‘Boy soldier’ shares childhood stories

From a background of war and torture, Ishmael Beah brought a message of hope and humanization to a crowd of almost 500 riveted listeners Thursday evening.

“Hope is a form of strength,” he assured the audience in the Student Center Ballroom. “When you dehumanize somebody else, you reverse, and you dehumanize yourself.”

The beaming 27-year-old Sierra Leone native with a stunning smile and earnest mien made a startling contrast to the tales he told of his life as a child soldier, killing and torturing rebels to ward off being killed and tortured himself.

Beah’s 2007 book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier chronicles his ordeal, starting with a happy childhood shattered by the 1991 civil war. Separated from his family, who all died in the fighting, Beah eventually joined the army as means of survival. For two years he fought the rebels, emotionally numbed by marijuana, “brown brown” (cocaine mixed with gunpowder), Rambo movies, propaganda about avenging his family’s deaths, and an AK-47 at hand at all times. Rescued and placed in a UNICEF rehabilitation camp, Beah eventually learned to feel, and to trust people, and to have hope again.

Today Beah can be called an international spokesman for human rights. His web site, alongwaygone.com, states that he is a member of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division Advisory Committee and has spoken before the United Nations and many NGO panels on children affected by war.

“I cannot forget what happened in that war. I have to learn how to live with it, and transform that into positives for my life,” he said. For example, he joked that his inability to sleep well came in handy as a college student.

“I was inspired by his continued hope in humanity,” said Mary Jo Kaska, a Brite Divinity School student.

Fort Worth resident Sharon West agreed.

“He’s just sharing his story, and that alone gives his message more weight,” West said.

West’s companion Ginger Courtney appreciated Beal’s message about learning about different cultures.

“Maybe if we knew more about other cultures, we wouldn’t be in Iraq now, trying to put our values into their culture,” she said.

Beah’s visit to TCU is sponsored by the TCU Center for Civic Literacy and made possible by the Amon G. Carter Foundation.