BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Ishmael Beah, why did you title your book ”A Long Way Gone?”
ISHMAEL BEAH, AUTHOR, ”A LONG WAY GONE”: Well, first of all, there were several reasons, one of them being just a physical distance from home itself. Because during the war I had to continue running away from home over and over again, and that I was physically gone for such a long way.
But then the second part is that, in my country, where I had grown up knowing a very loving community and caring community. People were a long way gone from their own humanity, what made them human in that culture. They were a long way gone from the traditions, everything that had made them who they were, because of this violence that had been spreading so quickly.
LAMB: What is your country?
BEAH: My country is Sierra Leone. It’s in West Africa, a very tiny nation in West Africa.
LAMB: How many people live there?
BEAH: The population before the war used to be about five, six million people. But sure it’s very less now, because a lot of people were killed during the war.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
BEAH: I live in New York City right now, in Brooklyn.
LAMB: What do you do?
BEAH: Well, currently I’m a writer. This is my new status. But before that, I was a student at Oberlin College in Ohio.
LAMB: What did you study at Oberlin?
BEAH: I studied political science and took some writing classes on the side, creative writing.
LAMB: How old were you at the time that you’re writing about in this book? I know you wrote this book recently, but how old were you back in 1996? That was the year?
BEAH: Well, I started – the book traces me from when I’m about seven, eight until – but more heavily on when I’m 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and then 17. That’s really most of the book. It talks about that.
LAMB: In the acknowledgments, you write the first sentence in the acknowledgments.
”I never thought I would be alive to this day, much less that I would write a book.”
BEAH: Because the war that I was able to survive was so vicious and so brutal, to the sense that my life became just surviving each passing minute, and actually being uncertain about what the next minute would bring.
So, actually surviving that war, that I was pressed into the fight as a child soldier, had nothing to do with me being smart or knowing how to run fast, or anything. It was pure luck and the grace of God.
So, for me, being able to get out of it is lucky enough. So I never imagined this would be possible, that I would have a life beyond another day.
LAMB: How old are you today?
BEAH: I’m 26 now.
LAMB: Let me read a paragraph here in the book. It’s right in the middle, page 122. And we’ll go through and you can tell us what it all means.
You said, ”We walked for long hours and stopped only to eat sardines and corned beef with (INAUDIBLE), sniff cocaine, brown-brown and take some white capsules. The combination of drugs gave us a lot of energy and made us fierce. The idea of death didn’t cross my mind at all, and killing had become as easy as drinking water. My mind had not only snapped during the first killing, it also stopped making remorseful records, or so it seemed.
”After we ate and did drugs, we would guard the perimeter while the adults rested for a bit. I shared a post with Al Hadji (ph)” – is that the way to pronounce it?
LAMB: ”We would time each other on how fast we could take out a magazine and replace it. Sometime I’m going to take a whole village by myself, just like Rambo, Al Hadji (ph) said, told me, smiling at the new goal he had set for himself.
”’I’d like to have some bazookas of my own, like the ones in Commando.’ ’That would be beautiful,’ I said. And we laughed.”
Now, what’s the circumstances of all that?
BEAH: Well, this circumstance is after we had been in the war, after we had been pressed in the war.
We had lost – I had lost my immediate family and Elijah (ph), as well. I lost my mother, father and two fathers who had been killed by the RUF in the war.
And so, I was pressed into this conflict. And so, this is actually when we were really far gone into this madness now, you know. We’re fully embracing this war that we’re in, as children fighting in this war.
And so, our conversations were only limited to the violent things we wanted to do, and things, because there was no sense of something existing beyond this reality that we were in.
So actually, what we are doing here is that – the way the life was, was we go out and fight and then use drugs, which I’m talking about in there, and then watch war films, like American war films – ”Rambo,” ”First Blood,” ”Commando.”
So, sometimes we would want to be like those things and re-enact some of those things we had seen in the film. And that’s the era that I’m describing, actually.
And I’m also describing how, in the beginning of the war when you were pressed into it, you are afraid of holding the gun. But then when we went to the first battle and we fought and I shot somebody, you know, kill somebody, it does something to you.
So, you start descent to this hell, but – and it’s very difficult in the beginning. But after time went on, it became easy. It became normalized, this world.
And actually, in the context of war this is what happens. You normalize the situation so you can actually live through it, because if you don’t you actually die.
And also, in the context we were in, if you second-guess anything that you were doing, the commanders would actually kill you. Children who cried for their mothers were shot immediately.
So, this is just – and after a while, this becomes our world and we embrace it, and these groups become our surrogate family after we had lost everything dear to us. So, this is kind of in the midst of this madness, when we were completely lost in it.
LAMB: What was the point of the war?
BEAH: The war started at some point, when it started in 1991, was to get rid of a political party called the APC that had been ruling and embezzling funds for so long and that had driven the country to be really poor, and there were no schools and things like that.
But at some point during the war, the reason for that got lost. As most wars, it starts for a good reason and that gets lost.
So, it became a war of survival, actually, for the limited basic necessities that were available. And you had disenfranchised army squads, like mine that I was in, that just looted and pillaged the countryside while their friends were embezzling funds in the capital.
And so, it became a war actually, you know, you were in it. If you were part of a military group, or if you were pressed into it, you became part of it, you went out to look for whatever. The gun they gave you, the gun (INAUDIBLE). It became kill or be killed.
LAMB: Who gave you your first gun, and what was it?
BEAH: My first gun was given to me by a gentleman called Corporal Gaddafi. And he was part of my squad, and a lieutenant. And he was the second in command there.
And it was an AK-47. And the first time he gave it to me, I was so scared and so shaking. I had never held a gun in my hand in my entire life. I was shaking. I was so scared I didn’t want to look at it.
But it didn’t have the magazine in it, so the second time around it had the magazine. But as time went on, with the rhetoric of saying that this is – this gun is your protector, your provider, your safety – everything. It does everything for you in this conflict, so you’d better learn to love it. And if you don’t hold it, we’re going to shoot you at some point.
