Ishmael Beah was 12 years old when Sierra Leone’s brutal, decade-long civil war reached his village in January 1993. Soon he found himself swept up into the army, a child soldier. Fourteen years later, Beah speaks with Vision about the insight he’s gained from his experience and his hope that other children can be spared repeating it.
GS After a Southern California earthquake, scientists study to learn why certain buildings may have collapsed. But sometimes we can learn even more from the buildings that didn’t collapse. If we see your experience as an “earthquake” and you as one of the strong buildings that survived, what can we learn from you about the factors that especially enabled you to cope and survive?
IB Well, I believe it had a lot to do with my early upbringing. Growing up in a community that had a very deep appreciation for life and respect for adults, I gained a very strong sense of family tradition. I think because of my early upbringing I developed a sense of self. I was very strong and even through the war when everything seemed to have been wiped out there was still something present, because that very short childhood I had was so remarkable. I was able to go back to it as sort of a foundation to stand upon and outlive what had happened to me. When I was running from the war, the thing that kept me going at first was the fact that there was family alive somewhere. I had to find them. But when that was no longer the case, I’m not sure what really kept me going. Using your metaphor of the earthquake: particularly during the war I believe that there was nothing I could have done, especially when I was in it, to stay alive. So I believe it was pure luck and the grace of God. At any time it could have been me who was killed, not the person standing next to me. My survival was not because I knew how to run fast, or because I was smart. After being removed from the war I think my life changed because of the people who came into my life who were able to show me that compassion and kindness still existed and that human beings could deeply care for each other, selflessly. That made me trust in myself again and I knew there was more to my life than what I’d been taught. A series of things came about, but I guess what I am trying to say is that I didn’t do it by myself. There was the support I had early on and there was support that came afterwards, and that was very, very important. There is no “Ishmael formula” in terms of healing. There is no such thing. I think that everyone with the right care and support can [heal], if there are people who are willing to accept them fully into their lives and give them the strength they need to continue living.
GS You had a friend. Saidu. In your book you said he eventually gave up. What was the difference between your outlook and his?
IB I think in the context of the war, especially as we were running from it, we had to have hope, regardless of how little it was. Even if it meant celebrating just having a chance to stop and drink clean water. Once you lose hope you lose the determination to continue running, during the context of war. Now this is not just specific to Africa: but to any war. You are happy just to receive a loaf of bread because holding on to that hope gives you strength to live through the next thing. Particularly for Saidu, one of the things that happened was that he lost hope while traveling. He felt that each time someone came upon us and tried to kill us, he lost a part of himself. He couldn’t see the possibility that this would end someday, so he lost the strength to continue running. I believe that when your spirit stops striving to move forward you lose hope. When we were running, obviously the situation was hopeless, but we always felt that something new could happen. We always hoped that, “Oh, tomorrow maybe something will be good.” Maybe sometimes we didn’t believe it, but we had to try to believe it, there was no other choice.
GS That belief that something could change is what kept you going, then?
IB That belief that something could change. Because you see, I remembered that when I was a kid, my father used to tell me that “as long as you are alive, there is a possibility for something to change in your life.” Now it could be good or bad but something will change. So when I was running I kept that thought: “If I am still alive there is still hope that this could end and that I could survive.” That didn’t turn out to be the case for quite a while, but eventually it did.
GS When you found out that your family was gone, you were still on the run. You’ve also said you were given no time to think after being pressed into the army. If you didn’t have time to think, did you have time to grieve the loss of your family?
IB Very little. The thing about living in this context was that there was very little time to grieve for the people you lost—and everything else you lost. But even if there was, that might also kill you because there is so much that you see, and there is so much you’re exposed to. Grieving would almost be accepting defeat in a way that, in a normal circumstance, is not the case. No I wasn’t able to grieve until afterwards when I was at the rehabilitation center: there I did. But before that, I went through the emotion of feeling severe pain, of not wanting to be alive and feelings of that sort, but I didn’t have much time to grieve because we had to keep going. Feeling remorseful, or being incredibly sad was not something that would propel you forward. The kinds of battles I’ve seen expose you to so much violence you learn to block your emotions, to not let them arise If they take hold of you, you might not be able to do other things.
