Ishmael Beah experienced the horrors of war as a child in Sierra Leone. Now 26, he has become a United Nations spokesperson and has just released his memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Ishmael talks with Gayle about his incredible story of devastation and transformation.
At the age of 12, Ishmael says he was just a normal, happy child who was curious about Shakespeare and enjoyed listening to American rap music. Then, almost overnight, he says his world was shattered when rebels attacked his village. Ishmael, who was attending a concert in a neighboring village at the time, was spared, but his mother, father and two brothers were slaughtered.
Stunned and feeling completely hopeless, Ishmael says he was taken by rebels shortly after the massacre and forced to become a child soldier. To turn innocent children like himself into killing machines, he says he was constantly forced to use mind-numbing drugs, watch brutal public executions, and carry out vicious attacks with guns and knives. Ishmael says he and his fellow child soldiers would go for weeks without sleep and were never left alone for even a moment.
It was in this state of madness and trauma that Ishmael says he lost his very humanity. "We had become so desensitized from everything that actually it almost seemed like our brain had stopped taking remorseful records," he says. "There was no emotion; there was no compassion at all. Everything had been put at bay, everything that was human about us."
After years of fighting, Ishmael was fortunate enough to be rescued by UNICEF and placed in a rehabilitation home. He made his way to the United States where he received therapy and graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio. Through his writing and work for the United Nations, Ishmael says he hopes to increase awareness about the thousands of children still being recruited by armies around the world, as well as the countless survivors of Sierra Leone's civil war who need rehabilitation.
Ishmael says he hopes to spread the message that what happened to him in Sierra Leone could happen to anyone, anywhere. Moreover, he says he wants to convey the human spirit's incredible ability to heal against all odds. "We all have that capacity to lose our humanity when circumstances force us to do so," he says. "It's not specific to people who live in Africa or Latin America or Asia. And equally, we are capable of regaining ourselves."