by Nahal Toosi
The nightmares won’t stop. In one, fighters chase him with a gun. In another, he watches a person get mutilated. In a third, someone is hacking his neck with a machete. Yet, years after he left the life of a child soldier in Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah has found a reason for hope in his vivid nocturnal visions: He never dies.
“It almost makes me feel like, you know, that this whole thing will never really get me,” Beah says, “that I think I have some sort of inner strength that’s able to outlive everything.”
Beah is a thin, wiry 26-year-old of medium height with a smile as bright as the sun. He loves Shakespeare and hip-hop and lives in a Brooklyn apartment filled with classic novels and African art. It’s hard to believe he was once a drugged-up, rifle-toting boy soldier who sliced men’s throats.
In his new memoir, it’s clear Beah is still coming to grips with that past life. “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” tells the tale of the brutal civil war that debilitated Sierra Leone during the 1990s through the eyes of a child not old enough to understand the politics, yet old enough to kill.
Beah’s book, now being promoted by Starbucks, traces what the young Sierra Leonean went through when the civil war first touched his life at age 12, and how he struggled to regain his humanity after years of killing.
When the war finally reached his region, Beah found himself separated from his parents and forced to travel with other young boys, seeking refuge in jungles and villages while trying to outpace rebel fighters who lacked any mercy. On dusty roads, sometimes wearing shoes, sometimes without, the children relied on another to stay alive.
They often could not rely on adults. In the disorient of war, people had lost their trust — even in children.
Eventually, Beah and his friends were cornered into taking up arms and joining in the fighting. Government soldiers handed him an AK-47 and trained him to kill. By that time, Beah had learned that much of his family, including his parents and siblings, had died.
“Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you,” the older soldiers would tell their young trainees.
“I could not put this book down — it was just an incredible story,” said Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment, which picked Beah’s book as the second in a series to promote. The company’s first book was Mitch Albom’s “For One More Day,” which sold 92,000 copies through the coffee chain, a sum Starbucks hopes Beah’s book can surpass.
Published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, “A Long Way Gone” is also being sold in bookstores and at online outlets such as Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com. Starbucks is selling the book for the cover price of $22, donating $2 a book to a UNICEF fund.
But the book might be a tough sell. Although it includes uplifting moments (such as how American rap songs sometimes saved the children’s lives) much of it is understandably somber.
One of the saddest notes was sounded by Beah’s young friend and traveling companion, Saidu. Saidu didn’t die from a direct war wound. He just didn’t wake up one day.
“Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death,” Saidu had told his friends. “Even though I am still alive I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies. Very soon, I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you. It will be quieter than I am.”
Beah was one of the fortunate ones.
After three years of fighting for government-backed forces, he found himself in a rehabilitation center for child soldiers. It was hard to get the drugs out of his system. It was even harder to rid himself of the anger.
At the center, no matter what havoc the children caused, staff members kept repeating, “It’s not your fault!” At the time, Beah hated hearing the mantra, but he has eventually grown to accept it.
Today, he declines to put a number on how many people he killed, saying it might serve to glorify horrendous actions. He says he feels compassion for the rebels he battled in the jungles.
“I realized they were just like us,” he says. “Most of the people who were in there, especially the young ones, had been brainwashed.”
It’s not just nightmares that have lingered in Beah’s life. It’s the little survival instincts, like checking for possible exits in every room, or trying to judge people’s character in an instant.
Good? Bad? Fight? Flight?
“Whenever I travel, like whenever I leave, I still have this fear that I will not come back, or that as soon as I leave a place, the people that I love or the people that I care about there, I will not see them again,” Beah says.
He still feels guilty, but tries to control his emotions. “I think if I take on the idea, fully, of being guilty and guilty and guilty, that will itself handicap me,” he says. As for the guilt that remains, he says: “I think it’s a small price to pay to stay alive. A lot of people did not.”
After leaving the rehabilitation center, Beah lived for a while with his uncle’s family, and was chosen to visit the United Nations for a conference for about children in war.
Later, when the situation in Sierra Leone deteriorated again, friends helped him get out and back to New York. He was 17 at the time. He went on to graduate from Oberlin College, where he studied political science. During those years, he started writing the memoir.
“When I was writing the book it was very difficult,” Beah says. “I was sad all the time. I felt physically exhausted by the sadness. I got to face all the things that I was capable of doing.”
At the same time, “the whole process was … therapeutic because I got to face all of these things. I got a chance to reconcile with certain things.”
Sierra Leone emerged from the 11-year war in 2002. Beah visited the country last year, and was dispirited to see how little had changed. There’s still a great deal to rebuild and tremendous poverty. Beah says the political corruption worries him most, because it’s often a prelude to more conflict.
Through various organizations, Beah promotes the message that child soldiers need help, and that they can regain their humanity, though it won’t be easy.
“The process of recovering from a war, recovering from having lived through a war … it’s not a one-two-three step,” he says. “It’s a process that you have to do for life.”
He’s somewhat awed by the attention brought on by his harrowing memoir. He can barely keep up with his schedule, and had to leave a job as a tour guide at an art museum to prepare for a book tour through Starbucks. He even appeared on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”
He sees a novel in his future. Maybe a law degree. Perhaps a home in Sierra Leone.
And probably more nightmares.