2016-07-27
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. 

How were you affected by Christianity in your town?

I would sometimes go to a church because the music was so good. I would go in and listen, and it was never frowned upon. I went to a Christian secondary school, and one of the requirements there was to read the Bible and learn the Bible. So here I was, a Muslim boy who had been praying five times a day, and all of a sudden I had to read the Bible, which I liked quite a lot, actually. Because I got to know both sides of the belief systems, and understand where they're coming from.

How do you identify with a supreme being?

I believe that there is a God, and coming from an African tradition, I believe also that there are gods.

I just don't believe in being tied to one particular religion and believing only that. It's one way of--that's a good way of getting closer to that God. I believe in having a more open mind and including others who don't share your faith and having dialogue with them. And just having a pure heart and being a good person can bring you closer to God. Because once you believe in one particular religion fully and not others, that requires you to start disliking people who don't share your views.

So you don't affiliate yourself with one religion over another?

Not necessarily. After the war I went to the United States. For my Jewish mother, Laura, to bring me to the United States, I went through South Africa. She put me in touch with a Jewish family in South Africa. It was a Jewish doctor, and he took care of me in terms of healing me, and we became friends. He started inviting me to Shabbat, so, for six months I went to Shabbat.

And what did you take away from that experience?

I began to see that some of these Jewish stories were quite similar to the Muslim ones. I also found just how beautiful the prayers are and how they reminded me a little bit of the Arabic prayers that I knew also. But I just enjoyed the thoughtfulness, the quietness of the prayers, and how beautiful the prayers really are. During Passover people go around and tell the different parts of the story, so they got to me, and they said, "Oh, we'll skip him, he doesn't know." I was like, "No, I know the story."

Would you speak a bit about your meditation practice?

My mom doesn't practice Judaism. She's actually Buddhist now, so then I started going to the Buddhist center, and I learned meditation. And that actually also appealed to me quite a lot, because, after having lived through the war, all the religions, different aspects of them made sense to me based on my experience.

So with Buddhism, the whole idea of how human beings are generally good and that sometimes we all have the capacity of losing our humanity and we can regain it just made sense to me. And also how we should transform our experiences into something positive, because if you don’t, the negative actually only causes suffering. And so I started meditating quite a lot and listening to teachings.

When you saw what the rebels were doing to the people in your village and to your own family, did you ever question the existence of God?

There was never a question of: Where is God or what is he doing? It was more like an only-God-can-help-us-in-this-situation kind of thing. It didn't seem like any human being cared. When I was in the war itself and running away from the war, there was that belief that God is the only one who's responsible for saving us.

And even after I survived that war, I believed that it was the grace of God because the chances for dying in that war were so much greater than surviving it. I didn't survive because I was smarter or knew how to run fast or knew how to fight, so I believed that God was looking out for me. Or some spiritual thing was at work for me; otherwise there are so many instances that I could have just perished like the next person standing next to me.

It seems, from the way you explain yourself in the book, that you always rose to the top: You were the most efficient soldier, you excelled at the rehab center and became their spokesman, you were the one who was chosen out of all the ex-child soldiers in the rehab center to go to New York City, which eventually led to your escaping from Sierra Leone. Was it pure luck? Was it survival of the fittest? Or was it God's will?

I do really believe that I've been tremendously lucky in the sense that there's something at work for me. God has been good to me, in that God is looking out for me. When I talk to another friend of mine from Zimbabwe, I always make a joke with him, but I really believe it. I say, "the gods are on my side." Not only is God looking out for me, but the gods are also on my side.


Because, like you said, none of this stuff I ever envisioned. The days of my life before were basically filled with me thinking how could I possibly survive the next minute. What will happen next? And then one thing after another happens.

How do you explain the violence that human beings are capable of?

I don't believe humans are inherently evil. I think circumstances lead people to behave this way. But growing up in Sierra Leone, if anyone would have ever told me that I would be capable of being truly violent, or that my neighbors or people could be, I would have never believed them. Because it's such a loving community, culture and people.

