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Shoes of the Killing Field

David Scheffer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues

I have had the unfortunate responsibility to visit the killing fields of three continents—Europe, Africa, and Asia—during my work for Madeleine Albright, first when she was ambassador to the U.N. and then as secretary of state, and certainly in this job as Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues. It is a very sobering exercise, and you always try to counsel yourself not to get used to it. I have a particular pair of shoes that I wear on every trip to the killing fields, and I suppose at the end of this assignment in government I’ll take a look at those shoes, and it will remind me of everywhere that I went. It is probably inconceivable to most of the public the kind of sheer terror and violence that can be visited upon human beings, but I think I’ve seen it. I can only say that you do become somewhat hardened at seeing it time and again; but I still cannot get used to witnessing violence that has been brought upon children, who are totally innocent, have no combat capability whatsoever and shouldn’t, even though oftentimes, too often, there are child soldiers in the field. But when you come across a child whose parents have just been slaughtered, or a child who’s been mutilated, or, as I have seen too often, the technique of taking a child—a rebel or a perpetrator of a crime takes a child and just throws the child into a fire. And I’ve seen survivors of that, who are totally burned. I must tell you that that sheer horror is out there, and it’s happening all the time.

One clear example is when I was in Sierra Leone, and after, you know, visiting all these mutilated children and women in hospitals in Freetown, learning that two-thirds of the country was still occupied by rebel forces, who were still doing the same thing. In other words, there was a void. I knew children were being mutilated at that moment, elsewhere in Sierra Leone, and yet there was absolutely nothing I could do that day to solve it. And that’s when it hits you, the possible futility of all of this; but then after you reflect upon it, I think there’s a strengthening element that we have no higher responsibility but to stop this.