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Lions Roar : September 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2007 40 capital of Sierra Leone. “None of what happened to you is your fault,” one nurse told Beah. Still, he was plagued by demons. His sleep, when it came, was filled with night- mares, and during his waking hours he struggled with a drug addiction. One way superiors in both the rebel and state armies forced children to fight for them was by keeping them heavily doped up on drugs: marijuana, am- phetamines, and “brown-brown,” a mix of cocaine and gunpowder. “I don’t think I would have killed without the drugs,” Beah says. But with them, and with the hatred he harbored toward the rebels, murder had come easily. Beah was one of the more fortunate children at the rehabilitation center. After many months had passed and he was sufficiently healed, workers there managed to locate an uncle—his only surviving relative—and he invited Beah to come live with him in Freetown. Even more fortunately, Beah had impressed his care- givers at the rehabilitation center with his storytelling and, because of that, he was invited to New York City to speak at the United Nations’ First International Children’s Parliament. It was in New York that Beah met Laura Simms, a New York author and Buddhist, who would eventually adopt him. Beah remembers when the facilitators of the pro- gram in New York were introducing themselves. One person was a UNICEF psychologist; another was a doc- tor. Then Simms said she was a storyteller. “I was won- dering how this woman in New York became such a person,” says Beah, “and I was instantly drawn to her.” For Beah, storytelling and myth-making had always been important. His culture had a strong oral tradi- tion, and many times while he was on the run from the rebels, he found hope and solace in the stories he could remember from his childhood. One of these sto- ries that did not appear in his book was about a man who traveled to faraway lands to meet new people, but he’d forgotten his heart at home and so he never made any friends. When he returned home, he found his heart in a jar by the sink. He cleaned it off and then put it back in his chest. From that day on, he didn’t have any more problems meeting friends. WAR HIT FREETOWN shortly after Beah returned from his trip to New York City. His uncle died from an illness during the rebel invasion, and Beah was on the run again—this time to escape being re-recruited into one of the armies. Beah and Simms had remained in contact with each other after meeting in New York, so when Beah man- aged to reach Guinea, a neighboring country, he called her for help. “I told him I would do whatever I could to get him to New York, where he could stay with me for a while,” says Simms. “And the phone went silent. ‘You mean you’re not going to adopt me?’ he eventually asked. I hesitated for a few moments, thinking of my life and the commitment I was about to take on. Then I said yes.” Looking at his CV now, one might be tempted to be- lieve that Beah’s transition into North American living was effortless. He attended the United Nations Inter- national School in Manhattan, after which he obtained a degree in political science from Oberlin College in Ohio. He began speaking publicly about his experiences as a child soldier to various national and international groups, including the Council on Foreign Relations and the Marine Corps War-fighting Laboratory. But despite these achievements, it took a long time for Beah to be- come settled inside himself. One thing that finally al- lowed him to do so was his deep spirituality. “Having lived through the war, I have come to believe certain things about the strength of human nature and the strength of the human mind,” says Beah. “I know how the mind can play some strange games on you...trauma- tize you. When I came to live with Laura, she invited me to the Buddhist center, and I went and learned. Some of the teachings made so much sense to me. Many of the teachings reminded me of my own background.” Writing A Long Way Gone also played a role in Beah’s healing. “Writing was very therapeutic for me,” he says. “In order to write, I had to go places that I wouldn’t nor- mally voluntarily go in my mind—back to the army days, to going into villages and towns and killing people. One Ishmael Beah speaks at a conference sponsored by UNICEF in Paris, February 5, 2007. Representatives from more than 50 countries gathered to search for ways to demobilize and rehabilitate the world’s estimated 300,000 child soldiers. CHRISTOPHEENA/ASSOCIATEDPRESS SEPT 36-43.indd 40 SEPT 36-43.indd 40 6/25/07 4:53:54 PM 6/25/07 4:53:54 PM