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From Child Soldier to Global Activist: Ishmael Beah at NYUAD

In a recent talk at the NYUAD Institute, international best-selling author Ishmael Beah detailed his journey from fighting in the Sierra Leone Civil War at age 13 to becoming a best-selling author and activist.

Ishmael Beah has an infectious energy, an attitude towards life unrivaled in its excitement. He has the dexterity of speech that fits an international best-selling author, and a command of the stage and audience that enchanted everyone in the packed NYU Abu Dhabi Institute talk. He combined gravity with happiness and peace of spirit.
Beah was one of the thousands of children recruited to fight in Sierra Leone’s civil war, at times making up almost 50 percent of the fighting forces. The war broke out in 1991, resulting in over 50,000 deaths in the 10 years it ravaged the nation. During those years of witnessing and participating in war, Beah lost all that was dear to him and hope was slowly stripped away from his vocabulary. Approximately three years later, he was rescued by a UNICEF mission that brought him to a rehabilitation center.
Reflecting on his own hardships, Beah has decided to dedicate as much of his time to helping other children in similar situations. Travelling around the world, he witnessed firsthand the struggle of countries to rebuild themselves after conflict.
“Equity and justice definitely go hand in hand when you want to repair a broken country,” Beach commented in reference to the essentials for reconciliation. “You really need to rebuild those things and you need to have people believe in it.”
“You've got to give people real opportunities so that they don't choose violence as an option,” he continued. “Because when people don't have anything to do, they will choose anything and often it's not going to be something good for society.”
Beah’s work for the United Nations has taken him to various countries, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Colombia. He has worked with child soldiers from several contexts, seeking to give them an opportunity to return to as normal a life as possible.
Beah talked about the struggle of relating to these children if you have never experienced war. “I wouldn't claim that I know and fully understand their context in their lives everywhere I went. But in that area we would always find the commonality...the spirit of war is the same regardless of the context of the war.”
He explained that one of the mistakes people make is assuming that these children are unintelligent. “I've found consistently everywhere that all the kids that have come out of war are very strong [in character] and are intelligent,” Beah described. “As in a human intelligence that allows them to think and make decisions in very complicated environments.”
In his travels, Beah has also observed the difficulty he himself experienced in re-integrating into society. “[To achieve peace], empathy has to be democratic, for lack of a better word,” he stated.
The rebuilding process, to him, has to contain the participation of all actors. “Even warlords, they're not born warlords… there is a process that breaks them into warlords,” Beah further added.
There can be a danger in categorizing people into victims and perpetrators, and subsequently choosing who to empathize with. In conversations about conflict, different perspectives are necessary to understand and target the causes of conflict. Beah cites an example in the Congo where rape had become a widespread issue during times of conflict. As a result, a movement to empower women to protect themselves arose as a solution.
“I was thinking: well, that's fantastic, but what about teaching the young boys and men of the fact that this is bad and talking to them? Because if you don't do that, they will continue to be the causes,” Beah said. “You can empower the women all you want but you're still gonna have these people who think this is okay. So what if they become part of the solution as well?”
Beah returned to the conversation regarding his difficult transition out of war and his path to recovery, changing his perception of life. He explained that the change into seeing death and destruction is, sadly, easier than the strenuous process of recovery.
“To some extent I'll always be on that path. Maybe not as exhaustive as I had been before, but I'll always be on that path. And there's a bit of restlessness in my spirit that will never go away. Not a bad thing, but it's just an awareness of how life is fragile, of not taking things for granted.”
As our time came to an end, I asked one final question: do you feel that there's anything that you still owe to yourself to do?
Ishmael seemed for a second stumped, he admitted that he had never been asked that question before. After a moment of reflection, he answered: “I just want to continue living life the best I can and the happiest possible way I can.”
His book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier, can be found in Magrudy’s Bookstore in A4.
Mari Velasquez-Soler is Features Editor. Email her at
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