JOHANNESBURG — Ishmael Beah had been orphaned and was fleeing war in his native Sierra Leone when he went to a military base seeking safety. Instead, soldiers gave the teenager a weapon and forced him to serve in one of Africa's most brutal conflicts.
Nearly two decades later, the soft-spoken author works with African child soldiers as the United Nations Childrens Fund's (UNICEF) first Advocate for Children Affected by War.
Ishmael Beah never wanted to be a killer, he just wanted to escape the war that tore apart Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s, that filled rivers near his home with blood and dead bodies.
After his parents and two brothers were killed, he sought safety with some other boys.
What happened next was something that he would never forget. The commanders gave him a gun and trained him to kill. Beah says he was just 13 and the metal transition was quick.
"Violence quickly became my life, you know, it became the way to solve any problem," Beah recalled. "There was coercion, if you did not do what you were told you would get shot, some people got killed, so you knew if you were asked to shoot somebody you had to do it otherwise you would get killed. But as time went on we adjusted to the situation so much that this became our lives. But I do remember that the initial introduction to the violence was not very easy. I was nervous, I was afraid, but as time went on it became just another daily activity in my life."
The leaders were cruel, but he came to see them as family. The worst thing they did, he says, was to make the boys kill prisoners with knives.
"The way that they made us do it, was that you could not just go and stab the person, you had to look at the person in the eye the whole time you were doing it," Beah added. "So, I think when you inflict that on another human being and watch their eyes, life depart them, and watch their eyes and watch all of that happen, it stays with you forever, you cannot ever forget it. I mean, shooting someone who is running away, and you shoot them, it still does something to you. It is different from when you are actually looking at someone in the eye, and you take their life. You know. At the time, it was more like bravado, yeah, yeah, we did it, but afterwards, it is one of many difficult things [to deal with]."
Beah recently spent 10 days working with child soldiers in Central African Republic through a UNICEF program. More than half of the world's surviving child fighters are in Africa. Beah says the children in this group all asked him the same, heartbreaking, question.
"At the center, I spent a lot of time with these kids, and one of the questions they asked is, 'Is it really possible to leave this life behind?'" Beah noted. "That was one of the questions they kept asking me, and I explained to them that, 'Yes, it was.' But of course I had to be realistic with them, which is that it is not easy, it's going to be very frustrating, because when you are used to having a weapon and getting anything you want really quickly, coming to normal life is not that easy, because it does not happen that quickly, so you have to have a lot of patience."
Beah says he is dedicated to making sure these children get the same chance to start over that he did. Beah moved to the United States in 1998 and later graduated from Oberlin College. But he also warned that even in developed nations, violence is never that far away.
"What happened in London, not so long ago, was one of those things too, that this is not just isolated, in places where you have more civil wars, it is bigger, but wherever you have restless young people, this is what happens," said Beah. "The riots in London, nobody expected that. I think people ask, 'Did that really happen?' Yes it did. Because whenever you neglect a certain part of your population, at some point they react, and that reaction can be violent, most of the time it is violent."
Beah says he hopes these children will move on, but like him, they will never be able to forget.
"You cannot forget, I cannot forget, I just learn how to live with it," Beah explained. "I just learn also to make sure I do not react in a way that is going to be devastating to me or to someone else who is close to me. But you cannot forget. They come in your dreams, they hit you when you do not expect it, different moments in your life trigger it, when you have no control really for when they are triggered."
Beah published A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier in 2007. He now lives in New York City.