Through Hell and Back – Ishmael Beah’s Story

There may be as many as 300,000 child soldiers, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s, in more than fifty conflicts around the world. Ishmael Beah, author of A LONG WAY GONE, used to be one of them. As a member of the Human Rights Watch Children Advisory Committee, he spoke to teachers and students at Hampton High School in Hampton, New Brunswick. It was here that I first heard Beah speak about his horrific, terror-filled childhood. He lived with his family in Sierra Leone until 1991, when rebels attacked and violently destroyed his village. They raped women and girls in front of their husbands, fathers, and brothers, took young girls as sex slaves, and killed the rest of their families. When most 12-year-olds were enjoying the innocence of childhood, including me, Beah was struggling to stay alive. I thank Beah for pouring out his soul to the audience. It is proof of Beah’s theory that “…children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance”.

At 12 years old, Beah’s parents and brother were all murdered by Revolutionary United Front rebels, and he aimlessly wandered around Sierra Leone in search of food and shelter. When he was 13, he was picked up by the government army who turned him into a mindless killer. Pumped full of drugs and shooting AK-47s, he entered a mad world. He tortured and killed countless people; he forced people to dig their own graves; he broke into houses, killed the people in it, and sat on their dead bodies while eating their food. He spend his teen years sleep-deprived and violent.

In 1996, Beah was saved when the army released him to a UNICEF rehabilitation center. There he struggled to regain his humanity in an unfamiliar world. He then moved in with an uncle in Freetown, Sierra Leone. When was invited to speak at the United Nations in New York in 1996, he met a Jewish-born storyteller, Laura Simms, who later adopted him when he fled from Freetown to New York City.

He now works with the Human Rights Watch Children Advisory Committee to end the use of child soldiers worldwide.

He explained how easy it was to become dehumanized and his retrospective recognition of the terrible acts to which humans can acclimatize in their struggle for survival was disturbing; would I have become accustom to killing others in the face of survival? Would I commit unspeakable acts to save my own life or would I simply die? Would I physically and mentally be capable of such acts? Beah said, “When I was young, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’ I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going. Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.” This young man was able to survive, physically and psychologically, under conditions which no child should be exposed and it reflects his remarkable resilience. He serves as a living example that rehabilitation is possible and imperative.

Regrettably, many children didn’t and don’t survive and it is this truth with which we are left to grapple when we have long finished with Beach’s story.

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37 thoughts on “Through Hell and Back – Ishmael Beah’s Story

  1. Great post. Thanks for sharing. it is amazing how resilient people can be. What an inspiring story. Many people complain daily about their lives without making an attempt to make it better. it’s wonderful to read a story of one who survived and is helping others to find a better life.

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    • His story stuck with me even more because we share a birthday and are the same age. While I was enjoying my childhood and teen years, he was experiencing true suffering yet he found his way. I hope the rest of his life is filled with happiness and laughter.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment; it’s appreciated.

      Lesley

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  2. Thanks for posting this! so many people look the other way and prefer to talk about more pleasant things. Sometimes we need a good jolt of reality to bring us back to what is really happening!

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    • I usually stick to travel and adventure, but this experience was something that stayed with me. If he can overcome the obstacles that filled his life, I should be able to overcome anything in mine. He is an inspiration.

      Have you ever read his book? It’s terrifying and emotional but well worth the overwhelming emotions.

      Thanks for reading,

      Lesley

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  3. Lesley:
    Thanks for the great images and bringing this story and enlightening present day history and tragic journey that many young people have and are experiencing. There is hope and thank you for helping share it.
    Best Regards
    Jim Brickett

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  4. This is a terrific story but a beautiful human testimonial…
    We tend to consider murderers and others criminals as monsters, but they are just human.
    If Human is able to create the Beauty, he is also, for his own tragic sake, able to create the horror as well..

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    • I think Ishmael tried to explain the same concept and I admire him for his bravery to keep going in the face of tragedy, but I wouldn’t have been capable of his journey.

      Your post, They call you a freak because you remind them how miserable they are, is reflective of Beah’s life.

      Thanks for reading and commenting; it’s appreciated.

      Lesley

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  5. This makes my heart hurt, both for him & the magnitude of his losses as well as for our planet. It is amazing to me that there can be such beauty & tenderness in this world while at the same moment there is nothing but darkness & pain elsewhere. Beautifully written – thx for sharing.

