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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: De la Kalachnikov à l’écriture

by Damien Roustel

Ishmael Beah: A Long Way From a Kalashnikov to a Pen

Translated Friday 22 February 2008, by Jonathan Pierrel

Child soldiers. In the 1990s, recruited in the conflict of Sierra Leone as early as the age of 12, a former aspiring combatant tells the everyday life of those urchin soldiers.

Interview with Ishmael Beah, a survivor from hell.

Wearing a navy blue pullover, jeans and a pair of trainers, Ishmael Beah is quietly waiting in one of the opulent hotels in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It is hard to believe that this voluble, smiling young man of twenty-seven used to be, in another life, a “killing machine”….

This happened more than ten years ago, in a small country in West Africa devastated by one of the cruellest civil wars of the twentieth century. Born in 1980 in Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah got involved in the turmoil of a conflict (1991-2001) characterised by a frequent resort to maiming by amputation and a massive enrollment of child soldiers.

Recruited at the age of twelve in the regular army after losing his family, he lost his bearings.

Equipped with a Kalachnikov, his mind stuffed up with war movies and “brown brown”, a mix of cocaine and cannon powder, he became a devastating warrior. His nickname was “Green Snake” because he was able to crawl in a decisive posture, close to the ground, and to kill all those in a village without being spotted.

He now lives in New York where he is studying. His autobiography [1], which has been very successful in the US, has just been published in France.

While on a visit to Paris to defend the cause of child victims of the armed conflicts and to ensure the promotion of his book, he agreed to look back on his past.

HUMA: What led you to recount your past as a child soldier?

BEAH: There are several reasons. I was fed up with the sensationalism which surrounds the theme of child soldiers. I wanted to show the way those children experienced the war, but, more importantly, how they could get away from it. I also wanted to put the civil war of Sierra Leone back in its context. I had the feeling that Sierra Leone was presented as a country where there had always been war. I wanted to show how the culture of a people could be shattered by the war.

HUMA: You managed to escape it. Do you consider yourself as an exception?

BEAH: My case is not exceptional, even if, of course, I have been very lucky. In the US and in Europe, I have met many children who also managed to start rebuilding their lives. The only difference between them and me is that I wrote a book which has been successful.

HUMA: Did you write this book by yourself?

BEAH: Yes, I wrote it. I worked with my publisher while I was at the university. I took writing workshops.

HUMA: You give a very precise account of all the things you went through and the things you made other people go through. Was it easy to recall all those particularly trying moments?

BEAH: This was quite painful actually. I’m lucky to have a photographic memory, which is an asset as well as a curse. I had to bring back to life what happened to me because I wanted to tell what I felt during that war.

HUMA: Your account on the situation of child soldiers is not the first such account, but it may be the first one to tell in detail the crimes committed by twelve-year old children. Why did you decide to relate, without restraint, all those murders in which you took part?

BEAH: It was a matter of absolute honesty. I felt I had to say everything so that people would understand how those children are abducted and trapped into the war. I thought that any toned-down version would not have allowed for a good understanding of the reality. I couldn’t have written a book simply saying: “I fought in war and then I quit.” The scenes of violence had to be described.

HUMA: Despite all that, are there things you didn’t want to mention which have been left out?

BEAH: Of course. Simply because I was a soldier for two years. If I had had to write every single violent scene, the book would have been enormous. I wanted to give meaning to that violence. I didn’t want to crush the readers. I didn’t want them to finish the book in a traumatised state.

HUMA: What was your state of mind like when you attacked villages?

BEAH: I was drugged. It became routine, something normal. I didn’t think in terms of good or evil. We followed orders from our commander. Our faction was our family. We did absolutely everything we were asked to do. We didn’t question anything. There was no more critical thought or morale. You had to kill or be killed. And if you didn’t do it, you would be killed by your chief or your fellows because you had put their lives at risk. You become a killing machine because you don’t have any other choice.

HUMA: Did you know what you were fighting for?

BEAH: At first, we were fighting to avenge our murdered families and to protect our villages. We were convinced we represented the right forces against the rebels. Then, we started fighting to get ammunitions, food, a place a stay. And then, to get drugs.

HUMA: You were fighting with the regular army against the rebels. If it had been the other way around, would it have been worse?

BEAH: My fate would have been the same. The only real difference is that the rebels amputated a person’s arm, hand or leg. After my rehabilitation and at the end of the war, I met rebels who went through the same experiences as I did.

HUMA: Sierra Leone is called “the country of the amputees”. Yet, you don’t talk about amputations practiced during the years of the civil war….

BEAH: That’s true, but, in this book, I talk about my own experience. I haven’t been amputated. In my group, we didn’t perform amputations on the opponents. I have friends who were amputated but I didn’t want to talk about it because I wanted to devote my work to my past. Similarly, I don’t talk about girl soldiers. There were some of them in my group. I didn’t want to put myself in their position. They fought; they cooked; they spent nights with the chiefs. Some of them had children.

HUMA: You were under the orders of the Lieutenant Jabati, a surprising soldier who reads and recites Shakespeare. By your writing, one would have the impression that he treated you rather well. Was it actually the case?

BEAH: As I told you, I wanted my book to reveal my state of mind during the war. Lieutenant Jabati had become a paternal figure to me. We loved him. We followed him without balking. Once the war was over, I started seeing things differently. In hindsight, I think that he was not someone who really cared about us, who wanted to protect our lives, as I had thought during the conflicts.

HUMA: The Sierra Leone conflict took the form of an incredible cruelty. How do you account for that?

BEAH: I don’t have any explanation. It was a general madness, which may be due to the sudden absence of a central government. Everything was possible. The army behaved like the rebels; the rebels like the army. It must be said that diamond trafficking enabled belligerents to buy many weapons. In Sierra Leone, it was easier to find weapons than food. People used those weapons to frighten all those who possessed little resources.

HUMA: When the humanitarians save you and put you in a rehabilitation centre, you come into contact with child soldiers who are fighting with the rebels, your enemies. The encounter ends with a death toll of six children. It seems staggering to have done such a thing…

BEAH: I think that the people who got us out of those fighting groups to place us in rehabilitation centres didn’t have enough experience. They thought that the children recruited by the army and by the rebels would become immediately children again, once taken away from the war. They didn’t understand that the brainwashing was such that we were really conditioned to hate the other side and that it was impossible to put us together.

HUMA: Do you think you could have rebuilt your life without going through that rehabilitation centre for child soldiers?

BEAH: I could never have coped without that rehabilitation centre. Every person confronted with war needs to learn how to live a normal life again.

HUMA: You have been living in the United-States for ten years. You went back to your country once in 2006. How were you perceived there: as a victim or as a culprit?

BEAH: I think that people’s perception has changed today. The majority of the inhabitants have accepted the fact that child soldiers were victims, even if there are still people who don’t like us. I consider myself a victim. I was forced to take part into that war. I didn’t have a choice. I had to kill or be killed.

HUMA: One year ago, you took part in the Paris Conference devoted to child soldiers. You said that you wanted concrete improvements, not an umpteenth conference. Today, what would you conclude from the international meeting?

BEAH: Many good things have been achieved. Some States have donated money to finance projects. It’s promising, but there is still a lot to be done. We have to maintain the pressure.

[1A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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