So, you held it and it became – you became attached to it.
LAMB: Who recruited you? And what were the circumstances? And which side were you on?
BEAH: Well, after I had lost my entire family and I ended up at a military base, a Sierra Leone army military base – a disenfranchised group of the Sierra Leone army.
And so, it was the Sierra Leone army that recruited me into the war. And basically, I was not given a choice, along with over 30 other orphans who were in the village at that time.
And we were basically – you know, you either become a part of it or you were kicked out of the village. And the thing about being kicked out of the village is that the rebels were surrounding it. And so, they would kill you, because they would consider you a sympathizer of the other side.
Now, everyone who was fighting this war believed that they were fighting the right fight. So, the rebels would use the same rhetoric to the children they were recruiting.
We later on find out, after we were taken out of this war, that they would tell them, the army is responsible for everything – the atrocities and killing your families. So you are actually doing a service to them, you know. But you had no choice. You couldn’t leave.
And the army would do the same rhetoric. So, you have everyone blaming everyone, but everyone was doing the same thing.
LAMB: How old were you when you killed your first person on the other side of this war? And where you and what were the circumstances?
BEAH: I was 13.
And, you know, we had been pressed into this conflict, because we had come to believe that the rebels were going to attack this village to take it over. So that safety that we knew was going to end. And because of this, we were pressed into it.
So, when we trained for less than a week, just how to shoot the AK-47 and some basic military things – you had to crawl and follow small commands. And then we went to the warfront to try to repel the rebels.
And I remember laying in ambush and the commander saying – you know, Lieutenant Djabati (ph) saying, ”Wait. I will give you the command when we see people moving in the swamp.” And we were sort of by the swamp.
And then we saw people moving. And actually, some of them were kids, just like us, wearing similar civilian, half-and-half combat and civilian clothes, and some adults.
And so, they started shooting, exchanging fire. I could not pull the trigger. I was numb. Where I was laying, I could not do it.
But as I was laying there, all the friends that I had joined with were being blown up. Some of them were shot and their blood was spilling all over me.
That whole chaos and that madness just pushed something within me, and I started actually shooting whoever was moving from one bush to the other. And that’s when it started.
LAMB: How many did you kill?
BEAH: That day, I don’t know. I don’t know.
LAMB: Give me an idea of how many people you killed during the whole time that you were fighting.
BEAH: I don’t know. But, also, I think part of writing this book is not to celebrate that at all. So, having a count is actually beside the point of …
LAMB: Well, I wasn’t asking the question because I wanted you to celebrate it, as much as just give some scope as to how many different fights you were involved in.
Would you say that over – how long were you fighting?
BEAH: I was in the war for over two years.
LAMB: And would you say you killed hundreds of people in the two years?
BEAH: I am not sure, really, how many people. But, as I said, the war – just to give you an idea, is that the war, the way it was is that each day, each second of when you’re engaged in any form of combat or violence, it was that – it was either you kill somebody or you are killed.
This is the basic thing that happens in war, you know. When you are there, you have to live. And when you live, somebody else dies.
LAMB: Let me go back to what I had read earlier – sniff cocaine.
Where did you get it?
BEAH: I’m not sure, but it was available a lot. And one of the things that we did in these groups was that we didn’t have like a strong supply route. It wasn’t like there was somebody bringing in stuff.
What we did was we attacked other bases, other armed groups, in order to get ammunition and drugs. And so, when we attacked other places, we killed people. We took their ammunition that’s in their base and we took over there.
And if we needed food, if it wasn’t there at that base, we would go to civilian villages and take the food from them.
So, this war was that kind of madness. There was no – you didn’t know what was coming.
But what was coming to Sierra Leone, from what I know now, is that there were a lot of – because of the diamond trade, and they take it out and sold it and exchanged it for guns and other drugs that came in through that.
LAMB: What’s brown-brown?
BEAH: Brown-brown is a drug that came out of – because we had been using all these drugs. And so, at some point we became quite – you know, they weren’t as effective anymore, because we would develop a strong tolerance to them.
So, brown-brown – I don’t know who really came up with it, but it was a concoction of cocaine and gunpowder. So you mix it up and you sniff it.
In the beginning, it burns the insides of your nose, really, and it hurts it. But after a while you get used to it, you know, and it doesn’t hurt inside.
But what it does to you is that it has more potency and effect than regular cocaine. And what it does is that, it gives you a tremendous rush of energy and it numbs you to everything. You’re not afraid of anything. You have no feeling for anything.
And so, say, for example, you’re in a bush and a shrub goes through your skin and you’re bleeding, you don’t even feel anything. You don’t care.
And I think that’s one of the powerful things they use also to keep us in that state.
LAMB: What about the white capsules? What are those?
BEAH: I don’t know. Actually, I’ve been trying to figure out what those were. And at that age, I had no idea, you know.
I grew up in the countryside, and my exposure to things like electricity came later on. So I didn’t know what any of these things were. But they were there and you have to take them or be killed.
LAMB: What did they do to you besides make you numb? I mean, and how much – how often were you drugged? The whole time?
BEAH: Every time. This was basically – a day was, you know, you get up in the morning, the commander says we’re going to the next village. We’re going to scope out some villages, or we’re going to attack some place where there’s another.
So, you go attack people, shoot people, kill people. And then, if you capture some people, you know, recruit more children if you capture them. And also have people carry the loads of your loot back to your base.
And then when we returned, we did drugs. And then we watched war films. And then we went back to fight.
So, this was the life. That was it.
LAMB: Talk about the war films. How often did you watch a war film?
BEAH: I would watch it every time we were back at the base. And we were doing drugs and watching them as much – any time we had time to do it, you know.
LAMB: What did you watch?
