Bombs, Books & Bank Statements

Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier, shares with the Vienna school students how the cultural traditions of his village gave him courage, strength and hope to face the future

TVR Books | Gretchen Gatzke | March 2011

The following accompanies a review of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, which can also be found in the Mar. 2011 TVR.

On Feb. 2, Ishmael Beah sat down between two panelists at the Military History Museum, a big smile stretching from ear to ear. Beah is a survivor. A former child soldier in Sierra Leone, he told the assembled students about how the cultural traditions of his village and his passion for arts gave him the courage and strength to face a life-changing ordeal, and also in the end, hope for his future.

Beah was in Vienna as a guest of Who I Am, an organization here dedicated to educating children about their own cultural heritage and identity, to share with students for the city’s international schools to share his inspirational life story.

"You said yourself that you were lucky," the panelist to his right opened the discussion. Perhaps luck was part of it, but it also took perseverance and optimism for the 30-year-old Beah to become a New York Times bestselling author after being captured and recruited for the military at the age of 12, and fighting in the civil war in Sierra Leone for almost three years.

During this time, Beah’s parents and two brothers were killed, and his village burned. He was left with a new family, one that convinced the children that they were their only friends, that it was "everyone else" who was responsible for their losses. With the use of drugs, their new guardians were able to instill a sense of revenge. They, the children, were responsible for making sure tragedies like this didn’t happen again.

And to an impressionable 12-year-old whose family had just been killed, this made a lot of sense. The one with the gun became the father figure. The bond became stronger. This was the new family.

Luck, though, did have a lot to do with his recovery, Beah confirmed. He was rescued by UNICEF and brought to a rehabilitation center, with hopes of reintegrating back into society. It wasn’t simple though, and there was resistance for some of the children, who were angry when removed from the familiarity of war. It was a long process, including nightmares, flashbacks and the discomfort of withdrawal from drugs. Beah spent eight months at the center, "learning to trust human beings again."

Then things began to look up. In 1997, he sought refuge in New York City, where he could be adopted. Just getting there was nearly impossible. He was informed that he would not be given a visa until he was able to provide a financial guarantee; proof of ownership of property, for example. It was perplexing to him that the American Embassy expected him to have documentation, despite the context of war. Everyone in his village knew that his grandfather owned land, but he had no documents.

"When you hear gunshots," he said, "you’re not really thinking about printing out bank statements."

And even after he got there, Beah still had to deal with other problems, like his application for school. Without a report card, he would not be accepted. In fact, most schools didn’t accept him. In the end, the United Nations International School offered Beah a deal. With an essay about his lack of report card, he would be able to begin the rest of his secondary education.

So he thought about what he could write, and realized that America only knew Sierra Leone because of war. His essay, which eventually turned into the book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, could help to enlighten these Americans, who thought of child soldiers as a lost generation who could no longer recover.

Here he was, part of a lost generation, but actually he wasn’t lost at all. Beah was found. His essay was written from the perspective of a child, yet he spoke of Shakespeare, football and swimming, dancing to American hip-hop music without electricity – children exposed to the same realities, just not quite in the same way.

In his village, innocence was celebrated. There was a strong sense of community. Beah told the audience: "All males ate off the same plate. If your family could not provide, no one would know."

Because of this sense of kinship, it was hard to believe that the war began there. Children were forced to burn towns and kill members of their own community, in direct violation of the trust that had been established in his village. In the beginning, when he was first recruited, Beah trusted no one, but he soon learned that was not an option. Children were killed when they refused to participate, so they had no choice but to trust their commanders. Staying alive depended on following orders.

In the end, Beah emphasized that ordinary people are capable of violence because of the situations they’re forced into; losing one’s humanity and dignity is not just left to faraway parts of the world.

"To take someone’s life is to dehumanize them in the context of war," he said, "but you actually dehumanize yourself and just learn to function with it."

To the organization Who I Am, your mother tongue, your cultural heritage and identity define a person. The discovery of these things at a young age are then helpful in the appreciation and love for where you come from.

At 12-years old, Ishmael Beah was struggling for survival, yet he still goes back to the country that put him in that position. It was the kinship of his village, the football matches and the Shakespeare he read in school that brought him back. Without those things, and without the hardships of war and the great opportunities that fell upon him, Beah would not be the person he was today: a bestselling author and an advocate for Children Affected by War, amongst countless others.

But above all, he loved his culture for presenting him with the chance to be a happy person.


A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

by Ishmael Beah

Harper Perennial, London 2007

pp. 240

Other articles from this issue