Humanity certainly has made a mess of things in Bosnia, the West Bank, Rwanda and Northern Ireland, and no group suffers more than the children forced to live in those war-torn regions.
"Children In War," from Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond ("I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School"), allows some of those children to tell their stories, of parents dying in their arms, of bombs routinely flying overhead and of ideologies they only vaguely understand. The result is a harrowing two hours, not so much because of all these children have suffered -- which is considerable -- but because of the war-hardened prejudices that suggest the next generation may be no better at a lasting piece than their parents.
The Raymonds clearly set out to document the struggle of war's youngest and most innocent victims, and the relentless parade of fresh faces telling horrific tales certainly drives the film's anti-war point home.
But the words that keep echoing well after the program is over are those of the Northern Ireland schoolgirl who, when asked to explain why Catholics and Protestants keep trying to kill each other, simply shrugs and says, "That's just the way it has to be," or the Palestinian boy, his father one of 29 people killed by Israeli extremist Baruch Goldstein, who dreams of killing a Jewish man.
"Children In War" opens with a series of kids' drawings. Some are surprisingly optimistic, featuring doves and peace signs and rising suns. But most are decidedly fatalistic: stick-figure depictions of machine-gun toting murder squads, adults having their heads lopped off, bombs exploding, blood everywhere. As these drawings appear on screen, narrator Susan Raymond notes how 20th-century warfare has become increasingly dangerous to civilian populations. During World War II, about 50 percent of all casualties were civilians; in Bosnia, the proportion was 90 percent.
The Raymonds, whose cameras sometimes seem uncomfortably intrusive on these young lives, take viewers first to Bosnia. In Sarajevo, a 7-year-old sniper victim -- one of 15,000 children killed during the civil war -- is shown lying in a pool of blood.
Much of the Bosnian footage was shot in Mostar, one of many cities scarred by bloody fighting. The children interviewed include 10-year-old Marin Smajac, who explains that the drawing he's just finished depicts how his best friend, Nino, was killed while they were playing ball.
That same scenario, of children for whom death and destruction are part of their everyday lives, is repeated over and over. In the West Bank city of Hebron, Israelis and Palestinians live together, but not comfortably. Teen-age Israeli children blithely talk about the number of times they've been attacked, while Palestinian teen-agers just as casually speak of being beaten and abused by Israeli soldiers.
It gets worse. At one Palestinian school, located across the street from an Israeli housing development, 13-year-old girls tell about routinely being attacked while walking to school. Inside another school, run by the militant Muslim group Hamas, fresh-scrubbed young faces insist there can be no peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
In Rwanda, where 8-year-old boys were recruited by the majority Hutu tribe to help slaughter the minority Tutsis, the Raymonds take us inside a school only yards away from a mass grave where 5,000 Tutsis were buried. And in Northern Ireland, a teen-age girl is interviewed alongside an 18-foot-high "peace wall," erected to keep the warring Protestants and Catholics apart.
There isn't a moment of footage in "Children In War" that isn't heartbreaking. And, sadly, there isn't a moment that doesn't remind us how far the world has to go to eliminate the sort of suffering depicted so movingly here.