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Moving Memoir Recalls Horrors of Sierra Leone Civil War

A book written by a former child soldier in Sierra Leone has joined several bestseller lists in the United States, with critics describing it as “extremely disturbing” and “terrifying.” In his narrative – entitled A Long Way Gone – 26-year-old Ishmael Beah tells how he was recruited by government forces to fight rebels in his West African homeland when he was just 12. Numbing his senses with cocaine and hallucinogenic drugs, he took part in the brutal killings of many people. Beah’s book is filled with graphic violence, but critics also say it represents a victory for humanity. In the first part of a series on new African authors, VOA’s Darren Taylor tells the story of Beah’s remarkable book.

“I crawled to Josiah and looked into his eyes. There were tears in them, and his lips were shaking, but he couldn’t speak. As I watched him, the water in his eyes was replaced with blood that quickly turned his brown eyes red. He reached for my shoulder as if to pull himself up. But midway, he stopped moving. The gunshots faded in my head, and it was as if my heart had stopped and the whole world had come to a standstill. I covered his eyes with my fingers and lifted him from the tree stump. His backbone had been shattered.”

With these words, Ishmael Beah tells the story of the death of a fellow child soldier in the 1991 - 2002 war between the government of Sierra Leone and Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels. The conflict killed tens of thousands of his countrymen and displaced more than two million people. Sierra Leone is still suffering the aftermath of the tragedy – as is Beah.

In 1993, when he was 12, rebels murdered his family and he roamed the countryside, desperate and frightened. A government infantry squad came across the starving boy. A soldier placed an automatic rifle in his hands, and so began Beah’s life as a fighter in one of the world’s most atrocious civil wars.

In his book, Beah describes how he and his fellow child soldiers would snort cocaine and watch Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger action videos before embarking on killing sprees.

“We all wanted to be like Rambo; we couldn’t wait to implement his techniques,” he writes.

At one stage, Beah’s army unit captured some rebels, and the youngster was given the task of executing the prisoners.

“They were all lined up, six of them, with their hands tied. I shot them in their shins and watched them suffer for an entire day before finally deciding to shoot them in the head so that they would stop crying. Before I shot each man, I looked at him and saw how his eyes gave up hope and steadied before I pulled the trigger. I found their somber eyes irritating,” he writes.

After years in the bush, addicted to drugs and blood, Beah was eventually rescued by United Nations aid workers. In 1998, after a lengthy and traumatic process of rehabilitation, he moved to New York, where he now lives with his “new” mother: A “Brooklyn-born white Jewish American woman” whom he loves “with all my heart.”

Beah says his life in the United States is a “world apart” from his former existence in Sierra Leone.

“If you were to run into me on the subway in Washington, D.C., or New York, you would never in your wildest imagination think that I’d had such a life. This goes to show how beautifully the human spirit can transcend all of life’s worst circumstances and regain itself fully,” he told VOA.

Beah’s has been a remarkable journey – from teenaged killing machine to UN advocate against the recruitment of child soldiers to successful author. But he continues to be disturbed by his violent past. At night, he often lurches into sweaty consciousness from nightmares searing his mind.

“It’s very difficult, the repeats and replays of things that either I participated in doing to somebody, or I watched being done to somebody. You are psychologically damaged, and also physically, I think: Your veins and your muscles remember everything. But I think my life before the war, during the war and after the war is what makes me who I am: Each part is important to me,” Beah whispers.

He becomes “irritated” by suggestions that, in order to heal, he must “forget everything” and “cleanse” his mind of the past.

“I don’t want to forget anything that happened to me. Those painful memories are what make me Ishmael Beah. They are now serving as instructional tools on what I appreciate in life and what I dedicate my life to and what I want to achieve in my life and how to avoid any form of violence.”

Living in America, Beah often comes into contact with people who glorify violence, like some rap artists and “wannabe gangsters” in New York.

“They don’t know what real horror is. I think when people haven’t been truly touched by violence or war, they have this romantic notion of it. It’s absolutely not romantic. It only causes suffering and more suffering and that’s about it,” he says.

Beah became inspired to write his memoir shortly after he moved to the United States.

“I saw that people did not know that Sierra Leone was a country. I felt really upset about that. So I decided to change this and also to put a human face to the distant civil war.”

Sometimes the “human face” that Beah seeks to represent gains terrible expression in his book, but he also decided to write his story to dispel certain “fallacies” about conflict in Africa.

