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Lions Roar : September 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2007 42 Bloody Business ISHMAEL BEAH recalls a brutal yet all too ordinary scene from his days as a child soldier THE RAINY SEASON in Sierra Leone falls between May and October, with the heaviest rainfalls in July, August, and September. My squad had lost the base where I had trained, and during that gunfight Moriba was killed. We left him sitting against the wall, blood coming out of his mouth, and didn’t think much about him after that. Mourning the dead wasn’t part of the business of killing and trying to stay alive. After that, we wandered in the forest searching for a new base before the wet season started. But we couldn’t find one early enough. Most of the villages we came upon weren’t suitable, since we had burned them or another group of fighters had destroyed them at some point. The lieutenant was very upset that we hadn’t found a base, so he announced that we would keep walking until we found one. At first it began to rain on and off. Then it start- ed to rain continuously. We walked into the thickest forest and tried to escape the downpour by stand- ing under big trees, but it rained to the point where the leaves couldn’t hold off the water anymore. We walked through damp forests for weeks. It was raining too hard one morning, and all of a sudden we were under fire. Our RPGs [rocket- propelled grenades] failed to explode when they were fired. As a result, we retreated. The attackers didn’t follow us far enough, so we regrouped and the lieutenant said we had to counterattack imme- diately so that we could follow the attackers. “They will lead us to their base,” he said, and we advanced toward them. We fought all day in the rain. The for- est was wet and the rain washed the blood off the leaves as if cleansing the surface of the forest, but the dead bodies remained under the bushes and the blood that poured out of the bodies stayed on top of the soaked soil, as if the soil had refused to ab- sorb any more blood for that day. At about nightfall, the attackers began to re- treat. As they were running back, they left one of their wounded men behind. We came upon him, and the lieutenant asked him where their base was. He didn’t answer, so someone dragged him, with a rope around his neck, as we chased the attackers. He didn’t survive the drag. At night the attackers stopped retreating. They had come to the outskirts of their base and were fighting fiercely, because they that we discover we are all the same. We find solidarity in our wounds and pain. We recognize the human condition and our vulnerability, which then draws forth our compas- sion, the universal healer, and we awaken.” MARIATU KAMARA is awakening. Even though child sol- diers in Sierra Leone had raped her and cut off her hands, when she met Ishmael Beah she found a friend, not a foe. She was only twelve in April 1999, when teenage rebels from the Revolutionary United Front sacked the village where she was living with an aunt. They held the young girl and two of her cousins hostage for more than ten hours. Then she and her cousins were rounded up and told they could live, if they chose some form of additional punishment in return. “We started crying like babies,” Kamara told me. “They said because we could not decide our punishment, they had decided to chop off our hands.” Kamara is one of the estimated 20,000 Sierra Leonese children who had their limbs amputated by RUF soldiers. As Beah explains in his memoir, the rebels maimed people in this way because they did not want anyone to vote. Without hands, it is impossible to cast a ballot. A few days before Kamara and Beah met, I had written separate profiles of each of them for the Toronto Globe and Mail. Afterwards, Kamara called me and, though she is now twenty-one, she asked in a timid and child-like voice: “Will Ishmael want to talk to me?” Showing typical African cour- tesy, Beah agreed, never once expressing his apprehension. It was only through his publicist that I learned Beah had fretted for days leading up to the meeting. “Does she want to unload some burden?” the publicist asked me outside the room. “Does she want some apology from Beah on behalf of the child soldiers who did this to her?” I shook my head. Kamara wanted to meet Beah because she found him inspiring. “He’s a storyteller,” she had said to me. “He makes me want to tell my story one day.” Near the end of their meeting, she shared her dream with Beah. “I want to write a book, too. What should I call my book?” “That’s up to you,” he said with a smile, touching her softly on the shoulder. “Hmm...Never Give Up,” she said, looking out the win- dow. “Never Give Up...on Your Dreams.” It seems that Beah has opened the door for others, like Kamara, to come forward with their stories. “What I have learned in writing A Long Way Gone and reflecting on my experiences is that humans have the capacity to be both completely good and violent at the same time,” says Beah. “Nobody during that war believed that they could be vio- lent until they became violent. Everyone was victimized to become perpetrators—you had no choice. It was kill or be killed. But human nature is inherently good. Remembering this helps me to find peace.” ♦ SEPT 36-43.indd 42 SEPT 36-43.indd 42 6/25/07 4:53:57 PM 6/25/07 4:53:57 PM