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Beah speaks about war experiences

Liz Lefebvre | Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ishmael Beah, author of “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” spoke Monday night in McKenna Auditorium about his experiences before, during and after civil war in his native Sierra Leone. Beah stressed in his presentation that he and his fellow countrymen did not lose hope in the face of violence.

Beah’s life in rural Sierra Leone was interrupted by civil war when he was around 12 years old. After losing his entire immediate family in the fighting, Beah was picked up by rebel soldiers and forcefully recruited as a child soldier in 1992.

“We all knew that you would be killed if you didn’t fight or follow orders,” Beah said of his time as a soldier.

During the war, Beah mentioned how he and the other children had to live through their fear to survive. Because staying alive meant that they had to kill, Beah noted how the child soldiers had to normalize their experiences.

“To live, someone else had to die on your behalf,” Beah said. “You dehumanize yourself when you kill someone else.”

Beah was removed from fighting and placed in a United Nations-sponsored rehabilitation program in 1996. After attending a conference in New York about worldwide violence toward children, Beah was able to eventually come to the United States to finish high school and graduated from Oberlin College in 2004.

Beah began work on his book during his college years as media coverage of the war in Sierra Leone began in the United States.

Beah saw this coverage as sensationalized and presented without any human context. The media conveyed a sense of hopelessness in Sierra Leone, which Beah worried would cause people to disregard the situation there.

“Sierra Leone was never a hopeless country,” Beah clarified. “Nothing can be done if you write something off as hopeless. Issues can be easily put off without human context – if you don’t humanize an issue, people don’t pay attention to it.”

Frustrated with the media coverage and worried that people did not fully understand what happens during war, Beah published his book in 2007 to humanize the conflict and to help people understand both how children were dragged into the war but also brought out of the fighting.

“I wanted to try to help people understand how young boys in a peaceful society could grow up in such madness,” Beah said.

While growing up, Beah learned the importance of oral tradition and storytelling. Most importantly, he learned the function of purpose and clarity within a story.

“When you destroy the facts of a story, you destroy its purpose. You need to have a purpose for telling a story. My purpose was to tell that [atrocities of war] were happening to human beings with same human tendencies as everyone else. We are all capable of losing our humanity.”

“I will never forget what happened, but you learn to live with it. You can find good things out of horror, and you can appreciate what it is just to wake up and be alive,” Beah said.

Beah is currently working in the Human Rights Watch Children’s Division, as well as with UNICEF and the United Nations.