Ishmael Beah: Boy Soldier

We were taken to a nearby banana farm, where we practiced stabbing a banana tree with bayonets. “Visualize the banana tree as the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you,” the corporal screamed. He took out his bayonet and started shouting and stabbing the banana tree. “I first stab him in the stomach, then the neck, then his heart, and I will cut it out and show it to him, and then pluck his eyes out. Remember he probably killed your parents worse.” Over and over in our training he would say the same sentence: Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you….I imagined capturing several rebels at once, locking them inside a house, sprinkling gasoline on it, and tossing a match. We watch it burn and I laugh.

Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of A Boy Soldier

Killing became a way of life for Ishmael Beah when he was only 13. In the early 90’s Beah — like so many young boys — was pressed into service by the government army when the civil war erupted in Sierra Leone. For Beah, losing his humanity came easy. By the time he was wielding an AK-47 and “killing too many people to count,” he had already lost so much: his brothers, mother, father and grandmother had all been murdered by rebel forces.

In his book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Beah recounts the ease with which he was conditioned to kill. Jacked-up on a potent cocktail of cocaine, gunpowder and amphetamines, Beah was transformed into a fearless warrior. A steady diet of American pop culture also helped to suffuse Beah with an action hero’s invulnerability: films like Rambo, and Commando were required viewing for new recruits. And although Beah’s conversion from kid to killer was remarkable, the fact that he has emerged from years of nonstop bloodshed intact is equally amazing.

photo of Ishmael Beah

The trajectory of Beah’s life might well have been invented by the screenwriters at DreamWorks. After fighting for nearly three years Beah was rescued by UNICEF. His rehabilitation and eventual return to civilian life proved to be far more difficult than living the life of a child soldier. Being dehumanized was relatively easy, reclaiming his humanity was the hard part. Beah later moved to New York City to live with his American foster mother, and by 2004 he had a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College under his belt. He currently lives in Brooklyn and is working for Human Rights Watch.

During this hour we’ll talk to Beah about his life before, during, and after war. Now that he’s older than many of the soldiers that are being deployed to the Middle-East, what is it like for him to see 17 and 18 year-olds going off to war? We’ll ask the same questions of Beah that keep coming up in recent shows. As a living embodiment of the atrocities of war what is his take on Philip Zimbardo’s banality of evil? As a soldier, at what point did unimaginable violence become nothing but sheer entertainment? How has he integrated the post-traumatic stress of war into a productive life?

What questions do you have for Beah?

Ishmael Beah

Author, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of A Boy Soldier

Board Member, Human Rights Watch, Children’s Rights Division Advisory Committee

Extra Credit Reading
UNICEF: ‘Religions for Peace’ Youth Assembly opens in Japan

Jason Cowley, Why we have fallen for Africa’s lost boys, The Observer, April 29, 2007: “We know something of these children but, at the same time, can we ever say that we know them – know what they feel, think, need or want in all their complicated interiority? The honest answer is that we do not, although that may be about to change with the publication next month of two remarkable first-person documentary accounts.”

Nasratha, Claiming Ishmael Beah, Identification and National Allegory, Global Voices, March 12, 2007: “The very nationalistic me feels incredibly territorial over Ishmael Beah. I want him for Sierra Leone. I don’t want white people to take him as they have done so many other possible voices from the continent and beyond. By taking him I mean to remove him from the reality of his present day Salone society and turn him into a caricature of what they want him to represent.”

rudechack, A Long Way Gone, rudechack in writing, April 30, 2007: “It’s absolutely incredible to me that, while I was in high school playing tennis, watching cheesy movies, and worrying about the freshman semi, there were wars going on. I had no idea that things like the Civil War in Sierra Leone were happening, and my history teachers never talked about such things.”