BEAH: ”Rambo,” ”First Blood” – all the Rambos – ”First Blood,” ”Second Blood” – all the whole thing. And then we watched ”Commando” and a few Chuck Norris films. But mostly – the most popular ones were the Rambo and the Commando one.
LAMB: Did you watch them every night?
BEAH: Yes. Most of the time.
LAMB: Well, what did they do to you?
BEAH: They kind of made this, you know, madness romantic in a way. Because you watch it and you see this guy, you know, ”Rambo” or ”First Blood,” he’s like hiding in the bushes and doing things like that, you know, with a bayonet, and stabbing people and things like that, and cutting people’s throats.
And actually, we aspired to do those things. So we would go out the next day. And if we were attacking a village, and we would decide we were going to do those moves that we just saw in the film. And we did that.
LAMB: Can you watch a Rambo movie today?
BEAH: I haven’t seen one in a long time. So …
LAMB: What impact do you think it would have on you?
BEAH: I think it might remind me of certain times of my life that are very difficult to remember.
But at the same time, I think after having seen and being in such extreme violent form, I will see – it would not affect me as much as it did before. I would not take the violence seriously, because I’ve seen what true violence is.
LAMB: What do you say to people in this country, where there are a lot of violent movies and a lot of video games that are violent? Do you think that has any impact on the young people of this country wanting to be in war?
BEAH: Yes. But I think when people watch violent films without any context, and not having an idea of what violence really does to you, then there becomes this romantic and glorious nature of it, that, you know, oh, I want to be a soldier. I want to do this, I want to do that.
But they don’t really know what violence does to people, that it only brings suffering – war of any sort and things like that.
And so, I worry about a little bit about that.
For me, if I watch a violent film, I have a stronger perspective, because if I’m watching it, I’m watching it from another vantage point, because I’ve lived such a life. So I know that this is not real, this is a film, you know, that this is not really how it happens when you are in this context. So I know that.
But for some kids who don’t have that context, it could be quite damaging at some point.
LAMB: Let me read some more from the next page that we just talked about.
”He spat at the corporal’s face, and the corporal immediately shot him in the head at close range. He fell onto the ground and blood slowly leaked out of his head. We cheered in admiration of the corporal’s fierceness, and saluted him as he walked by.
”Suddenly,” – is it Lansana (ph)?
BEAH: Lansana (ph), yes.
LAMB: ”One of the boys was shot in the chest and head by a rebel hiding in the bushes. We dispersed around the village in search of the shooter. When the young, muscular rebel was captured, the lieutenant slit his neck with his bayonet. The rebel ran up and down the village before he fell to the ground and stopped moving. We cheered again, raising our guns in the air, shooting and whistling.”
Did you ever slit anybody’s throat?
BEAH: Yes, I did.
LAMB: How – what impact did that have on you?
BEAH: At that time, nothing. Because I had gone so far into this madness, and because of the drugs and the constant violence, I had gotten so – this had become my reality so much, I had come to embrace this life so much, that I actually felt no pity for the person. And I actually felt quite proud of myself for doing it, because this is the life that I had come to know. And it becomes so normalized.
And also, it was either that or you can get killed, and things like that. So …
LAMB: Were the people you were killing just like you?
LAMB: They look like you, they talk like you, they …
BEAH: They look like us, they talk like us. They were as young us.
There was that madness.
You either shot them, or they shot you. Or if you refused to shoot them, the commander shot you.
So, for example, we were walking on a path and we encountered somebody. It might not look like there’s any danger. And if the lieutenant says to somebody in the squad, ”You, shoot this person. I don’t like the way he looks,” you do it. Because if you don’t do it, you’ll get shot. The commander shoots you.
So, when you’ve seen this done, you don’t question that, when they say shoot this person. But as time goes on, this becomes a part of your makeup, that you don’t even think about questioning them. Once they say ”shoot,” you just shoot right away.
LAMB: Sierra Leone is what kind of a place?
BEAH: Sierra Leone before the war? Before the war it was …
LAMB: Any time. I mean, what’s it like?
BEAH: It’s a beautiful country, nice weather. Really amazing people – the kindest people I’ve met anywhere.
But then this came about. Which is why I always say, before the war in Sierra Leone, none of us knew that any of us would be capable of doing these things at all, or would have neighbors who can do it. But then it happens there.
So, I mean, for me, it really goes to show that losing one’s humanity in extreme violence is not specific to any particular country, people or nation. It could happen anywhere.
And if people are put in that circumstances, no one knows what you might do.
LAMB: What country is around Sierra Leone?
BEAH: In Sierra Leone – Sierra Leone is a former British colony, so we are surrounded by Guinea, which is a French-speaking country. And then on the other side is Liberia, that has actually a strong connection to the United States.
LAMB: Why is the capital called Freetown?
BEAH: The capital is called Freetown, because when the first free slave – the slaves were freed in the Americas and in Europe, they were all taken back to Freetown. And this is how Freetown came about, as a freedom town for them to be removed. So that’s how the capital got its name.
LAMB: What role did Sierra Leone play in the slavery in this country?
BEAH: Early on, during slavery, there was actually a huge number of slaves who were brought from Sierra Leone to the Carolinas, because in Sierra Leone there’s a strong love for rice, and people have rice-planting skills.
So, because of that, slaves were brought from there to the Carolinas. And I think they still have an island in the Carolinas – I forgot which one, but in the Gullah Islands – where there are people who speak dialects that are very similar to those in Sierra Leone.
And there have actually been some anthropologists doing documentaries about having people trace their lineage back there. So, there is a lot of connection to that.
LAMB: A lot in your book is full of quotes that you’re writing about things that were said back in the days when you were like 13. How do you remember that?
BEAH: I have a very good memory. Growing up as a kid, one of the things that I had in my childhood was a strong sense of oral tradition in my culture.
I’m from the Mende tribe, which is one of the biggest tribes in Sierra Leone. And one of the things that we did in my village was that we sit around the fire and the adults would tell stories, orally.
