Growing up in a fishing village in Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah passed the time dancing to Run DMC, LL Cool J, and Heavy D and the Boyz, memorizing the lyrics to compete in local talent shows.
That all ended in 1993, when rebel forces waging civil war in the West African nation overran his town. Many of Beah's neighbors were slaughtered, while others scattered in panic. Beah, who was 12 and visiting another town at the time, never saw his parents and younger brother again. On the run and facing starvation, he soon was separated forever from his older brother as well.
Gang-pressed into the government army, Beah was among hundreds of "child soldiers" set loose by both sides. He spent three years hopped up on amphetamines and a mix of cocaine and gunpowder provided to him and other soldiers.
Then he caught a break from the decadelong war that killed an estimated 50,000 people. UNICEF removed Beah under a program that helped child soldiers return to civilian life. Beah finished high school in New York City and graduated from Oberlin College in 2004. Now 26, he works for Human Rights Watch.
WW asked Beah, who's coming to Portland on a book tour Feb. 22, about his experiences and his memoir distributed by Starbucks Entertainment, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.
WW: You write about being hooked on cocaine, amphetamines and pot. Would you have fought the same way without those drugs?
Ishmael Beah: No, I don't think so. The drugs kind of put you in this position where you're not remorseful, or you feel like your mind and your brain are not keeping any record of what's going on. That's what they do to induce kids into this kind of thing, by not giving them a chance to think at all, by drugging you, and on top of that, being traumatized, constant violence.
Do you have any idea how many people you killed?
No. It's not like I was in the war and saying to myself, "1, 2, 3, 4, 5..." and crossing it out, because that's not what was going on in my head. The idea of the book is to de-romanticize and not glorify war or violence.
Did you ever talk about the war with your classmates in New York City?
Actually, most of my friends are finding out now for the first time, though they speculated about these things. Very close friends knew, but not very many people. It's not that I meet someone and say, "Hi, my name's Ishmael, and I was a child soldier in Sierra Leone." I want people to see me and see my humanity first. And then when you learn that part, you see that it's possible for human beings to regain themselves, even after dire circumstances.
What's been your message when you've spoken at the United Nations and elsewhere?
Before, what I tried to get across is to put a human face to this.... Because when this issue started, a lot of people were not very certain that children like me, who went through such a thing, could ever regain themselves. I tried to change that perception. And also to raise awareness that this is not just an African problem. This happens in Sri Lanka, this happens in Colombia—it's a global issue, the use of children in war.
Did you ever imagine your book would be in 6,000 Starbucks?
No. When I started this work, I didn't think it would get published anytime soon. I just said I would write this as a tool and give it to human-rights workers. But my life has been like that all the time. There were times when I didn't know I could survive the next minute or live to see another day. But then that changed and I'm here.
Does your book being marketed by Starbucks make it seem like trying to capitalize on a war ?
One thing that Starbucks is doing that's very interesting is that for every copy of the book that sells, they'll donate $2 to UNICEF, to help children who've been affected by war and create education programs for them. I wrote this book to become a more powerful advocate for children, and I feel like that itself is already doing it.
Beah appears at Starbucks, 906 SW Taylor St., at noon Feb. 22. He'll be at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., at 7:30 pm the same day. Both events are free.