Ishmael Beah on Child Soldiers and Hip-hop & Romeo Dallaire on Corporate Media, Art Threat: “Beah also spoke of “old school hip hop” and how that art of storytelling and meaningful music helped him survive his experience. Beah told the packed room that since the war has ended, that there has been a “music explosion” in Sierra Leone. He listed off a whack of groups currently tackling issues like corruption, healing and war through music.”

mocha, My problems are not so big, Beware of the man of one book., May 2, 2007: “Strangely enough, I wanted more. Too much happens to Ishmael to sink in to any depth. Particularly when he comes to rehab, and relearns being a friendly social human being–how does that transformation work?”

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  • Bobo

    I hear Ishmael about a month ago, on Fresh Air I think. The question I’d most like to ask him is, “What’s the question you’d like people to ask, but no one has yet?”

    Also, I’d like to know if he ever feels nervous living in America, due to the lack of violence. I know that personally, when I return from a very violent place, the peacefulness here puts me very much on edge. I’m wondering if he has a similar experience after living and growing up in just about the most violent setting imaginable.

    Also, does he ever crave violence or feel nostalgic for it? The way I heard him describe his cocaine-clouded killing days, he seemed to enjoy it at the time. The same way that American youth feel nostalgic for the video games and music of their adolescence, does he ever think fondly of his experience as a soldier?

  • mynocturama

    I wonder if he has any sense of dissonance or discomfort or bemusement, having his as-close-to-unimaginable-as-you-can-get story available at a certain coffee shop across the country. I’m not making a comment as to the appropriateness of selling his book at those locations or not; I’m curious as to what it feels like for him, his childhood contained in book form, sold amidst the familiar homogenized comfort of one of the most successful American corporate chains around, a childhood about as alien to and at odds with the lifestyle of most of those who frequent those stores. I’m sure he’s happy to get his story out there, but I’d think it must feel at least a little strange at some level.

    Also, thought I’m mention Uzodinma Iweala’s “Beast of No Nation,” as an interesting fictional contrast to Ishmael Beah’s book. The contrast between the two authors themselves might be interesting too.

    And there’s also Dave Eggers’ somewhat related book, “What is the What,” a blend of sorts between biography and novel, fact and fiction. What explains this recent influx of interest? Is it purely from the creators, or is there a demand from readers? Or, of course, both? Is this even, maybe, something of a sign that this country, its culture, is ready to think and know about the world in a truly global way, to attempt to see it for what it is, quite apart from patriotic kitsch and defensiveness?

  • mynocturama

    “thought I’d mention” that is. Hate it when I do that.

  • katemcshane

    Mynocturama, your questions are excellent. The idea that your life is taken over by a United States corporation and marketed at the same level as the latest frappucino — this country has a way of taking over and trivializing an experience like this. I know you don’t overcome an experience like his once and for all, even if you have the most wonderful foster mother in the world and the best education. I’d like to know what it’s like for him, really, because millions of people will hear his story as the latest exotica, and it would help to know how he lives his life day to day, what he feels, how is it difficult sometimes. I want to know for myself, in the way we all need to know about how each of us gets through the day. And maybe this is too much to ask someone to discuss in public. In a way, I wonder whether your public story begins to feel like the real story eventually, along with the reviews and the marketing.

  • Chelsea

    After reading his book my hunch is that Beah is beyond bemusement and irony. He has been through so much how could anything not seem possible? Especially selling a book about third world atrocities in a first-class coffee shop.

  • Bobo

    Ok, so this might be reaching a bit, but I think it fits with the general theme of the corporate-coffee materialism.

    I just googled ‘brown brown’, a mix of cocaine and gunpowder which Ishmael was fed for years. I was wondering, as I’m sure many westerners do, what the gunpowder did. Anyway, this came up on the sidebar:

    //Sponsored Links

    *Brown Brown For Less

    *Looking for Brown Brown?

    *Buy direct from sellers and save.


    Obviously its a form add, but it got me thinking. What are the links between the lifestyle of child-soldiers and corporate capitalism? Superficiality and materialism come to mind. Watch Rambo, blow some brown brown, go on a mission, laugh about it… It all seems reminiscent of the materialistic lifestyle which is hyped by everything from MTV-hip-hop to frat-boy-branded-culture. Anyway, just some scattered thoughts.