And you were supposed to retain them and remember them exactly – even with the hand gestures. And then maybe two or three days later at another gathering, they will point randomly at somebody and say, ”you retell the story we just told.” And you will retell it.
So, because of this at a very young age, you learn a sense of narrative, a sense of how to remember things very deeply and internalize them.
And also, there is such a strong connection to the land, to nature, and a very strong kind of feel for things. So, when all these things stop, when they were shifting, I could feel it. And it said so much.
And because I have such a strong photographic memory – which is actually a curse and blessing in my opinion, for me, because then I remember everything so vividly. And especially because I have so many bad things that I saw, it becomes quite heavy.
LAMB: And you would remember it, even though you were heavily drugged all the time.
BEAH: At that time, when I was drugged, it seemed that all of this had stopped, you know, because there was no thinking process going on. We were not allowed to do that.
But after I was removed from the war and then I went to rehabilitation, the drugs wore off. Then all this memory started pumping in, and they were just there waiting. They were laying dormant in my head.
And it was just the drugs that were numbing them. And the I start to remember everything. And when I would see certain people, they would look like certain people and I would remember those instances.
Certain, you know, snaps would bring up certain memories in my head.
And I also have a very visual recollection. So sometimes when I remember certain things, because of the shock of it at that age, when I remember certain things, I actually not only – I can see visually, but also auditory things.
I can hear certain things. You know, in the (INAUDIBLE), I can hear the sparks of certain fires and things of that sort, you know. And the smell, I could – you know, it’s just – it’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
It’s not something that I could forget at all.
LAMB: As we sit here taping this, you are number one on the ”Washington Post” bestseller list. You’re number four on the ”New York Times” bestseller list.
Did you ever think that that would happen? And do you have any idea how it happened?
BEAH: I have no idea how – I never thought that would happen.
Actually, my dreams – you know, I was talking to my mom – my American mother who adopted me, Laura Simms – I was talking to her. The other day we were just talking about how before my life was basically could I survive each minute, you know.
And now my life is basically, oh, how could I – what journalist don’t I need to talk to, so I can have my own time to just rest, you know.
So, it’s gone from one different world to a completely different thing that I never imagined.
But I think one thing that this shows, in my opinion, is the fact that, when you are caught up in that life of violence, it actually limits you from knowing your humanity, from knowing what you are capable of doing.
So, at some point, I never thought I’m intelligent or I could write or I could anything.
If you met me at that time, you probably – you would never think you and I could have an intelligible conversation.
LAMB: Were you a lot different, if I had met you back in the jungles?
BEAH: Oh, yes. You probably would have never liked me. I guarantee that.
LAMB: How were you different?
BEAH: Well, first of all, I had a very strong, tense face. And I didn’t think about anything except the violence. And that was my life.
LAMB: Did you hate?
BEAH: Yes. Anyone who the commander said was the rebel, they were responsible for the death of my family, or all the things like that, I became – my point of …
LAMB: How many people – friends – and you talk about, there were six boys at one point, seven boys at another point.
How many did you travel with when you were out looking for the rebels?
BEAH: You know, at some point in my group, my initial group, there was recruited over 30 boys that were recruited. And then as time went on, we had more and more.
So, sometimes we’ll have five, six people. Sometimes we’ll have 10, 12. Depending on what given moment, there were all kinds of people.
And some – most of them died along the way. And …
LAMB: Did you ever come close to death?
BEAH: Many times. I got shot a couple of times. There are large bullet piercings on my body and in my foot. I just – at some point I got shot, and some bullets went in and out, and others got stuck in. And they had to do like a minor operation and take it out.
But my foot is fine. And, you know, so I can still walk around.
I am one of the very fortunate ones to have survived that.
LAMB: Of the 30 boys you were – and they were all your age, 13, 14 …
LAMB: … that you traveled with.
How many of them are alive?
BEAH: I was back in Sierra Leone in 2006. And there are a few who came to rehabilitation with me. One of my – so, I was able to see about six, seven of them.
I don’t know where the rest of them are. Some of them died during the time, like maybe about – during the time when I was in the squad with them, maybe we lost about 10, 15 to 20 of them. And …
LAMB: Any of them still on …
BEAH: … more of them came on.
LAMB: Any of them still on drugs? Any of them still watch those Rambo movies? Any of them still angry?
BEAH: There are a few that are still in rehabilitation center, because what happened in my case, because I had met a – so, you know, my mom now, from the United States, who, during the second part of the war went and came to the capital city. She was able to get me out. So I had an option. I left.
Some people who didn’t get that option to leave were drawn back into the war, because it’s either that or they will kill you again.
So, some of them were at rehabilitation centers still, just fully recovering now, but they are almost at the end of their psychosocial therapy.
And on the other side, there were a few who were in college, who were in high school. One of them is in medical school.
So, there, you know, it depended on where you were and how luck – fortunate you were. But there are a good number who have survived.
LAMB: When’s the first time you came to the United States?
BEAH: First time I came to the United States was at the end of 1996, after I had finished rehabilitation, to speak at the United Nations about the issue of children being used in war in Sierra Leone. And it was the winter of ’96.
LAMB: Why were you doing that? Who invited you?
BEAH: UNICEF invited me. And my local angel that I was with put forward my application as somebody who could come and speak about this.
And I think they selected me – I don’t know – because they probably thought I was eloquent enough to speak about it. I’m not sure.
LAMB: Where did you learn how to speak?
BEAH: I was – at a very young age I had two strong interests. One was hip-hop, American hip-hop music that I got drawn to. And another one was Shakespeare.
So, because of that, those two things, I was always going to the dictionary and looking for new words and practicing reciting soliloquies from Shakespeare, writing American hip-hop lyrics down and trying to recite it. So, because of that at an early age I had a very strong fascination for language.
But during the war that didn’t play out. So, after the war when I was at rehabilitation center, we had some preliminary schooling and they tried to rekindle that again. So, that interest showed again. And I – yes.