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful response. I’m still filled with mixed emotions after hearing Ishmael Beah speak and imagining his life and experiences. What I can take from his journey is his ability to survive and overcome unspeakable, unimaginable events. His work with other suffering children of war is inspirational. I’m grateful for the eye-opening speech that he delivered and I wish him continued happiness and success in the future.

      Your post, The binder clip cape, is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

      Lesley

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  6. Lesley, thank you so much for the comment on my blog and for sharing Ishmael’s remarkable story. His tenacity to survive and find that ‘better day’ is both extreme and humbling. There is much beauty in seeing how his father’s words became his life-saving anchor long after he was orphaned, and I think there is also a story of hope for humanity just knowing he eventually made his way out of a world of dehumanized violence to find healing and acceptance in a nurturing home that has helped him become the advocate for peace that he is today. He’s a living inspiration – and his story should be told!! May he be blessed abundantly. You, too! Great blogging!!!

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  7. What an amazing story! The horror and tragedy this young man suffered through is truly heart-wrenching. Ishmael Beah is definitely one of the lucky ones, to have his father’s voice in his memory to keep him going and to have good people in his life now.
    Thank you for sharing his life story. Great post!

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  8. It’s hard to press the “like” button with such a story. I wish there were buttons that suggest more. What incredible courage to turn your life away from violence and then tell of an opposite, enlightened approach. Thanks for posting this.

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    • I had the same sentiments when it came to saying that I was proud of Ishmael. Although he is an inspiration to 1000s of other children of war, he still has to live with his past. I’m haunted by his stories and I’m sure he still relives the nightmare of his childhood. I truly wish him a peaceful mind and happiness.

      Have you read his book?

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment; it’s appreciated.

      Lesley

      Like

  9. Beah must have remarkable insights to share about learning true compassion (which must also apply to oneself), and about living with the past. I went back to the article to note the title. No, I haven’t read it, but for me, particularly as a writer, it is of tremendous interest in a universal way. I also wish him peace. Once again, thank you.

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  10. I read his book a few years ago and I remember being sad, horrified and eventually, hopeful. It’s certainly one we wish didn’t have to be written but unfortunately it continues to be a life many children will live in Africa and beyond.

    (PS. Thanks for visiting my blog today.)

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  11. Pingback: Rebirth from hell… « A journey with captain Christian

  12. Pingback: Through Hell and Back – Ishmael Beah’s Story « Somalian Weblog

  13. I enjoyed your post. I did read “Long Way Gone” a couple of years ago. One thing that I remember is that I had to keep looking at his luminous face on the cover of the book. It was hard to believe as I read of the horrors he went through that it could come out good in the end. It is truly amazing and inspiring that he has emerged from that hell with his humanity intact. Although, I guess it’s more accurate to say that it was broken and he regained it. It is an amazing story and one that I highly recommend. Thank you for the reminder.

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  14. I remember reading A Long Way Gone and being haunted by it even to this day. Its so important that we think of ourselves as global citizens and that we care to know that these types of things are happening to our neighbors in Africa. Thanks for calling awareness to it.

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  15. It is unbelievable that one human being can do such an act to another human-being. He is so brave and lucky to escape from that life. I will definitely find this book to read

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  16. Thank you for sharing Beah’s story here. I am thankful to God that he is doing better if not great. But through this story I am reminded again of the horrors I personally witnessed both in Sierra Leone and my homeland Liberia. I thank God for success stories like Beah’s but there is so much more work to be done. Keep shinning the light on the plight of these young men and saying a prayer if you can for these young child soldiers. Thank you!

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  17. I am so thrilled to read that you got to meet him and hear him speak! I taught his book to 9th grade students in the US last year and it was probably the most profound book I’ve taught, and it generated the most interesting, involved discussion I had with my students. What a wonderful experience to hear him speak. He’s truly a resilient man.

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  18. What a brilliant book! I taught this to my 9th graders back in the US last year and it was the only book that actually engaged them in discussion. We had a lot of profound conversations about the things he went through and his amazing resilient. How wonderful that you got to hear him speak AND meet him!

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  19. I was in Uganda in March 2011 in the post-conflict zone where the LRA had operated. I heard many stories about that period in Uganda’s history- the child soldiers, the rapes, killings, mutilations etc. Sadly, the LRA is gone from Uganda but they operate in the Congo. I was inspired by the Ugandans I met in my travels- they were much like Beah. Thanks for the post.

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  20. what an amazing story – shocking, sad, and beautiful all at the same time – thank you for writing about it – and also thank you for reading and ‘liking’ my blog!

    Like

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