Photo credit: John Madere
Ishmael Beah, now 26, lived with his family in Sierra Leone until 1991, when rebels attacked and violently destroyed his and neighboring villages marking the start of the country's civil war. Chaos and havoc took over as the rebels raped women and girls in front of their husbands and brothers, took young girls as sex slaves, and killed the rest of their families. When most 12-year-olds were enjoying the innocence of childhood, Beah was struggling to stay alive. Beah lost his family (he later found out they were all murdered by rebels) and so he wandered around Sierra Leone with a few friends, many of whom died along the way, in search of food and shelter. He escaped murder by pretending he was a corpse, impressed village chiefs by rapping in English, and even stole food out of a baby's hands.

When he was 13 Beah was picked up by the government army who turned him into a killing machine. Hopped up on drugs—marijuana, amphetamines, and brown-brown, a mix of cocaine and gunpowder (all provided by the army)—and wielding AK-47s, he entered a mad world. He tortured and killed countless people while looking into their "pale, sad" eyes; he forced people to dig their own graves as he believed it would be a waste of bullets to shoot them; he broke into houses, killed the people in it, and sat on their dead bodies while eating their food. In 1996, after many sleep-deprived, violent years, Beah was saved when the army inexplicably released him to a UNICEF rehabilitation center. There he suffered migraines and the excruciating trauma of drug withdrawal, and was overwhelmed by violent flashbacks. He had to relearn how to sleep and even how to sit still for more than a few seconds. He then moved in with an uncle (his only living relative, who later died in Beah's arms) in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He was invited to speak at the United Nations in New York in 1996. There, he met a Jewish-born storyteller, Laura Simms, who later adopted him when he fled from Freetown to New York City after the 1999 coup; he calls her his mother. In the United States, Beah received a B.A. in political science from Oberlin College. He now lives in Brooklyn, NY and works with the Human Rights Watch Children Advisory Committee to end the use of child soldiers worldwide by explaining how easy it is to dehumanize children and serves as a living example that rehabilitation is possible and imperative.

Beah recently spoke with Beliefnet about his faith in God, how he prays to his ancestors, and why--with many reasons not to--he believes humans are good. His first book, "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,"--a vivid, firsthand account of war, is a New York Times bestseller and has recently been nominated for a Quill Book Award.

Listen to Ishmael Beah:
Sing a Bob Marley Song About Happiness Recite the Prayers He Said When Escaping from Sierra Leone

What was your religious identity before the war in Sierra Leone?

I grew up as a Muslim. I went to an Islamic elementary school. Most of my community was Muslim, so I grew up praying five times a day. There were two things going on at the same time: there was the religion part of it, and then there was also the tradition--the culture and the tribal tenets--things like you need to be a good person, you should be nice to your neighbors, pay attention to your neighbors, respect your elders. It was a good way to live.

In your book, you often describe the land and environement around you while you were fighting the war in Sierra Leone. What is your connection to nature?

I believe one of the things that made me able to survive was this strong awareness I had of nature and appreciation of life. It was so strong inside me that I went through the war and it never completely got wiped out.

With my grandmother and the village life, there was more of an emphasis on the spiritual connection to the land, and being aware of how it changes when people's behaviors change.

As a kid in Africa you were so connected to nature itself because you went farming, watched the moon out at night, observed how the sky was different, and how the birds chanted different songs in the evening and the morning.

During the war when these things changed, when the gunshots actually replaced the songs of birds, it was a very sharp change and you could feel it as a child because you'd learned to see and feel this connection so much.

Which religious or spiritual practices had the most meaning for you as a child?

A lot of Muslims also do traditional practices, which is that they would pour wine on the land to thank the ancestors, to invite the ancestors for different, annual events. In my culture, we consider people who passed away, family members, as spiritual participants of communities. They know that they're not necessarily gone, but they exist spiritually and you can ask for help.
You can talk to them.

And so as a Muslim boy, I would do this with my family as well. I think what I'm trying to say is that because there was such a flexibility, I was able to actually take every religion that I've become involved with, I was able to take the good tenets of them and use them in conjunction with what I already knew.