LAMB: Why the fascination with hip-hop?
BEAH: Well, in the beginning, you know, when I was eight I saw my first music video. And it was this group called Sugarhill Gang and their song called ”Rapper’s Delight.”
And for me, growing up in this culture where English was not my first language or second or third language – I learned it in school only – I had come to believe that people who were black did not speak English.
So, to see somebody on television so versatile in the language and speaking it so fast was very fascinating to me. And also the poetry of it.
So, I got drawn to it because of that. So I would write it, and if I didn’t know a word, I would look in the dictionary. And my father would always say, ”Why don’t you listen to the BBC? This is more better English. That’s bad English.” But I liked both worlds, so that’s why I was drawn to it.
LAMB: Who introduced you to Shakespeare?
BEAH: Shakespeare was introduced to me in school. Because of our colonial heritage, Shakespeare was the literature that you learned mostly – that I learned – in all of my school years. And I grew to love it a lot from when I was …
LAMB: What are your favorites?
BEAH: I have a lot of favorite Shakespeare. I think all of them I like so much.
But one of my favorite quotes in Shakespeare is from ”King Lear,” when he’s in the storm with the fool. And he says – he realized what had happened with all his daughters – and he said, ”When we were born, we cried that we’ve come to this great stage of fools.”
That makes a lot of sense to me, especially with the state of the world and where I am and what I saw, you know. It really – because, in a sense, human beings don’t really learn.
So, I’m a big fan of Shakespeare.
LAMB: Did you know Shakespeare before you fought?
BEAH: Yes. I knew a little bit of Shakespeare before I fought. One of the things that I did in primary school, which I think is – I don’t know what is the equivalent of it in the United States, maybe elementary school?
LAMB: Grade school.
BEAH: Grade school. One of the things that I did was, I would memorize soliloquies from Shakespeare, or little monologues. And then I would go to the town square, where adults would gather in the evening. And all kids would do this.
And we would recite, you know, like ”Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I have not come to bury Caesar, but not” – things like this.
And people would clap. And this showed – parents were very proud of this, because this showed that their kid had a mastery of the English language to some extent.
And when I did this, then people in the community would start coming to me so I can read their letters. If their sons and daughters who lived in the town sent them letters, sometimes I would write them letters.
So, this is at a young age, I got to know some of the secrets of the community. And so, it was quite good to know the English language.
LAMB: You talk about your grandmother, your mother, your father – your mother and father divorced – your stepmothers, your brothers, and all that.
Give us the background of where they were, what village they were in, where you were at the time and how they were killed.
BEAH: What happened is that, you know, my family – my mother and father separated when I was six, so when I was very young. And so, I went – my older brother and I – went to live with our father in a town called Mogbwemo.
And my grandmother was six miles away – 10 miles away from Mogbwemo. And my mother was another two miles away in another town called (inaudible).
LAMB: What did your dad do?
BEAH: My dad worked as a lab technician for this American company that was there that mined rutile and bauxite, and things of that sort.
So, growing up in this, to begin with we were considered misfits, because most people didn’t have their families divorced at that time. So we were kind of the kids who, when we did something it would be obvious, because they don’t have a mother at home, and things like that.
And so, when the war broke out, we, before – when my mother left, we had a few stepmothers who came and went, and they were very mean to us, so they always created a kind of rift between our father and ourselves, and things like that.
So when the war broke out, we actually went to Mattru Jong, which is where I was really born, just 60 miles away, to partake in a variety show with some friends. We would mimic these American hip-hop songs and do the dances, and things like that.
And so, we left. And then the next day, Mogbwemo was attacked, so we tried to return, but we couldn’t. So on our way back we saw so many dead bodies and people who had been touched by this. It was the first introduction to war.
And then after this, we continued running. And Mattru Jong was also attacked. And then we continued running.
But we would come across people who knew our family and they would say, oh, they are in this village. So, that kept us going.
But we finally arrived at the village where all of my family had kind of made it, including – I lost my brother while we running, my older brother. And then, but we were too late. We got there maybe a few minutes late. And there was an attack right when we were on the outskirts.
We heard the gunshots and the fire being set to places and people screaming.
So, we got there. And everyone in that village was killed. People were lined up and shot in the back of their heads. And people locked in houses and burned alive. So, all my family was massacred.
LAMB: Did you see them?
BEAH: I saw the ashes and the burnt bodies and things …
LAMB: What was your reaction to that?
BEAH: I was so angry. I was so angry. I think it was one of the first times that I started to become quite violent.
I was so angry, because when – before when I had come – on our way to this place, we had encountered a gentleman called Gasamoh (ph), who used to live in Mogbwemo, as well. And he slowed us down so we could help him carry some trunks of bananas.
So, I blamed him for that. Because the pain of knowing, of seeing what had just happened, and knowing that one minute that you had a family, and knowing that you’re the only one left, was so severe, that I wished I had been there to die with them. So I blamed Gasamoh (ph) for making – for stopping that from happening.
So, I actually struck him with a (INAUDIBLE). And so, I was absolutely angry. And I felt as if my veins were being pulled out of my body. My head was warm and it felt like it was heavy. My neck was hurting.
I was just in physical pain by just being there, you know. And it was really – even to this day, when I think about it, it just makes my entire body uncomfortable. It’s just a very unpleasant feeling, at 12, knowing that your family is all gone, just like that.
But I think one thing that war showed me, and when I was running from it, at that moment was that, how fragile life really is. It had become so apparent in that context, you really see it right in front of your eyes.
LAMB: When did you start writing your book?
BEAH: I started writing this book when I was at Oberlin College. This was during my junior year at Oberlin College. But I …
LAMB: Is that you on the cover?
BEAH: That’s not me on the cover. That’s another child in Sierra Leone.
LAMB: So, at Oberlin. What year?
BEAH: At Oberlin 2000, and I graduated in 2004. So, 2003, the second semester of 2003 school year I started seriously writing this. When I first started …
LAMB: And why?
