Child Soldier's Long Way Home

Ishmael Beah defends his memoir and goes home to Sierra Leone.

Aug. 5, 2008 — -- Ishmael Beah wears the scars of Sierra Leone's civil war as his own.

In what was once the poorest country on earth, the 11-year civil war threw the lives of Sierra Leone's citizens into chaos. Tens of thousands were killed, well over a third of the population fled the country and fighting on the front lines were soldiers hardly tall enough to carry their AK-47s. An estimated 10,000 children were forced to serve as soldiers during the war.

Ishmael Beah was one of them.

"I think you cease to be a child immediately, because you have to learn how to be an adult," he told "Nightline" co-anchor Cynthia McFadden.

The 27-year-old recently traveled home to Sierra Leone with an ABC News camera. The return was bittersweet. Beah's memories of home are laced with conflict: the happy times before the war, the violence and loss after. Beah lost his entire family in the war and was forced to serve in the army for a period of what he says was two years.

"It became a kind of bloodlust and madness, to the point that we emulated the leaders," he said. "When the lieutenant or corporal caught a prisoner and slit their throat or something like that, all the young people talked about it and say we want to do that, we want to be like that."

Last year Beah wrote a bestselling book of his experience and his story of survival called "A Long Way Gone." But in the past few months questions have been raised about whether that story is entirely true.

While no one has claimed that Beah was not a child soldier in Sierra Leone, journalists at "The Australian" and "The Village Voice" question whether Beah was in fact a soldier for two years, suggesting it is more likely he served for a matter of months.

"They are simply wrong," Beah told McFadden, speaking about the controversy for the first time. "First of all, I am the last person who has any bravado about war. Why would I want to say I was in the war longer than I was? I actually don't like speaking about the war. I knew I was doing this to help other people. There's no way I would do anything to jeopardize that, because I'm writing the book for the benefit of so many people."

Some of the questions center around the dates and timing of some events and stories in Beah's book. He says, "I don't think it's possible that I made a mistake," and maintains that he served in the army for two years.

"What happened to me, it was impossible it could have happened in three months. The kind of trauma that it did to me. How long it took me to recover. There were psychologists who determined how traumatized I was."

'Everything Changed'

Before the trauma of war found him, Beah was just another innocent child.

"In the short time of it, [my childhood] was absolutely beautiful. Simple, but beautiful. I grew up in the very remote part of Sierra Leone and I didn't have electricity or tap water. But there was very strong sense of community and care for each other, you know. I went swimming and I played soccer. I went to school and I was interested in Shakespeare…things like that. "

The civil war in Sierra Leone began on the southern border with Liberia in 1991, but it wasn't until two years later that Beah says the war arrived at his doorstep. He was away from home the day the rebels attacked his village. As he and his friends walked home to try to find survivors they ran into the crowds of people fleeing.

"We didn't believe it at all until they actually reached us… It was the first time I saw what this war that we've been hearing about was doing to people. It was the first time we saw children running by themselves, crying the names of their mothers and fathers -- people who had been pierced by bullets in many parts of their bodies, people who had been amputated. "

Beah's trip home brought back some memories he would rather forget.

"One of the sights that remains strong with me is a mother who had been running, and she had her child tied on her back. The child had been shot. The only way she survived is that she had the child on her back. The bullet hadn't gone through the baby. Seeing things like that made me realize that things had changed, that there was no longer respect for life in a way because if an innocent baby can't be spared, then who will?"

Beah was only 12 years old when he says "everything changed." It was a terrifying and confusing time and "here was no one there to explain it to me," he said.

After discovering that his entire family was dead, Beah wandered the country-side alone, struggling with overwhelming loneliness, until he met up with some other orphaned boys. Together they sought refuge at an army base where the commander gave them a choice: fight or leave. Leaving was not an option.

"There was a man and his son that decided to leave, and the next day they were killed. They brought their bodies and showed everyone, displayed it to everyone to basically give you an idea what happens when you leave. So we stayed."

'There Was No Option'

The solders, he said, made them feel powerful and safe, as if they were now part of a new kind of family.

"They learned to preach the idea of hatred in you and that psychologically, this was now a weapon, a power you have to no longer run from the war but to bring the war to people. That is what will bring you food. That is what will keep you alive."

Beah says the children were also told they were avenging the deaths of their family members.

"Most of us from the village had lost family, most were orphans. We were very angry with what happened to us. It made sense. They had killed our families, so we killed them. It seemed like the way to stop this."

They believed, Beah said, that they were doing the right thing by being "good soldiers."

"Anyone in that position would have to do the same thing. There was no option. It was the way to stay alive. It became a war where if you were not in a position to take a life, someone else was in a position to take your life. It was either kill or be killed."

The killing was made easier by the drugs readily provided to the children by the soldiers.

"In the beginning, when we were going to war, they gave us a bunch of amphetamines. As time went on we went from marijuana, to cocaine to brown-brown, which is a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder. It gave you power. It made you feel invincible to the point that when they say go, you go, even when bullets were flying."

Beah says the first time he went into battle, he "started my descent into madness."

"I have to say that one of the worst days was actually the first day of war, you know. Because as the rest of it went on and on it became more and more hardened."

Ishmael says he spent two years in the army -- committing atrocities and killing whomever he was told to kill. He has no idea how many people he killed, and says that women and children were not spared.

"It got to the point where there was no respect for any life, not even yours."

'There's Life There'

Beah was eventually rescued by UNICEF and spent eight months in a rehabilitation facility for child soldiers. His is an extraordinary and horrible story, and one that he stands by in the face of his doubters.

"I recall everything that happened during the war, including dates. One of the things I did as a child was every year, every four years, watching soccer, the World Cup. I don't recall watching the World Cup of 1994. If it had been peaceful, I would have watched."

Beah writes in his book that he has a photographic memory. And what of his critics?

"The people are simply misinformed or they have a purpose which is not to help in this particular matter in terms of the children. They simply cannot believe that this is possible for someone to come out of this and do something."

He has certainly done something. Beah graduated from Oberlin College in the United States, has written his book and now has a foundation that is helping to build a school in Sierra Leone.

"What changed my life significantly was having an education," he said. "Most of my life I've lost everything that was dear to me. When I graduated college I realized this was one thing that no one can take from me."

Going back to Sierra Leone has been important, he says, as has sharing his story of not just what it was to go to war, but what it has been to come back from it. Despite everything that happened to him, he says he believes people are fundamentally good.

"I won't lie to you, it took many years to get myself to go there. But I'm happy that I did it. It strengthened my belief in the possibilities of things changing more and more. Because I'm standing in places where, not long ago it was charred, gunfire houses burned, and now there's life there."

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