  • zeke

    I am curious about what Ishmael thinks when he sees young street drug dealers on Brooklyn streets. Does he find any similarities? What advice would he give them?

  • Hearing that you were having Ishmael Beah as a guest on your great show was a little like hearing from an old friend. Child soldiers was the first global social challenge that caught my attention in early adulthood and Beah’s “When Good Comes From Bad” was pased on to me by a friend at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (the article can still be found by searching at I was inspired and empassioned by his story and soon contributed to a youth action handbook for the NAPF and spoke at a child’s rights festival on the subject. It went on the back burner for my following undergraduate years, but was resurrected in the first semester of my graduate program with the Beslan school massacre in September 2004. I heard a BBC journalist comment on the rising trend of the involvement of children in terrorism and all I could think was “300,000 kids on the frontlines of violent conflict holding AK-47’s for how many decades now–and this is a new trend?!” My interest in child soldiers was resurrected, only this time, my aim was on the weapons–the trade in small arms became the topic of more than one piece of my graduate work.

    First–THANK YOU for your courage, determination, and willingness to share your story. There are 300,000 kids out there that need the inspiration, not to mention the countless policymakers and citizens that simply need to know.

    Second, here are my questions for Ishmael:

    Although the P5 of the UNSC are the world’s greatest exporters of SALW, what, in your experience are the most effective ways of stemming the circular flow of SALW in and out of violent conflict?

    Also, tell us a story about a moment of excellence that you have witnessed in your work at Human Rights Watch.

  • katemcshane

    Chelsea — I’m certain Ishmael Beah is “beyond bemusement and irony”. I’m not as certain that he has been through so much that anything seems possible. Maybe he had the best foster mother in the world. Maybe he had so much love and support that it made all the difference. Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know very much about such forces. He has had opportunities to use his intelligence and other energies with a lot of support, perhaps, and that must make a big difference. But the terrible forces that scraped against his life, wearing down his spirit for a very long time, leave marks. I have not read his book, although I would like to, because the quote above is something I can relate to and I would like to benefit from his insight. It has seemed to me that people imagine you can do anything when you have survived unspeakable things, but they don’t take into account how damaging violence is, and in the end, they expect more of you than you can give on any consistent level. There is so much pain and it surfaces at unexpected times, in ways that seem strange. Everyone’s rate of growth is different, though, and maybe he has achieved the peak of accrued strength from his experience at a young age. The one thing that did occur to me as a question — Is his work with Human Rights Watch transforming, healing, because he gets to use his insight and experience toward others’ transformation? I ask that, because I want to know if this kind of work is an answer of sorts.

  • jlhughes

    The movie “Blood Diamond” is the closest Hollywood has come recently to discussing the civil war in Sierra Leone. That movie focused on the illegal diamond trade and touched only in passing on the plight of child soldiers.

    It would be interesting to know whether Ishmael Beah thinks a movie based on his book would be productive in helping raise awareness about both the problem and the efforts, particularly of UNICEF and CAW, to rehabilitate these children.

    Bonus question: Could Hollywood do this movie without losing itself in celebration of the gore and violence?

  • asheresque

    This is Levi from LitKicks. I ran into Ishmael just two weeks ago at a huge festival of international literature called PEN World Voices in New York City. One point this festival drove home is how vibrant and exciting the current African literary scene is, with wide-ranging authors from Ngugi Wa Thiongo to Alain Mabanckou to Yasmin Khadra to Valentine Achek Deng to, naturally, Ishmael Beah. I’d like to ask Ishmael what he thinks of the concept of an emerging pan-African “literary scene” and if he feels personally connected to this. I’d also like to know which writers from the continent he recommends most to American audiences.

  • mynocturama

    Just wanted to clarify – my intent in my comment/question above wasn’t to indict Beah’s book being sold at a popular coffee shop chain. Though I’m sympathetic with katemcshane’s comments – I think the question of whether a book, a film, a painting, a piece of music, any bit of expression, is being “coopted” is a legitimate concern (note, for instance, how the color of Beah’s book cover matches the color scheme of the store) – I’m not necessarily against his book being available in that venue. I’m just somewhat wary of it, and wonder what his response may be. And while he may well be beyond irony and bemusement, I can’t say the same about myself. How can one not be bemused and ironic at this world sometimes?

