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Viewing War's Horror Through Young Eyes

Television * From Rwanda to Northern Ireland, children caught in conflict's cross-fire tell their heartbreaking stories in an HBO documentary.

January 29, 2000|MICHAEL GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They cut me with a machete and killed me.

--An orphaned Rwandan girl, 5, describing an attack by Hutu militiamen, which she miraculously survived.

*

Alan Raymond recalls standing in line at Rwanda's Kigali airport in 1995, nervously waiting to explain to an army officer why he was visiting Rwanda a little over a year after that nation's bloody civil war.

"All the windows were shot out in the terminal, and there was debris everywhere," Raymond says. "I started wondering what I had gotten myself into. Later in a cab on my way to my hotel, I saw what was going on in the city of Kigali, and I remember thinking this location might be too challenging for what we wanted to do."

The trip was to plan logistics for Raymond's return to Rwanda with his wife, Susan Raymond, to film portions of their latest documentary, "Children in War," which HBO will show Monday night at 10. They wanted to document the price paid by children worldwide for the various ethnic conflicts that have plagued the latter part of the 20th century. To that end, they interviewed children in remote areas of Rwanda, Bosnia, Israel and its occupied territories, and Northern Ireland during 1995-99.

The Raymonds took nine trips abroad during their four years making the film, experiencing numerous unsettling moments in each country, including terrorist bombings in Jerusalem and Northern Ireland, and confrontations with armed men at unauthorized checkpoints in Rwanda and Bosnia. But, they say, nothing compared to the suffering of the children they interviewed.

During filming, they documented dozens of heart-rending stories, meeting children such as Sanel, 12, a Bosnian youngster who matter-of-factly explains how a mortar shell severed his arm. A Palestinian boy, Moaz, 12, recalls holding his dying father in his arms. In Northern Ireland, Patricia, 15, a Catholic, ponders what it would be like to actually speak to a Protestant. And in Rwanda, several "lost children" reunite with family members after having been separated for a year or more.

The Raymonds, who have been filmmaking partners for more than three decades, have looked at both children and at war in their earlier work. "I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School," their documentary on an inner-city elementary school, won an Oscar in 1993. Their look at the conflict in Northern Ireland, "To Die for Ireland," won an Emmy in 1980, but they are perhaps best known for filming the seminal 12-hour 1973 PBS miniseries "An American Family."

With such credentials, there was no need for the Raymonds to risk their lives and spend portions of four years far away from their home and their son, James (now 11). They were drawn, however, to examine what Susan Raymond calls the tragic reality that the targeting of civilians generally, and children specifically, rose dramatically during world conflicts over the course of the 20th century. In the Rwandan genocide alone, 300,000 of the 800,000 victims were under the age of 20, she says.

"We did some research, found the statistics, and realized that children are often the primary victims in modern wars," she says. "That's why we decided to do this film, even though it was a heart-wrenching experience."

The filming itself often required the Raymonds to work under grueling conditions.

"There was no point in bringing a crew," Alan Raymond says. "First, we didn't have that kind of budget, and second, you need to depend on locals to survive anyway. So I shot all the film, and Susan recorded the sound and asked the questions. She is also the narrator of the film."

The nature of the work filming the children's stories resulted in the Raymonds giving up on journalistic detachment, and instead, they made what Alan Raymond calls "a heavy emotional investment" in the piece.

"I thought about [our son] a lot during the making of this film, wondering how would our child survive such experiences," Susan Raymond says. "That's what makes the stories of these children all the more remarkable--their survival skills.

"The Rwandan children, in particular, are amazing," she continues. "To sit across from a 5-year-old child and hear him explain how he survived a militia attack, watched his parents die, and ended up hiding under dead bodies for days, that's horribly sad. But it's also wonderful to see his instinctive ability to survive despite huge obstacles."

* "Children in War" can be seen Monday at 10 p.m. on HBO. The network has rated in TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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