children in War (Monday, January 31; 10 to 11:50 p.m.; HBO). In Sarajevo and Mostar, in Gaza and Hebron, in Belfast or Rwanda, Susan Raymond asks them on-camera questions that range from the gentle probings of a facilitator at a touchy-feely group grope (Tell us about the sniper, the bus bomb, the machete) to the embarrassing puerilities of a TV airhead reporting "live" from the scene of a trauma ("How do you feel about the men who killed your parents?). In response they are sometimes articulate, even pleased to be listened to; sometimes just plain chatty, as if discussing clothes, or music, or weather; sometimes propagandistic, spouting a line they've been fed, the littlest ideologues; and sometimes blankly numb, not always because they are waiting for a translation of her questions into Serbo-Croatian or Arabic. What they are never is cute.

Meanwhile, of course, we've become acquainted in lurid footage with the religion of their fathers -- not Protestantism or Catholicism, Judaism or Islam, but state violence and sectarian terrorism, tribal genocide and ethnic cleansing -- speechifying, suicide missions, refugee camps, and a church full of skulls. To all of which, the best that Children in War can offer by way of an escape hatch is art therapy. Art therapy! We see these children (Muslims in Bosnia, Tutsis in Rwanda) scribbling on sheets of white paper, with watery paints and colored crayons; drawing houses about to be burned, schools soon to be bombed, and families presently to be dismembered; scissoring doves of peace. It breaks the heart, this therapy, like the hopeful murals on the walls of Belfast, a kind of counterpropaganda to the color-coded slogans and fists of the paramilitaries and intractables, militant orange or bloody green. But whose heart does it break? I am inclined to think that this art, of dispossession, is more therapeutic for those of us who should have been fathers and guardians than it is for the children who made it, as if its naïve beauty gave us permission to go on believing we hadn't betrayed the very idea of childhood. The death-camp art we find next door to the old synagogue in Prague didn't, after all, do much good for the Jewish children who created it at Theresienstadt.

The Raymonds -- who spent two years filming Children in War; who somehow got a camera into the Gitagata youth facility where Hutu boys as young as 8 are detained for killing Tutsis, and into the Alshariyeh Boys School run by Hamas in Hebron -- tell us in dreadful passing that 2 million children have died in the past ten years in 30 wars around the world. It is a statistic as shocking as the moment in the film when a 12-year-old agrees to show Susan what's left of his arm after a Serb shelling; as shocking as the recent estimate from unicef that 4,500 children under the age of 5 die every month in Iraq, from malnutrition and disease as a result of the "allied" embargo. Are all the children all over the globe to be held hostage by the geopolitical fanaticisms of their fathers, kicked around like an Elián González soccer ball?

"These soldiers surely liked to kill," says a 13-year-old Bosnian girl who survived the Trnopolje death camp. "So they chopped us with machetes," says an 11-year-old Tutsi who saw her parents hacked to pieces. Teenage veterans of the Palestinian Intifada are as unrepentant as Jewish settler girls in Hebron, while the camera tracks from bags of body parts collected from bus-bomb carnage in Jerusalem to the monument to the Goldstein who gunned down Arabs in the Tomb of the Patriarch. A bright child of Ulster talks about his own father's going out one morning "to kill a Catholic." Another, pretty Kathleen, parrots bloodthirsty I.R.A. bombast. A half-dozen more, young women at one of the few "integrated" schools in Northern Ireland, are positive they won't see peace in their lifetimes and look forward to leaving Belfast forever, if they can. This is the opposite of a feed-the-Third World-children infomercial.

Somewhere along the line, much earlier even than the last wretched century of the second millennium, we decided that civilians could be targets, too, so pure was our cause, so fervent our commitment, so consuming our abstract expressionism. So we seized hostages, bombed hospitals and schools, strapped Semtex to our sacrificial lambs, decided we could live with "collateral damage," and launched the skywriting kamikazes of the one true religion and its Kingdom to Come. Terrorism and counterterrorism -- abduction, torture, rape, murder -- all spin political excuses from their spidery bowels, but all are, equally, brain-smoking forms of crack. When you kill children, there is no excuse. And the children you didn't finish off will kill you back.


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