Ishmael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), delivered a talk to humanitarian aid workers enrolled in Fordham’s International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance (IDHA) program on Monday, June 25, at Lowenstein Center. Beah spoke about the difficulty of healing child soldiers, of how the war rendered senseless the usual boundaries between childhood and adulthood, and said that “A life of violence really limits human beings from knowing themselves.”
“Our perception was not whether we were children or adults, but whether we were soldiers,” said the former child soldier of the civil war in Sierra Leone. “We had the gun and the power to do what we wanted. There were just soldiers and civilians, and we looked over the civilians.”
Beah was born in Sierra Leone, and was 12 years old when civil war came to his town in Sierra Leone in 1993. He escaped the Revolutionary United Front rebels, but left his family behind, wandering the countryside until he was pressed into the government army at the age of 13. He was given minimal training and an AK-47, and sent to kill rebels.
“In war you grow older than your age really is. There’s something that hardens you in a different way,” said Beah, who after two years was rescued by UNICEF fieldworkers and sent to a rehabilitation center in Freetown. “I strongly believe we should set up rehabilitation centers at the beginning of war, not at the end. So many people need help at the end of the war that they get pushed through the process too quickly.”
Beah eventually moved to the United States in 1998 and finished his last two years of high school at the United Nations International School in New York. In 2004 he graduated from Oberlin College with a B.A. in political science. He said one of the things that drove him to write the book was his classmates’ lack of knowledge about the war, or even that Sierra Leone was a country in West Africa.
“I do get angry,” Beah said in response to a question from the audience, “but I don’t get angry easy. Because I’ve seen so much and survived what I survived… I appreciate every moment of my life.”
The monthlong diploma program at Fordham, which draws students from organizations throughout the world, helps aid professionals function more effectively in times of “complex emergencies,” including wars and natural disasters. The program, which enrolled 38 humanitarian aid professionals from 25 countries this year, is run by the IIHA.