Ishmael Beah is 26 now, but he looks much younger and nothing like a killer. Life is not the movies. Good and bad aren't fixed characteristics...
Ishmael Beah is 26 now, but he looks much younger and nothing like a killer.
Life is not the movies. Good and bad aren’t fixed characteristics but subject to circumstances. When Beah was 12, rebels destroyed his village in Sierra Leone. They killed his mother, father and two brothers.
He and a group of friends ran, dodging attacks until one day they were captured by government troops and forced into the army.
They were given weapons and drugs and sent to fight. He knew nothing of politics or ideology. It was kill or be killed.
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Beah was in Seattle this week, his second visit promoting his book, “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” (Sarah Crichton Books, $22).
“How many times did you have to use that AK?”
The questioner is a lanky boy at Chief Sealth High School. He makes machine-gun sounds and sweeps his arms back and forth a few feet from Beah, who’s just told his story to an assembly.
Beah looks uncomfortable. I think of a scene in the book in which he shoots six prisoners in the head.
“Many times, but I’m not proud of it,” he replies.
When he was 15, some people from UNICEF stopped his unit. They had his commander go down the line and pull out the children.
Beah was sent for rehabilitation. He was chosen to speak at a U.N. conference.
When fighting broke out again, he escaped his country and at 17 made his way back to the United States with the help of a woman who became his American mother.
He finished high school and graduated from Oberlin College, where a professor had encouraged him to tell his story.
That therapeutic writing became a book.
One afternoon in his hotel room, he told me he wants to turn his experiences into something positive.
“I can’t dwell on the negatives because it would kill me.”
He has a mission. “I know more and more the need to expose people in this country to other cultures.”
In Sierra Leone, he’d learned about the United States. Here, he met people who didn’t even know Sierra Leone was a country.
He’d never felt snow or tasted American foods, but he knew Shakespeare.
Beah said it is dangerous for people in the world’s most powerful country to know so little about the rest of the world.
Of course, he had some misperceptions about America, too. When he was very young, Beah said, “I came to believe people who were black did not speak English well.”
Then he heard hip-hop. “It was so poetic,” he said. He fell in love with it as he had with Shakespeare.
The rap he hears now, he says, is “quite horrible” but the early performers were masters of the language.
In rehabilitation, the nurse coaxed him to visit her by allowing him to listen to hip-hop.
He was an ordinary teen. The power of his book is the way it shows how normal kids can be swept into madness, and that it is possible after all that to reclaim one’s humanity.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.