BEAH: Well, because when I first came – several reasons - when I first came to the United States, I quickly realized that a lot of people didn’t know Sierra Leone was a country. So that upset me a lot, so I started speaking about it.
And the war had been going on there for seven years, so I started speaking about it.
But every time I would speak at a U.N., Human Rights Watch, at Security Council, wherever I was speaking, I felt that 10, 20 minutes was not enough time for me to really explain and give a context to what happened, so people can really see and feel the humanity of the people, the Sierra Leone that I know.
Because oftentimes, when people hear about these countries, they heard about Sierra Leone through the amputation, through the war. But for me, when you say Sierra Leone, it’s much more than that. There was a culture that existed – a beautiful one before the war disintegrated it. So I wanted to show that.
And also, I felt like it was very important to put a human face to what seemed so distant to a lot of people, to expose this continual use of children in war and how it comes about.
So that’s one of the reasons why I started writing it. It was a very difficult process to remember. But I felt that remembering and the difficulties of it was a very small price to pay to expose what continues to happen to a lot of children.
LAMB: How did you do it?
BEAH: How did I …
LAMB: How did you structure your days? And how often did you write, and did you have to do research? And did anybody else help you in this? And did you write it all yourself?
BEAH: I wrote it all myself. I had help with people who kind of looked at it and said, well, why don’t you write more about this, like things that I was reluctant to write about. And then I would go and try to write about it.
So I had a professor at Oberlin, Dan Chaon, who is also a writer, who helped me a lot, who basically became my mentor. So he would read it and give me feedback and I would go back. But I did the work myself.
And I didn’t do any research. I just sat down and wrote everything out, because I knew everything was in me so much. And it was very difficult to write.
But I will balance it out by writing about times before the war when it got too difficult. So, for example, write about my mother’s cooking and how the air smelled that day going swimming, and things like that, so it balanced out things for me.
Now, when I wrote the initial book, it was about 500 pages long. It was really long, because I just wrote the entire thing out. And then, after I edited it over and over and narrowed it down, and decided to keep it at this length.
LAMB: It’s about 225 pages.
The first person that pointed this book out to me handed it to me. And I looked in the back and they had bought it at Starbucks.
How big a deal was it that Starbucks picked this book to put in their coffee shops? And is that how it got to be number one?
BEAH: No, actually, one of the things that, when Farrar, Straus published this book, Starbucks came and bought it and they done the Mitch Albom book before, and they wanted to do another book. And they decided that they wanted to do this book. And so, they talked to me about it.
And I was excited about it when they said they wanted to recommend it to their customers, because they think it was a good book.
And I was glad about that for two reasons. First of all, they will reach a whole different demographic of people that traditional bookstores won’t reach, and we knew that.
And second, each book that you buy there, $2 gets donated to UNICEF to help prevent this use of children in war and to help children whose lives have been touched by war.
So, it was like some of the reasons why I wrote the book were already coming to place, to get a lot of people to read it, to use it as an advocacy tool, and it was already working. So when Starbucks picked it, it was like a dream come true.
And they have really stood behind it quite a lot and pushed it.
But in terms of making it on the number one bestseller list, or making it on the ”New York Times” bestseller list, actually the ”New York Times” does not count the sale at Starbucks, because they don’t consider Starbucks a traditional bookseller.
So, the sale at Starbucks is not actually included in the …
LAMB: Do you have any idea how many books Starbucks has sold?
BEAH: I spoke to them maybe about a week ago, a week-and-a-half ago. They had sold about 52,000 (ph) copies. And so, that wasn’t – it’s not part of the count.
I don’t know how the ”Washington Post” does the counts, if they consider the count from Starbucks, as well, or if they also don’t consider them a traditional bookseller.
But if all those are counted, actually, then the rate would be higher.
LAMB: And how many copies of this book have been printed now and are out in the system?
BEAH: I’m not sure for a fact. But I know they went to a second printing at some point. So, it’s been selling quite a lot. The reception has been absolutely remarkable.
I don’t know the statistics for a fact, but the reception has been quite remarkable. And it’s great, because I want everyone to read this book and see what happens to people, and get to meet the humanity of other people.
And for me, if somebody who picks up this book and now knows that Sierra Leone is a country, that people live there, that they’re as human as anyone else anywhere – they want the same things for their family, for their children – that is itself help to me. It’s a step.
Because when that genuine care and concern comes from that person to do something about it, then it’s not forced. It’s not because they have to do it out of anything, because they see the humanity of somebody else. So, that’s a step.
LAMB: How did you meet your mother now? Did she actually adopt you?
BEAH: Not in the formal sense, because I came when I was 17, so I was slightly – and by the time we got to it, I was too old to do that. But she’s my mother …
LAMB: Laura Simms is her name.
LAMB: Who is she?
BEAH: Laura Simms is a storyteller, a very good storyteller. And when I came to – excellent storyteller – when I came to the United States in ’96 at the UNICEF conference, that’s how I met her. There were a lot of people introducing themselves saying that I am this, you know, I am a UNICEF psychologist, I do this.
And she said, ”I’m a storyteller.” So, now, coming from a very oral tradition, storytelling culture, I was very curious how this woman in New York City is a storyteller. So I was very curious. So I got to know her through that.
But also because, when we came in ’96, I came with another young man who is in the book, Bah (ph).
We had no winter jackets. We were so cold. And this woman saw us and felt so sorry for us, and ran home, grabbed her winter jacket, gloves and hats and gave them to us. So, because of that, we started kind of knowing her a little bit.
And then when the conference ended, I went back to Sierra Leone, and she gave me her number, so we kept in touch. She sent me money to start school. The war hadn’t reached the capital yet, so I started school there. So when the war reached the capital, she got me out through …
BEAH: She had sent me money right before the war hit the capital. So she – I told her that I would actually go to Guinea, just a neighboring country. And I asked, if I made it out, if I can come to live with her, and she said yes.
