Ishmael BeahA former child soldier from Sierra Leone has written a vivid, first-person account of fighting in his country's civil war in the early 1990s. The book, "A Long Way Gone - Memoirs of a Boy Soldier" - was released on February 15th, 2007. The author is 26-year-old Ishmael Beah. Prue Clarke caught up with him at his home in New York City on the eve of his international book tour. Here's his story of humanity lost and re-gained.
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Clarke: War came suddenly to Ishmael Beah's childhood. After a day like any other - swimming in the river and listening to American hip hop tapes with friends - nightfall brought a new soundtrack to the 12-year-old 's life.
Ishmael Beah: "We don't really know what's going on and then several gunshots started going on all around the town and then it was very clear that there had been a rebel attack. And so basically we just ran."
Clarke: Ishmael met up with six other boys who like him had been separated from their families. The boys ran from the fighting for more than a year, stealing food and hiding in forests.
Then one day they heard their families had taken refuge in a village an hour's walk away. But rebels got to the village before the boys did and burned it down. Nearly all of the villagers were massacred. Ishmael struggles to read his account of finally finding his family.
Ishmael Beah: "I ran toward the house. Without any fear I went inside and looked around the smoke filled rooms. The floors were filled with heaps of ashes. No solid form of a body was inside. I screamed at the top of my lungs and begun to cry as loud as I could punching and kicking with all my might into the weak walls that continued to burn."
Clarke: The grief-stricken boys moved on. Soon they came upon a government army camp. The soldiers' ranks were dwindling, and they grew desperate for new recruits. Ishmael and the other boys were given AK47s and one week of combat training. shmael was thirteen. One of his fellow soldiers was seven.
Ishmael Beah: "There was no choice, if you didn't want to be part of this you were kicked out of the village, which meant that the rebels who were waiting around would kill you because they would think of you as a sympathizer on the other side. Going into the war was just another way of buying another day to live that is if you survived the battle, you know."
Clarke: In his very first battle, Ishmael was paralyzed with fear. He couldn't shoot. He watched in horror as two of his friends died. And then...
Ishmael Beah: "I raised my gun and pulled the trigger and killed a man. Suddenly as if someone were shooting them inside my brain, all the massacres I had seen since the day I was touched by war began flashing in my head. Every time I stopped shooting to change magazines and saw my two young lifeless friends, I angrily pointed my gun into the swamp and killed more people.
Uh, the first day which I just read a bit about was the most difficult one because I'd lost my humanity on that day and so the rest became easy as time went on with the constant use of drugs, the constant violence."
Clarke: Ishmael says over the next two years, killing became as easy as drinking water. Once he and his squad buried rebel prisoners alive.
He writes: "My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector, and my rule was to kill or be killed." But his whole world changed when UNICEF workers came to his base camp.
Ishmael Beah: "They asked kids to line up and they pointed out some of us and took our guns away from us. And we got in the truck and I was very upset. Because one of things that happens is you develop a weird sense of belonging to this group. Because you feel that that's all you can be a part of."
Clarke:Ishmael was taken to a rehabilitation center in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown. He tried to escape to re-join his squad. He stole drugs from the infirmary, beat up a guard, and fought other boys for hours on end. And then there were the migraines, and nightmares.
Ishmael Beah: "I would dream that a faceless gunman had tied me up and begun to slit my throat with the zigzag edge of his bayonet. I would feel the pain that knife inflicted as the man sawed my neck. I'd wake up sweating and throwing punches in the air. I would run outside to the middle of the soccer field and rock back and forth, my arms wrapped around my legs. I would try desperately to think of my childhood, but I couldn't."
Clarke: His anger and guilt were overwhelming. It took eight months for the staff to win his trust, but finally Ishmael started to believe them.
Ishmael Beah: "They'd always tell you that it's not your fault but I think it's not necessary the phrase that was important, rather it was the intention behind the phrase Regardless of what you had been through, what you had been a part of, you were just a child to them and they say that more than anything else."
Clarke: They helped Ishmael re-discover his childhood, his love for words and rap music. His performances at the rehab center gained the attention of UN staff. And he was chosen to attend a UN conference in New York for children affected by war. There, he gave a speech that would change his life.
Ishmael Beah: "What I have learned from my experiences is that revenge is not good. I joined the army to avenge the death of my family and to survive. I've come to learn that if I am going to take revenge. In that process I will kill another person who's family will want revenge then revenge and revenge and revenge will never come to an end."
Laura Simms: "When he spoke I was moved to my core."
Clarke: Laura Simms, a professional storyteller from New York, was at the conference to help the children deal with their trauma.
Simms: "And I thought to myself someone has to save this young man."
Clarke: Laura and Ishmael kept in touch after he went back to Freetown. He lived with an uncle until chaos engulfed the city. Fearing that he'd be dragged back into war, Ishmael called Laura and asked, if he could make his way to New York, could he live with her?
Simms: "So I said 'sure' because the idea that he would ever get here was so far-fetched. And he said, 'Oh no!" I need to know the truth because if I can visualize it I will get there. I can't explain it but it was as if every cell in my body kind of readjusted and I said 'yes'."
Clarke: With Laura's help Ishmael returned to New York in 1998. He was 17. He went to the UN high school, and graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in political science. Today he and Laura sit at the kitchen table in Laura's loft in Manhattan's east village. Laura's a warm woman in her 50s. She had no children until Ishmael asked her to be his mom.
They laugh at the challenges they faced when they first lived together - he an African Muslim teenager, she a white American Jew.
Simms: "And also I could say that I'm the least domestic person Ishmael could have chosen as a mother."
Ishmael Beah: "My mom was cooking one time I don't know what she put in the thing but all of a sudden she threw the pot across the living room and the cats went flying away (laughs)
Simms: "It caught on fire."
Ishmael Beah: "I thought to myself this is really amazing. This is a whole different method of cooking that I've never seen before."
Clarke:Ishmael's smile is dazzling. He calls this his 'second life.' Though he still feels guilt, and still has nightmares, he says he needs to carry on. It was emotionally grueling to write his book. But it was worth it, he says, because it has given him a chance to do something positive.
Ishmael Beah: "I think it's a responsibility that I owe to make sure that that doesn't happen to people because I know what it's like to lose family, I know what it's like to lose one's humanity, I know what it feels like to be subjected to violence and I don't want that to happen to anyone which is why I do what I do."
Clarke: The author of 'A Long Way Gone' has come a long way since he and his friends mimicked Run DMC. But now Ishmael Beah has a lot more to rap about.
For the World, I'm Prue Clarke.
UNICEF fact sheet on on child soldiers
Amnesty Int'l info on child soldiers
Human Rights Watch info on child soldiers