October 2, 2014

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Tales of a child soldier

Oberlin College graduate tells his harrowing story

OBERLIN — Tears still well up in Ishmael Beah’s eyes when you ask him about the first person he killed as a boy soldier high on drugs in Sierra Leone.

The first killing was soon followed by a second, a third and so on.

“There’s no way you can count the number,” Beah said after an appearance Tuesday at the Oberlin Public Library to discuss his best-selling memoir, “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.”

“It was either join these groups or be killed,” said Beah, who from ages 13 to 16 fought alongside government soldiers until he was rescued by UNICEF.

Violence was the currency that kept you alive — and proved your loyalty, Beah told the standing-room-only crowd.

“You adapt very quickly to be able to function and live in that world,” said Beah, now 26.

The child soldiers even took part in competitions to see who could kill a human being faster with a knife, he said.

Beah said the commander, a lieutenant, became a father figure to him and the two would talk about Shakespeare.

After his appearance at the library, Beah, a 2004 Oberlin College graduate, spoke during the college’s 175th convocation at Finney Chapel.

How did he survive his youth?

“I believe it was the grace of God,” Beah said. “My entire family was killed in the war — my mother and father and two brothers.”
His first battle occurred just days after soldiers distributed AK-47 rifles to Beah and other boy soldiers, the youngest 7 years old. Along with the guns came drugs and instructions from the lieutenant that rebels “do not deserve to live.”

At first, Beah was unable to shoot a gun in battle, but anger welled after his friends Josiah and Musa the storyteller were killed.

The child soldiers smoked marijuana and sniffed amphetamines and a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder nicknamed “brown-brown,” Beah wrote in his book.

Beah said he wrote the book to raise awareness about the problem of child soldiers, estimated at 300,000 worldwide.

“There’s nothing cool or glamorous about any of it at all,” Beah said. “People write books like this to convince humanity that we don’t have to go down that path — it’s not good for us.”

Beah said there was no way he could tell everyone’s story.

“One of the things I didn’t write about was girls — not only were they serving and fighting like we were but they were being sexually used by the commanders,” he said.

The rescuers at UNICEF treated the child soldiers as children, even though Beah said, “I was not a very good child anymore.”

"The first thing they said was ‘Have you eaten?’ and ‘Don’t worry, it wasn’t your fault,’ ” he remembered.

Beah said it took eight months in a rehabilitation camp to adjust to another life.

It takes time “to trust in humanity,” and “you have to undo all those things that have been done to you,” he said.

Even now, when he walks in a room, he sometimes still looks for danger, he said.

After his rescue, Beah went to Freetown, Sierra Leone, and then to New York City in 1998, where his foster mother, Laura Simms, sent him to the United Nations International School.

He said he had nightmares even after coming to this country.

Beah read a passage from his book about pushing a body in a wheelbarrow past other dead bodies, their arms and legs missing, intestines spilling out, and flies intoxicated by the blood.

“I don’t know why I’m taking this particular body to the cemetery,” Beah said. “I lift the sheet from the face and I am looking at my own.”

Those who heard Beah said they were impressed by his candor and courage.

“There’s something about him — wisdom — that not everyone has,” said Rachel Rothgery of Oberlin’s Free the Children Chapter, which has raised $5,000 of the $8,000 needed to build a school in post-conflict Sierra Leone in the Kono District, which saw the greatest violence due to its rich diamond mines.

Rothgery said Beah is humble, kind and sociable around other students — a world apart from his early years.

After the appearance at the library, Beah told The Chronicle that he was moved by the drive of the Oberlin College students to build the school in Sierra Leone.

For more, visit www.freethechildren.com or e-mail Natalie.Price@oberlin.edu.

Beah is forming a nonprofit foundation and library worker Casey Ross said information soon will be available at its Web site, which is under construction at www.ishmaelbeahfoundation.org.

Contact Cindy Leise at 653-6250 or cleise@chroniclet.com.