So then I left and went to Guinea. And then I called her from Guinea, which is the neighboring country, from the capital, Conakry.
And then she put some things in place, took me to South Africa to live with a friend that she knew there.
From there I went to Ivory Coast, and then I got a visa in Ivory Coast, and then I eventually ended up in New York City in 1998.
You know, she worked really hard, because at that time, no one wanted to give me a visa to come, because I couldn’t prove that I intended to return back to Sierra Leone at that point. The country had collapsed. It was – you couldn’t prove that.
LAMB: You lived with her in the East Village?
BEAH: I lived with her in the East Village for the years of my schooling, for the last two years of high school. And then when I went to college I would come back. I lived there.
I still have the keys. I go into the house all the time and steal food from the fridge, just as a regular young person would.
LAMB: And where did you go to high school in New York?
BEAH: I went to the United Nations international school that she was able to get me into.
When I came, actually it was very difficult, because one of the things in the war, when you run away is that you don’t have school records. And when I started school in the capital city, I only went for like two semesters. And I didn’t have those school records either, because I had to flee.
So, I had to be tested a lot, you know, to determine what my – so they decided 11th grade was my level, so they put me there. And then I went on.
So, I lived with her. It was very wonderful.
And, you know, one of the things that’s really great about it, that she is a storyteller. She knew stories that were from Sierra Leone that were very specific to my tribe. So when she would tell them to me sometimes, I absolutely felt like that she was giving me back a piece of my childhood that I had lost so much.
And she gave me a chance to be a child. Before, when I came in the summer in ’98, before school started, we went around the country. She was going to storytelling festivals.
We went to California. I went bike riding and swimming. I had my first burrito, and all this stuff.
LAMB: She’s actually – she makes her living telling stories.
BEAH: Yes. She’s excellent. I mean, I come from, of course, a storytelling culture, so I have a very high standard of storytelling. And when I heard her tell a story, I was blown away. I couldn’t believe this.
LAMB: And why did you go to Oberlin?
BEAH: When I was in high school, my college counselor kind of spoke about Oberlin a little bit. But then, since I was in the human rights stuff a lot, I went to a lot of conferences.
And there’s a thing called State of the World Forum in San Francisco. I was there and there was a gentleman from Oberlin who spoke about human rights, the need for international norms in the world, and things like that.
So I talked him, therefore. And he said, oh, yes, I went to Oberlin. It’s this little school in Ohio. I think you’d like it. You should look at it.
So I was very taken by this gentleman, so I decided to actually talk to my college counselor, and they sent me to look at Oberlin. I went in the spring – beautiful campus. And the school – the size was very small, and so I was drawn to it.
And then I went back in the fall. And then winter came. It’s very cold in Ohio.
But I love the school. The academic was very good. The class sizes were really small. It was 10, 15 person class sizes, and I needed that, because I was coming from a place where I hadn’t been to school for so long. So I needed to be somewhere where I could get that personal attention.
And it’s the best place.
LAMB: What’s your reaction from people when they – and maybe even in school – when they found out that you were in war and that you had killed a lot of people? Did anybody react negatively to you after that?
BEAH: No. Because one of the things that happened when I started high school and college, my mother and I had spoken about the need that this wasn’t something that I would tell people until I felt ready.
So when I started high school, I didn’t tell most of my friends. Some teachers knew and a few other people. But people didn’t know.
I didn’t think it was a good introduction. Hi, my name is Ishmael. I used to be in a war. You know, that won’t go so well.
But later on, when people find out – because people got to meet me and know me as just the Ishmael who lives in the East Village.
And then when they learn about all this, really, I think it was – you know, they understood perhaps why I had certain tendencies, perhaps why I was so calm, why I never tried to engage in any form of ruffle (ph) with anyone, you know.
And so, people got to understand certain things about me. If anything, they said, I always knew there was something you didn’t tell me. Somebody would say that.
But I don’t think people’s reaction of changing.
Before, when I used to go around and speak, I’ve encountered a few people – from Sierra Leone, actually, and sometimes elsewhere – who were still unsettled about where children stand in terms of victims or perpetrators, children who were pressed into this role, of where they stand.
So, I’ve encountered people like that who absolutely do not like me, because they think, if anything, I should be looked at as a perpetrator, or all the kids who participated in the war should be looked at like they’re not victims. There are people who are of that notion.
And I think it’s because they don’t understand what really happened. And a lot of those people are people who did not live in these countries, who don’t know what really happened there.
LAMB: You met a woman named Esther. And she used to say to you – and I wrote this down – and you say, ”I hated when she would say to me and others, ’It’s not your fault.’”
Why did you hate that?
BEAH: Well, first of all, after you’ve been removed – after I was removed from the violence, I had become so attached to it, it had become my life. That when you are brought back, first of all, you have come to know the distinction between combatant and civilians. And in this context of the war, as a combatant, you determined what happened to the life of a civilian.
And all of a sudden, there are a lot of civilians telling you what to do. And that was very upsetting.
And secondly, when somebody says it’s not your fault, after you’ve come to believe this rhetoric, and being in that world fully, it’s almost belittling to you and belittling to everything you have believed in. You’re belittled as a soldier that you’re not capable of doing the things you know you’re capable of doing.
So that gets very upsetting. So that’s where that comes from.
And oftentimes, when people who are from the outside see kids who are doing this, they think the kid is identifying more as a perpetrator rather than a victim, because of this. It’s not that.
It’s because you’re so conditioned in that way for so long, that it actually takes a process to undo it, in order for you to become yourself again and to know that you are actually not that.
LAMB: Who was Esther?
BEAH: Esther was one of the nurses who worked at the rehabilitation center – the Children Associated with War, CAW rehabilitation center – that was in the outskirts of Freetown.
LAMB: How did you get into that center in the first place?
