Ishmael Beah lost his family when he was 11 years old. When he was 12, he was forced to become a child soldier.
Now, after writing a novel and lecturing across the globe, Beah is putting a “human face” to his story.
A former child soldier and a survivor of the 1991-2000 civil war in Sierra Leone, Beah, now 28, told a crowd Monday at the University of Wisconsin the story behind his book, “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.”
Beah first heard about the conflict in Liberia in 1991 when he was 11 years old. His community was in disbelief because they had grown up with such respect for human life, and the horrors they heard did not seem real.
But he spoke of how the horrors became all too real when the fighting came to his village. His entire immediate family — two brothers, his mother and father — were killed.
“We went straight from being children to adults, just to survive,” Beah said. “We learned things like running during the day was a better chance of getting shot. We would run at night.”
At 12 years old, Beah went to a military base because he thought it was the safest place to go. But there he was trained in a week with an AK-47 to “fight the right fight, get revenge for his family and help prevent other children from having to do these things.”
“You didn’t have a choice,” Beah said. “You either did what they asked you to do or they killed you. You lost yourself completely; it makes sense. Maybe you have to believe it to stay alive.”
Dave Hoyme, a 2008 UW graduate, said the lecture was “humbling.”
“In college, you read about all the politics; you think you have a perspective, but when you hear someone who has a first-hand account, you realize you don’t know anything,” he said.
Beah said it’s frustrating how unaware Americans are about the situation in Sierra Leone and how people often associate his country with limb amputations, blood diamonds and children soldiers.
Distinguished Lecture Series Director Eric Schmidt called Beah a “tremendous individual.”
“Everyone needs to hear his story; everyone needs to internalize every milligram of it if you’re really going to be a serious citizen in an international society,” Schmidt said.
UW senior Megan Pfantz had read the book and said she was “touched” by Beah’s lecture.
Beah is an international human rights activist. He came to the United States in 1998, where he finished his last two years of high school and graduated from Oberlin College in 2004 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science.
“I, in no way, claim to have the answers or understand life fully. (The) only advice I can give is to never give up at all,” Beah said. “My grandmother used to say if you do anything that’s too easy, it’s probably a waste of your time.”