Former boy soldier in Sierra Leone tells of ravages of war
Samara Kalk Derby
December 9, 2008
After escaping the war zone that was his country, former child soldier Ishmael Beah, now a best-selling author, had forgotten many simple things.
"I had forgotten how to sleep. I had forgotten how to trust people. I had forgotten how to be happy. I had forgotten how to sit in one place more than a few seconds. I was very restless," the Sierra Leone native told a near-capacity crowd of more than 1,000 people Monday night in the Wisconsin Union Theater during his Distinguished Lecture Series talk.
Adding to the problem, he said, was that he was withdrawing from the drugs that he was forced to use -- marijuana, amphetamines and a mix of cocaine and gunpowder, according to published accounts.
Sierra Leone's civil war lasted between 1991 and 2000. Beah lost all four members of his immediate family, his mother and father and both his older and younger brothers. He was conscripted into the war at age 13.
Beah, now 28, fought for almost three years before being rescued by UNICEF. Originally from the countryside, in 1998 he fled the capital, Freetown, and made his way to New York City, where he lived with Laura Simms, a Brooklyn-born white Jewish-American who became his foster mother.
In New York, Beah did two years of high school at the United Nations International School. He went to Oberlin College and graduated in 2004 with a degree in politics.
In 2007, he wrote "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier," which Time magazine described as a "breathtaking and unself-pitying account of how a gentle spirit survives a childhood from which all innocence has suddenly been sucked out. It's a truly riveting memoir."
Scott Straus, an African international relations and human rights professor at UW-Madison, who introduced Beah Monday night, called "A Long Way Gone" an "absolutely fascinating and important book about his experiences in a civil war that destroyed Sierra Leone."
Straus said that in a decade that saw many civil wars around the world, the war in Sierra Leone and its neighbor, Liberia, was one of the worst.
It's "a war that defies our imagination as we sit here in this room in Madison," Straus said, adding that "ordinary people can come to do horrible things to each other."
When he first learned about the war in 1991, Beah said he couldn't believe what he was hearing from people in the eastern part of his country: How their families had been killed, their houses burned, and their children dragged into the fighting.
"We couldn't believe it because we grew up in a society that had such a respect for human life. And we couldn't believe that this was possible until the war actually reached us," he said.
He began to see women carrying their dead children on their backs, he said. He began seeing people who had been struck by stray bullets on various parts of the body. The river where he used to swim had dead bodies floating in it and was filled with blood.
Before the war, the innocence of children was celebrated, Beah said. But after the war started, children became deeply feared. Children were sometimes forced to kill their own family members as a way of indoctrinating them to the violence, he said.
"Once the war reached us, we went straight from being children to being adults. We had to determine which way to run and how to save our own lives."
Beah said he learned to go hungry from days without eating.
He and some friends went to a military base, thinking it would be the safest place to go. But instead it was where they were forced to become soldiers. They were trained in less than a week and learned how to shoot AK-47s, he said.
Besides the coercion and the drugs that were forced upon him, there was also the rhetoric of revenge, Beah said. He was told that the rebels were responsible for what had happened to him and that by going after them and killing them it would prevent what happened to him from happening to other children.
"At that point I believed this tremendously," he said.
In the beginning it was difficult to function as a soldier, Beah said. But as time went on it became normalized. He and his fellow child soldiers lost the ability to experience human emotions, he said.
"It was either kill or be killed, even by your own commanders," he said.
One of the things he wanted to do with the book was write about how he felt while he was in the war, not how he felt about it afterward.
"Because I wanted people to come to this landscape to see, hear, smell and be a part of the experience," he said.
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