“There’s this feeling that Africans love violence. On TV and in films about Africa, there are images of gunfights and people just go about their business, stepping over dead bodies. This creates the impression that Africans embrace this kind of violence and they love being in it. But they don’t. In behaving this way, they are just trying normalize what is happening around them to be able to actually live through it.”

Before he became a soldier, says Beah, he and his friends in his village would hear gunshots and would “make bets on the types of weapons” that were being used.

“Taken out of context, this could seem like we Africans love violence. But the placing of bets was a survival mechanism, not an appreciation of war,” Beah reasons.

He maintains that Africans are “no more or less brutal” than any other people in the world.

“Every human being is capable of losing their humanity, if you find yourselves in the circumstances that a lot of people found themselves in…in Sierra Leone in particular. I felt that once people got to meet the humanity of the people in Sierra Leone, and how that got destroyed, then it’s not that distant anymore, because it could easily be your child, it could be your brother, it could be you; it could be anyone, anywhere.”

Though his book is dominated by violence, Beah also wants it to be a vehicle to “highlight positive aspects” of Sierra Leone.

Before the war, he says the country was a “very loving and a kind place, where I would walk six miles to my grandmother’s village and I would not fear anything, where people were incredibly kind and the cultures and traditions were so rich that they actually enabled me…to live through that war.”

Beah insists that his story represents a “very small part” of what happened in his homeland.

“I’m hoping that this story will open doors for others to be told about Sierra Leone. This (book) is not a history lesson about what happened in the country. It’s just a child’s view of what happened to him and the people around him.”

Beah appreciates the rave reviews that A Long Way Gone has been receiving. Publisher’s Weekly describes the book as an “absorbing account” that “goes beyond even the best journalistic efforts in revealing the life and mind of a child abducted into the horrors of warfare.” It describes Beah as a young writer with a “gifted literary voice” and predicts that his memoir will become a “classic firsthand account of war.”

Beah attributes his writing talent to “growing up in a very strong oral tradition culture.”

“As kids, we would sit around the fire at night and listen to stories. And you had to remember them because later you would be expected to retell them to others. So that made me develop a strong sense of narrative.”

When asked about the future, Beah just smiles: “I’m only 26. I don’t know what I want to do.”

He says he’ll “definitely” continue his work for the UN and other agencies that are battling to stop the use of children in conflicts. He would also like to write more.

“Perhaps there will be a sequel to A Long Way Gone. Who knows?” he says, with a wink and a giggle.

Beah’s also “still thinking” of completing a law degree.

“I’m still interested in the law and its workings, especially when I think about the trial of (former Liberian President) Charles Taylor.”

The International Criminal Court in The Hague has begun the trial of Taylor on a number of war crimes charges, including his alleged fomentation of the civil war in Sierra Leone.

But, like many of his compatriots, Beah is upset that Taylor is in the dock in the Netherlands, rather than in a court in Sierra Leone or at another West African location.

“I think that is a big blow to justice for our people. If Taylor had been tried somewhere in West Africa, it would at least have shown our people that there is law and it applies to big people as well. Now our people will feel disassociated from justice. They won’t be participating in the trial of a man who is accused of destroying their lives,” Beah says.

Sierra Leonean journalists don’t have the funds to cover a trial in The Hague, says Beah.

“The public in Sierra Leone is not going to know how the law works and have a first-hand experience of it, which is what has been missing in that region for many, many years. So here we had a chance to really turn things around and have the nations of West Africa work with one another, but – through Taylor’s transfer to Holland – that was taken away from us. So the special courts have failed the people of Sierra Leone to some extent.”

Beah admits to being “very worried” about the future of the country of his birth. Upon his return to Sierra Leone last year, he says he noticed the reemergence of several of the causes of the civil war: corruption, the marginalization of the youth, lack of economic opportunities and unemployment.

“It was devastating for me to see this, because having lived through the war, I came to think that no one would want to do those kinds of things again that caused the war. But obviously that’s not the case. There’s strong endemic political corruption, youth have lost faith in education – once you finish school in Sierra Leone there’s no tertiary education available, there’s no water and electricity, people are poor. But I don’t want to give up hope on Sierra Leone. Things can change, things can get done.”

But Beah doesn’t sound too confident. He sounds desperate.

“I think it’s time for fresh politicians in Sierra Leone; the old school must leave. The problem is, the old guard is intent on hanging on to power.”

Nevertheless, Beah dreams of one day returning to a prosperous, peaceful Sierra Leone.

“Regardless of what has happened in Sierra Leone, and what will happen in the future, I love the country and it will always be my home,” he sighs, leafing through the pages of his book, in a store in the middle of Washington, D.C.

Ishmael Beah remains a long way gone.