On a map, Sierra Leone is separated from New York City by nearly 7,000 kilometers. For one young Sierra Leonean man now living in New York, the journey involved much more than traveling the physical distance. Ishmael Beah went from being a child soldier in Sierra Leone to a college graduate in the United States. Correspondent Stephanie Ho recently spoke with him at the VOA studios in Washington.
Ishmael Beah is haunted by dreams of his past life as a child soldier in Sierra Leone.
"A replay of things that either I participated in doing to somebody, or I watched being done to somebody, which I didn't find disturbing then, or running away from the war, or dreams of being shot, and different things," he said.
A bloody civil war broke out in Sierra Leone in 1991, and rebel groups killed Ishmael's entire family. When he was 13, government troops pressed him into service as a boy soldier. For most of the next three years, he was fed a steady diet of a cocaine and gunpowder mixture, called "brown-brown," along with violent Hollywood movies. When he and the other child soldiers were sufficiently pumped up, they went on brutal killing sprees.
Ishmael, who is now 26 years old, recounts the violent life he left behind in a new book, called A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, which is Number 4 on The New York Times list of bestsellers. Sales are also being helped by Starbucks (the U.S.-based, international coffee retailer), which is selling the book in its coffee shops around the United States. It is also making a donation to UNICEF for every book sold.
After going through a UNICEF rehabilitation program, Ishmael was adopted by an American family, and, in 1998, moved to New York City, which was the source of the rap music he loved as a young boy in Sierra Leone.
"I was drawn to hip-hop music because of the poetry in it," he said. "And my first rap video that I ever saw was the Sugarhill Gang, Rapper's Delight. I was eight [years old]."
"For me, growing up in Sierra Leone, where my first, second and third language was not English at all, so learning English only in school, and having come to believe that the black person does not speak English, it's not their language, and seeing somebody speaking it, so versatile and so fast, was really appealing to me," he continued.
He remembers his parents encouraged his efforts to learn English. They just didn't want him to learn it from American rap music.
"We had Shakespeare, because of the British colonial heritage there [in Sierra Leone], and so I remember my father saying to me, 'why don't you listen to the BBC news, because this is really the best kind of English you can have, not this one,'" said Beah.
Now, Ishmael speaks English fluently, and says he is lucky to be in New York. He said many of his friendships have been formed through sports, like soccer, but that, especially when he first came to the United States, he often did not talk about many of his own experiences.
"Most of the friends that I knew told me a lot about themselves, but I would tell them almost nothing about me," he said. "So, in that sense, there was a very slow pace in all of how my friendships developed with certain people."
At the same time, he was interested to see how some of his classmates in the United States show off to each other.
"And, I understood certain people at school, they would pretend they were tough, or that they lived in New York, they were hard," said Beah. "I just knew they didn't really know what violence is and what it does to people."
Ishmael appears to have settled into his new life. He says he believes the way to heal from war is not to completely forget everything, but to learn to live with the past, and to transform the experiences into something positive.
"I think my life before the war, during the war and after the war is what makes me who I am," he said. "I cannot live without any of them. It shapes my view. It makes me appreciate life more. It makes me not want to know what violence is. And, so, that's me. That's the Ishmael you get, and nothing more."
Ishmael graduated from Oberlin College in 2004. He continues to speak publicly about his experiences, and is establishing a foundation to help other children traumatized by war. His first project will involve former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, a country he still considers his home.