BEAH: Well, when the use of children had become really rampant in the war in Sierra Leone, from all sides of it, U.N. agencies, UNICEF and other places, went – started creating local end use, and they would go into the bushes and talk to the commanders. And I guess they were really convincing, because the commanders would release a number of kids at a given time.
I happened to be one of the first lucky kids who was released and brought to this center, where I met Esther and what – you know, and there are a few other people, I really – those are like my heroes, because they were willing to see us as children, regardless of what we had been a part of.
So, when this ”it’s not your fault” was said in the beginning, it was really upsetting, because of the reasons I have said.
But as time went on, it wasn’t the words themselves. It was the genuine care and compassion behind it, that we had hurt some of these people, because we were so violent. And when they returned they would say, ”It’s not your fault. Have you eaten?”
Those were their concerns. So these people were so kind, that when they looked at us, they still looked at us as children, and nothing more.
And as time went on, this really began to touch some of us, to rekindle that joy we had known as children, to know that we were capable of regaining ourselves again, like …
LAMB: Where is your friend, Esther the nurse, now?
BEAH: I am not sure. Actually, we are trying to locate her right now.
When I went back to Sierra Leone, I was able to find Leslie and a bunch of the people who worked at the rehabilitation center.
And one of my – the guy I write about, Mr. Kamara (ph), who was the head of the rehabilitation center, I actually just saw him in Boston. I was at Harvard giving a talk, and he showed up there. Somebody had shown him the book, and he looked in the back and he said, ”I know this kid.” So he came.
So, I’ve been able to trace a lot of people, but I haven’t gotten Esther yet, but I’m looking and I want to find her.
LAMB: Is there a movie here?
BEAH: There’s a lot of interest in a movie about the book. But for now, I just want to focus on the book itself and just have a lot of people read it.
I know with a movie, you’d be able to reach a whole different set of people, as well. But you have to be very careful making this into a film, because they could make it into a cheesy Hollywood film that would destroy the strength of the book. And this is very personal to me. I wouldn’t want that at all.
I don’t want a love story streamlined (ph) between this thing, you know, because that’s not how it happened, and so, I don’t want that.
LAMB: Under the circumstances of your contract, do you get to keep the money yourself that this generates?
BEAH: I get to keep a share of it. I have a contract with the publishing house, yes.
LAMB: What are you going to do with it?
BEAH: I’m not sure yet. Well, I intend to go back to school. I was actually taking the LSAT to go to law school before I got a book sale. So, I perhaps to pay for school.
But I’m also – alongside this book, one of the things that I’m doing is setting up a foundation to actually help children in Sierra Leone to regain their lives. So I will raise money and perhaps donate some of my own personal money towards that project, as well.
LAMB: Who named you ”Green Snake?”
BEAH: It was my lieutenant who named me Green Snake, the commander, Lieutenant Djabati (ph).
And in Sierra Leone there is a lot of snakes. And so, there’s a particular green snake that blends really well with the forest. And it’s not necessarily a poisonous snake, but you can never see it.
You can be standing next to a shrub or a bush and it’d be right there. You turn around and you see it.
So, because I was so small as a child, I was very tiny, and I was able to hide under little shrubs and do a lot of damage without being seen. So he named me that, because of that.
LAMB: How big were you – how tall are you now?
BEAH: What I like to think of myself or my real height?
LAMB: Your real height.
BEAH: I think I might be like 5’6” something. I’m not sure.
LAMB: How tall were you when you were 13, back in the mid-’90s?
BEAH: I’m not exactly sure, but I was much shorter and much skinnier than I am now. I think I grew several inches after that.
LAMB: Are you still interested in hip-hop?
BEAH: I am very interested in hip-hop, still, but just the old version of it, because the new one is – there still is a few guys who are very good, but a lot of them are not so good.
LAMB: Do you still dance?
BEAH: Yes. Not in the way I used to in a group dance. But when I go on the weekends when I go out with friends, I like going dancing.
LAMB: And what’s your reaction if somebody says, here’s some cocaine?
BEAH: I laughed. I say, ”Thank you, no.”
LAMB: And there’s no interest at all in going back to the drugs.
BEAH: No. Because I know what it does to people, and I know what it did to me.
For me, it’s not just a drug for recreation. For me, when you say cocaine or when call a particular brand of drugs, it comes with it attached all the memories, all the things that I associate with it that are not pleasant. So, that in itself, it brings a distaste in my mouth.
LAMB: You know, when we hear from our own Vietnam veterans and other war veterans, they often talk about waking up in the middle of the night, cold sweat, problems with fatigue from the war.
Do you have any of that? Do you ever – you know, are you ever frightened, because – do you ever feel like you’re going to go back to the way you were?
BEAH: I have a lot of nightmares, even to this day. Before I used to have a lot of them, and it used to disturb me so severely. But through lots of therapy and writing the book, as well, I’ve been able to cope with a lot of it.
So that when I wake up from a dream, a frightening dream, when I’m sweating or when I dream somebody’s killing me, or I’m running from something, I wake up and realize that, OK, I’m not there. I’m here now. This is just still a healing process going on.
But I do have that.
You know, when I walk down the street, different sounds remind me of different things, trigger different things in my head.
But my life before the war, during the war and after the war is what makes me who I am. I live with all of that. And I’ve just been able to transform them and make those experiences more into instructional tools rather than things that will harm me.
LAMB: You want to be a lawyer.
BEAH: I’m interested in going to law school, yes.
LAMB: What do you want to eventually do?
BEAH: I’m only 26. I have no idea what I want to do with my life. I know I want to write. I know I want to go to school more.
LAMB: Do you want to write another book? And if you do, what’s the next book you would want to write?
BEAH: I have two ideas. There’s a lot of interest in people wanting to know what happened when the book ends, too, how I am here now. So, perhaps there could be a sequel.
But I’m interested in writing a novel of a different – showing what Sierra Leone was before the war and what happened to some people there.
LAMB: Ishmael Beah, thank you very much.
BEAH: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.