GS In line with that, you said in your book that when the memories started coming back during rehabilitation, you had to break through some of those bad memories to get to the good ones?
IB Yes, it was very difficult, because I’d seen so much that was completely different from what my life had been before, and it was so shocking it became this permanent block in my head. I could not even think of a life before the war. And so I had to go through those [war] experiences to try and understand, and to make that breakthrough between. Perhaps that is what trauma is. I am not really a psychologist so I don’t know how to comment on this, but for me I felt like it was a stumbling block that stopped me from connecting to a life that was peaceful and from believing that there was a possibility for that again. After everything I had been exposed to, I had come to believe otherwise.
GS In your book you explained that you were taught by the army to envision the enemy as those who were responsible for killing your family. Even though you did this in battle, none of the killing made you feel better about your loss. Instead you said there was a further loss—a temporary loss of your humanity. Do you feel anger about any of this?
IB Yes, at some point I felt deep anger, but I don’t think I’m bitter. I feel anger because I want something to be done to prevent this from happening to other people, and I try to do that. But I’m not angry in the sense that I want the same things that happened to me to happen to them, or that I want them to die or anything. I just don’t want this to continue happening to children. One thing that I learned the hard way, which I hope other people will not learn the hard way: nothing good comes out of this anger, this need for retaliation, for brutal payback. You cannot be in a position to understand how to prevent the problem if you do not speak with those who have hurt you. It’s important to try to understand why this fellow who—perhaps years before the war, would have helped you, would have fed you, would be one of the active members in your community—how did he come to be responsible for doing so much harm to you? I think if you don’t engage in a conversation with him, you can’t understand that. But I want people to be held accountable, so every now and then I feel angry, it’s a common human tendency. But not to the point that I want revenge or anything, that doesn’t do anyone any good.
GS What about forgiveness, is that concept part of it?
IB I think a lot of people think forgiving and forgetting comes together. People think forgiving is forgetting everything. From my personal perspective, it’s not. Forgiving is, in my opinion, being willing to put a stop to the continuation of the violence itself; to say that, however difficult it is, I am going to stop seeing my neighbor as a perpetual thief or a perpetual killer. Once you do that, you actually will live in peace—with yourself as well as with your neighbor. If you see your neighbor as a perpetual thief or a perpetual killer you can never live in peace alongside him. And that will actually propel you to do something back to him, which will just exacerbate the problem.
So I think forgiving is actually a way of understanding each other better, and trying to solve the problem rather than going about in a very fearful manner among people. Now, it’s not easy; it’s very difficult. It’s easy to say, “Oh forgive this, forgive that.” But forgiveness comes with other things as well. For example, in Sierra Leone you cannot ask people to forgive if they have to go and resettle in the ruins of the village that reminds them of that hurt over and over. It’s difficult. Forgiving also comes from rebuilding and empowering people so they can continue on with their lives. So there is that aspect of it. But it’s not about forgetting. I think being aware allows us to be in a position to prevent it from happening again; to be in a position to pinpoint when things are about to erupt. Not necessarily to be obsessed with it, but to have it in the back of your mind as a constant reminder of how fragile life is, which becomes very apparent when you find yourself in a conflict situation. Life is very fragile; you are not in control as much is you think you are. Only by working as a community can you even be in a little better control—in your life and the lives of others around you as well.
GS When you went to the rehabilitation center, it made you a little angry at first when they kept saying, nothing was your fault. At the time you couldn’t understand why they were saying this. But in the end it was their compassion—you said it was the fact they were willing to see you as children—that won you over. Why do you think that particular thing made such a difference?