But that changed. I believe we are capable of being truly violent, but I think it depends on what circumstances make us do that. But mostly I believe that human beings are good.

Was being a killer part of the plan God had for you? Was it part of your destiny?

I believe that it was a misfortune, but as all with misfortunes, I was able to learn from it. I think it's what you get from the experience that really matters. I could have decided that I don't trust, I don't believe anything anymore, and I don't want to be a part of anything. But, I don't think [my experience] was part of a larger plan. I think it was just a misfortune that gave me more insight and appreciation of life than I had before.

I believe that as human beings, we really don't have very much control over life. Sometimes you're lucky in that what you want for your life also happens to be what life wants for you. Sometimes it's not the case.

During the war I really got to learn how fragile life is, how not in control we are. There are other forces at work that we absolutely cannot control. So you learn to hope more and live with whatever you have.

What motivates you to get up in the morning?

Just being alive. After the war I got to really learn that being alive is such a blessing. Like not waking up to gunshots, and not running, and not fearing always. Just waking up in peace gives me the strength and determination to continue, but also, because of what I've been through, I think that makes me who I am. It shapes my views. It makes me appreciate life. It makes me understand certain things at a deeper level. And it just makes me celebrate every given moment of my life. Because I know what it's like not to have any peace at all in your life.

I think oftentimes in this culture, because people are so removed from the death itself, that whenever it happens, it's shocking, because people are not close to it. So, for me, as a kid growing up, I was aware that death was also part of life.

How did you become you aware of that?

First of all, when I went to go fetch water, I went by the cemetery. And when somebody dies in town, they're taken through the town and buried, and everyone knows.

But I think in this culture sometimes it's so removed, people tend to forget sometimes that we all will die at some point. And if you believe in Buddhism, death is another phase of life, which is very similar to the African tradition that I grew up in. Passing away is not the end; it's just another stage in existence.

In the end of the book you said that as you were escaping from Sierra Leone, you were praying at the different checkpoints. Was there any specific prayer that you recall you said?

First of all, I would read a little Sura in Arabic, which was, "Oh, God please help me to make it through this." And I also prayed to my ancestors and said, "Wherever you are, your spirits, please aid me through this," and things like that. So I made a combination of everything, like basically whatever prayer I knew, I would read. I would say, "God, please touch the hearts of whoever I'm talking to next so that they might see my own humanity and not send me back to where I don't want to go," and things like that.

What advice do you have for people who are suffering now?

What I came to believe as a kid and I still believe now is that if you're alive, you have to be hopeful. Even if hope seems lost you have to find some shred of hope and hang onto it because you never know what the possibilities are. Life is very fragile and strange in its own ways; it can tilt either way.

So, always have a positive take on things, however difficult they are, try to find something more to it than dwelling on the negativity of it.

What's the purpose of life, of being alive?

I think being alive also comes with certain responsibilities, which are caring for others and being selfless in a lot of ways. Because I think that you live your life for yourself, but you also live your life for others, because it's through our human interactions that we actually are able to live. Life is for sharing with others. As long as you do it with pure heart--and sometimes it doesn't even require giving money or doing anything, just requires you to smile at somebody, to be patient with somebody, to be nice, to say something nice to somebody, to not leave your bad word with somebody.

I don't want people to think of those whose lives are caught in violence as hopeless, or that that's the end of it, that they can't regain themselves. Because I truly believe that each human being is capable of regaining themselves if given the right help. So, I'm there to show that because there was a time when I myself was very, very violent, and I could have never thought I would be who I am now.

Do you believe there will ever be peace in this world?

I think there will be. I'm not sure when, but I think, as time goes on, we'll realize that is the only way we're going to be able to live together. We have no other choice but to actually work for it. We should just talk to each other, understand each other, and live in peace with each other. It is actually very possible and doesn't require the amount of energy that is required to do harm to each other. But I believe that at some point, it will come. When? That I don't know.

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