Long Way Gone (Beah)

Author Bio
Birth—November 23, 1980
Where—Mogbwemo, Sierra Leone
Education—B.A., Oberlin College
Currently—lives in New York New York

Ishmael Beah is a former Sierra Leonean child soldier and the author of the 2007 published memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. His first novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, about the aftermath of that war was published in 2014.

Civil War
Beah was 11 years old when civil war overtook Sierra Leone in 1991. Rebels invaded his hometown of Mogbwemo in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone, forcing Beah to flee. Separated from his family, he spent months wandering south with a group of other boys. At the age of 13, he was forced to become a child soldier, spending the next three years fighting for the government army against the rebels.

Beah says he doesn't remember how many people he killed. He and other soldiers smoked marijuana and sniffed amphetamines and "brown-brown," a mix of cocaine and gunpowder. He blames the addictions and the brainwashing for his violence and cites them and the pressures of the army as reasons for his inability to escape on his own: "If you left, it was as good as being dead."

Rescue and transition
Rescued in 1996 by a coalition of UNICEF and NGOs, Beah went to live with an uncle in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he attended school. That year he was invited to speak at the United Nations in New York. He returned to Sierra Leone, but in 1997 Freetown was overrun by both rebels and the Army, who had since joined forces. With the violence escalating, Beah contacted Laura Simms, whom he had met the year before in New York.

Again, with the help of UNICEF, Beah made his way back to the US. There he lived in New York City with Simms, who became his foster mother, and attended the United Nations International School. He later enrolled in Ohio's Oberlin College, graduating with a Political Science degree in 2004.

Following his 2007 publication of A Long Way Gone, Beah appeared on The Daily Show, telling Jon Stewart that he had found the transition back to civilian life difficult. It was harder to return to society than to become a child soldier, he claimed—because dehumanizing children is a relatively easy task. 

Beah credits Nurse Esther, a UNICEF volunteer, with having the patience and compassion required to bring him through the difficult period. She recognized his interest in American rap music and reggae, gave him a Walkman and a Run DMC cassette, and used music as his bridge to his past, his childhood prior to the violence. Slowly, he accepted Esther's assurances that "it's not your fault."

If I choose to feel guilty for what I have done, I will want to be dead myself. I live knowing that I have been given a second life, and I just try to have fun, and be happy and live it the best I can.

Books and recognition
A Long Way Gone was nominated for a Quill Award in the Best Debut Author category for 2007. Time magazine's Lev Grossman named it one of the Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2007, ranking it at #3, and praising it as "painfully sharp", and its ability to take "readers behind the dead eyes of the child-soldier in a way no other writer has."

In 2009, as a 29-year-old, Beah traveled home to Sierra Leone with an ABC News camera, a return that he describes as bittersweet. Later in February, 2013, he traveled to Calgary and spoke at the My World Conference.|

Beah published his first novel in 2014. Radiance of Tomorrow tells of the difficulty of rebuilding a war-torn community for both the victims of violence and its perpetrators. The novel has received wide praise for its compassion and elegant, nuanced style.

The accuracy of the events and chronology presented in A Long Way Gone have been called into question, particularly the claim that Beah became a child soldier in 1993, rather than in 1995 as the timeline of events in Sierra Leone's civil war suggests. (Adapted from Wikipedia. 1/12/2014.)

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