IB Well, because coming from the experience, I believed that people didn’t care about each other for their own benefit, and that adults particularly would use children. But it was also due to being in a series of deceptions: for example you’ve lost your family, and then this group that you’ve come to believe was your surrogate family—you are plucked away from them. So there is a lot of hurt, and you do not want to trust or believe in anyone. But the willingness of the staff at this place to look at us just as kids, regardless of what we had done—they were willing to see us. In the beginning it was actually very upsetting, but as time went on we began to see that these were people who genuinely cared about us. And when you’re a child who has been through difficulties, that is one of the things you learn: to determine when somebody really cares for you. You can size people up pretty easily when you walk in a room, you have that ability. Survival tactics are built into you. And you test people to see whether their concern is concrete, because you are so used to people coming and going in your life—of people not being there—that you want to make sure somebody really does care. And so when a staff member would go and come back; and go and come back; even though we would hurt them and try to push them away—as time went on we realized that they really did care about us and that changed something within us.
GS You tested them with violence?
IB Well the only methods that we knew for testing them were violent: we had been conditioned to behave that way for many years, so that became our only outlet.
GS You said at one point, when the memories started to come back, some of the things you had been involved with made you cringe. Did that help the healing process, the fact that some things were actually able to touch your conscience in that way?
IB Yes I think it did. When I started writing the book the aim was not necessarily for it to be a healing process for me. But as the process went on I realized that actually it was, for lack of a better word, therapeutic for me, in the sense that I had to revisit certain things when I was no longer traumatized, or under the influence of drugs or coercion, to really kind of feel and understand what it is that I was forced to be a part of. And I think that made me understand a lot about the nature of violence itself, and, as human beings, how susceptible we are all to it. So I think in that sense, yes, I did heal quite a bit.
GS And as you help other people by talking to them, telling them about the things that you went through: is this helping you heal too?
IB Yes. Well, for me, I think healing has been complete in the sense that I have learned to live with the past. I could never forget; but I have learned to live with the memories and I’ve learned to transform them, so that the goal of my talking about it is to expose it. As I speak to you, more and more kids are going through these things. I don’t want that to happen. So for me, the extraordinary luck of surviving and of having a family that took me in, and having an education—I want to use that to help others. For me that’s what it is about. And along the way, if I get some psychological healing, I think that’s okay.
GS The trauma experts say that taking an active role is a big part of healing, so it seems you’re doing that.
IB I certainly hope so.
GS I wonder—you’ve been talking about not wanting this to keep happening, and I know they’ve managed to bring the numbers down a little bit. What’s really going to change the problem?
IB Well, what we are really working for is enough political will in the international scene to prevent these wars from actually occurring. Preventive measures—because once war has started in most places, eventually women and children will get abused, and children will get recruited. That’s the natural progression. So it’s the preventive aspect that we are working toward. That’s a long-term goal because most nations are not interested in doing anything that doesn’t directly affect them and their people. But a short-term goal is to actually help the children who have been affected or the people in the communities that have been affected. In a lot of places that’s possible, people are doing it effectively. And by doing so, perhaps we can lessen the number of children who go into soldiering. Also, there is a way of enhancing international standards that bring people to justice, and this is being done. Now, I’m not naïve; the problem is big. It’s a global issue, so sometimes even when five, six, seven solid steps are taken, it seems as if nothing is happening because this problem is so big. But I don’t want anyone to despair, because I think it’s possible to prevent the use of children in war, as long as we create enough public awareness and bring enough government attention to it.
GS Some of your friends actually passed through rehabilitation and went back to the army. This was because they really didn’t have families to go back to, right? What can be done to stop the problem at that point?
IB Well, there are two reasons. First of all, they went back because there was still a war going on during the rehabilitation process. Because they weren’t put up with good foster families that were able to take care of them, they didn’t have a place to go. Now this part of the rehabilitation process is one of the things that I’ve been trying to advocate as well. They have a short-term goal, which is that they rehabilitate the children and then drop them into society. There needs to be a follow-up. So that is also very important; just putting the kids through the process of psychological therapy is not enough. You have to give them something to live for. They need to go to school to learn something. When they don’t have those things—they already have the military expertise, and the conflict is all around them—the tendency to go back is greater.