    I’m sure more of his books have been sold, being right beside those registers. And if that means more people reading his story in a genuinely open manner, and being genuinely moved, and more concerned about other parts of the world, how can that not be a good thing?

    Not sure what my point is, but there you go. Oh – though I haven’t read Beah’s book, and not to distract from it, I am into Uzodinma Iweala’s “Beast of No Nation,” which I mentioned above. It’s remarkable, a brilliant literary feat. It’s written in this constant present tense. And Iweala’s scarily young, just like Beah.

    And Chelsea, I have to ask: Did you mean to write “first-world coffee shop” rather than “first-class coffee shop”? I’ve had one too many burnt cups of coffee to agree with the latter. Anyway, sorry – trivial point for a serious show.

  • Chelsea

    Mynocturama: What would really be ironic is if Tiffany & Co. were promoting the book.

    I wonder, would a book written by a young Iraqi, one pressed into fighting with insurgents, be sold at Starbucks ? Would it be #4 on the NYT’s best-seller list?

    (“First-world” would have been a better word choice)

  • katemcshane

    mynocturama — Since most publishing houses are now owned by a handful of people, like Rupert Murdoch, I agree with you that the marketing of Beah’s book is a “legitimate concern”. There are many serious concerns that people should have, because so many wonderful writers cannot get their work published, due to their political beliefs, though they are not writing about what people usually understand as political writing. When I worked in an independent first-run bookstore, what sold more than anything was crap. Whenever a large corporation publishes anyone, there’s a reason, and I don’t believe for a minute that it has anything to do with raising consciousness about third world countries.

  • katemcshane

    And when I said that I believe that Beah IS beyond bemusement and irony, I believe that when you’ve lived through trauma that is beyond what many people have not, bemusement is not, generally, a word that describes anything you feel — ever again. As far as I can see, anyway. As for irony, I would say that maybe you look at the absolutely bitter irony, hypocrisy, cluelessness that exists, but when I read people who can write about an horrific experience and what goes on in the world in those tones — bemusement and irony — I wonder if they’re taking some kind of psych drug.

  • katemcshane

    Errata — In the 10:49 paragraph, I meant to say, “though their writing is not what people usually describe as “political”.

    In the 10:57 paragraph, I meant to say, “when you’ve lived through trauma that is beyond what many people have,…”

  • Potter

    Thank you for the show. It was a surprise for me. I had read of children being drugged and literally used as weapons. Here I found myself appreciating Ishmael Beah’s healing and transformation by the end of the show. He carries his experience and the trauma from it as well or better than anyone that I know of. He made himself whole and healthy again by ultimately absorbing and then not allowing himself to forget the healthy good life he knew from before. He holds on to that healthy part for dear life. His health and sanity seems to come from not allowing that insane experience to consume him, to become all that he is, to color his whole world, but nevertheless not denying it either, simply allowing it it’s place, and transformed. He is able to rise above it ( with some help from his amazing Sierre Leonian friends and Shakespeare).

  • Potter

    I did not read the book but according to the above Unicef and his American foster parents deserve some credit for the rescue as well. How important it is to have something/ someone good to grab onto. As well Ishmael was given an amazing opportunity because of what happened to him.

  • Jeff

    A lot has come to light since these blogs last year. Beah and his book have been found lagely to be fradulent. The dates, events, maps photos and people have all been called into question. Seems he spent only a few weeks as a child soldier, not two years. His defense has certainly not helped to clear the air as he denies being in school in Sierra Leone during this period…this, despite the evidence of school records, and the recollections of priests, fellow students, and school teachers. There is no mention in his bok of one living person who can substantiate his claims. In sort, Mr Beah is a fraud, and is not so much a victim of war as a child soldier, but rather a ‘soldier of fortune.’ Shame.

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