Ishmael Beah tells his story |

Ishmael Beah tells his story

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Ishmael Beah, author of A LONG WAY GONE.

ASPEN ” When Ishmael Beah was 12, rebel soldiers began to overrun the villages in his home country, Sierra Leone.

When his own village was attacked, early in 1993, Beah was separated from his parents and siblings. He and a group of friends began wandering from villages to towns, in search of safety and their families. The boys faced starvation, suspicious strangers in neighboring villages, and the constant threat of being slaughtered by rebels. Rounded up by a band of soldiers from the Sierra Leonean army, Beah spent his early teen years forced to snort “brown-brown,” a mix of cocaine and gunpowder, and kill rebels and innocents ” “too many to count,” he says. Beah eventually came to learn that his family members had been killed.

This, in a way, was the easy part. A child stripped of everything he knows and holds dear is capable of little resistance when thrown even the shabbiest life preserver. A child like Beah makes an easily manipulated tool for mayhem.

“You have to destroy everything they know, their family, then they have no reason to claim their life. There’s nothing to hold onto,” said Beah, now 27, from his home in Brooklyn. “They’re young; they can absorb anything. You can make them hate, which is what they did to me. You can get them to commit some serious horrors, because they won’t understand it. With children, belonging is all they need.”

The more difficult aspect of Beah’s life has been recovering from the hell that was forced on him. In “A Long Way Gone,” his 2007 memoir, Beah describes his years as a child soldier, and his experience after he was removed from the army by UNICEF. The latter part ” in which he beats those trying to help him; in which he sees blood, not water, coming out of the tap; in which his waking life was as haunted as his dreams ” is just as horrifying as the episodes of killing and being hunted. Beah is a long way gone from his own sense of humanity, and doesn’t care to find the way back.

But the memoir, which debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times bestseller list, ends on a note of hope. First given unconditional affection by a nurse in a rehabilitation center in the capital city of Freetown, and then offered sanctuary with a family in New York City, Beah begins to escape his past, and see himself as something other than a killer.

Asked if he considers himself recovered, Beah says yes, but then hedges: “At the same time, my sense of normalcy is a little different. I’m more aware of things than most people. I have flashbacks. When people run by me real fast, it triggers some memories from the war. It’s sad to say goodbye to people, because when I’ve said goodbye to people in the past, it’s usually been for good.”

But Beah, whose parents had divorced when he was young, adds that he has relearned the fundamental ability of being able to trust people. He has become comfortable with his history. “Even though my past is very difficult, I’ve learned to live with it, and transcend it,” he said. “I appreciate my daily life more than ever before, because I wake up in peace.”

A major component of his therapy has been writing.

Beah’s first trip to the U.S., before he was taken in by his foster family, was made to address the U.N. Economic and Social Council. After he moved to New York, he often appeared on panels, speaking about his experience in Sierra Leone. But the 15 minutes or so that he was allotted didn’t offer sufficient time to tell his whole story. While in his junior year at Ohio’s Oberlin College, from which he graduated in 2004, he began to put his full story on paper.

At the time, Beah’s past was not a part of his normal social conversation. “I did it in NGO” ” non-governmental organization ” “terms, on panels,” said Beah, who appears Friday at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, at 5:30 p.m., in conversation with Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, in an Aspen Writers’ Foundation event. (The talk will be followed by a concert by rapper DMC, whom Beah emulated as a kid.) “I felt, I was not ashamed of it, but it was not wise to introduce myself as someone who had been a child soldier in the war. I wanted them to see me as I am now, not back in my soldier years.

“People sometimes said, ‘Oh, I heard you were a soldier.’ I didn’t want to explain it in a one-minute conversation.”

Beah showed his writing to a professor who already knew of his history. Even early on in the project, Beah had a solid idea of why he was revealing his past.

“I wanted to show people that people who go through this can recover, that it’s long, but it is possible,” he said. “And also to show how this society fell apart, this human madness.” He also knew what he didn’t want the book to be ” a political timeline filled with statistics. “A Long Way Gone” is almost completely absent of politics; a reader will get no historical understanding of why Sierra Leone descended into civil war. “I wanted it to be about how I felt as a child. At that age, I wasn’t interested in politics. I wanted to write from the perspective of a 12-year-old.”

Beah didn’t see writing about his experiences as a piece of his recovery. Now he believes that writing is an important part of his story.

“I came to understand what I lost as a child,” said Beah, who typically wrote late at night, in solitude, while other students slept. “It made me face and confront so many things. It was difficult. It was lonely. I had to go back to those places and feel those things. It was therapeutic.”

Readers ” and, no doubt, his publisher ” have been inquiring about a sequel, detailing Beah’s life in the States, with perhaps more of the history of Sierra Leone. But Beah has had enough therapy for the moment. His next book, he says, will be a fiction, set in Sierra Leone.

“I don’t think it’s healthy to write two books in a row about your life,” he said.

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