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Ishmael Beah on RUTV

Rutgers FOCUS Q & A with Ishmael Beah

Debbie Walter of Rutgers FOCUS sat down with Beah to ask him some questions.  Here’s some of what he has to say.

Q) What was your life like when the war started?
A) I lived in the country listening to rap and hip-hop and going to school. There was a community that cared. Then I lost everything and everyone dear to me. I never imagined it would happen.

Q) What was it like to be a child soldier?
I didn’t fully understand it, and I don’t remember all of it, because the suffering was so much. Every side claimed that they were fighting for the people. I believed what I was told. I didn’t know about politics and I didn’t care. At the time, you don’t reflect on moral or political purpose. When your life is reduced to the next minute, you can believe anything. There are no good or bad guys because bad guys show goodness and good guys do bad things.

Q) Why do you think you were saved?
A) Many people helped me. There is goodness – that’s why I’m here.

Q) Why did you write the book?
A) Oral traditions and telling stories are an important part of my culture. Children who could not repeat their grandparents’ stories were slapped. I want people to remember what happened in Sierra Leone and to place the war in the bigger context of what took place. They must know the traditions of my country and what it was like before the wars. My story is a small part of a larger story, things are happening all over the world. I want to put a human face to conflict. Everyone needs to talk about where they are from to allow people to understand that every human life is sacrosanct. Everywhere people have the same desires, values, and tendencies. There will always be war and conflict, but we can minimize them.   

Q) Have you recovered from your experiences?
A) What’s normal? It took eight months for me just to begin to function. I have insomnia and get nightmares when I do sleep. I have to learn to live with the memories of war. When I go into a room, I always think about how to get out of it. I’m more aware when I walk around. I don’t want to say goodbye because to me it means I’ll never see you again. I am still in counseling. If I have children, I don’t want to transfer these feelings to them. I have to learn to live each moment of my life and to transform fears into strengths. I have to live with them so they don’t destroy me.

Q) What were your first impressions of America and how did you fit in?
A) New York was overwhelming. Even the food was different. I grew up eating rice everyday. I had no idea what sunnyside up meant. In my town, we must help older people. When I tried it here, the woman screamed. The school couldn’t understand why I didn’t have reports cards from home. My friends thought I didn’t have a baby picture because I was such an ugly baby.

Q) What is Sierra Leone like now? What’s needed?
A) Today farmers have cell phones. We are connected to everyone else. The war was several years ago, and people in Sierra Leone have moved on with their lives. I feel safer there than I do in New York. You don’t have to convince anyone that violence is bad because everyone’s been touched by it. There are still too many youths on the street with nothing to do.  Young people need to get involved in politics – they are the future leaders of our countries. Investors need to come to view our country as a different place. We need to train people, expand jobs and provide opportunities to youth. There are no “lost boys” or “lost generation.”  I’m here. No one gave up on me. No one can solve all problems, but we all need to do out part. Outsiders think when wars end, support should go elsewhere. But that’s actually when the work begins.  

Q) What do you think about the United Nations?
A) It has lost credibility, but the U.N. is still the only place where people can come together to discuss and make decisions. We need to support the Human Rights initiatives. People tend to be fascinated with war, but they don’t know what war is capable of. By dehumanizing oneself, one can kill. War is not a movie with music blasting in the background. We need to be sacrosanct of human nature.

Q) Some people have criticized your book as untruthful. What do you say to that?
A) I stand by my story 100 percent. I wrote not just for myself, but for others. If anything, I toned down the violence in the book because I didn’t feel people could stomach it. People who were not on the ground don’t know the reality.

Q) What messages would you like people to takeaway?

A)  Hope is a strength and all of us have a capacity to love. I’ve seen the worst of human nature, and I have hope. We all need to talk about how important peace is, and how fragile life is.  We need to appreciate the value of our lives.

Q) What are your future plans?
A) Regardless of what happened there, I am a citizen of Sierra Leone and it is my responsibility to help people not as fortunate as I am. My life changed because people were good to me. I intend to write another book, but it will be fiction. I need to take a break from telling my story. I am developing a foundation to provide educational initiatives to give opportunities to children affected by war as well as initiatives to stop war.

Beyond the ivory tower: Rutgers honors commitment to human rights, by Debbi Walter, Rutgers FOCUS

For more information about the Human Rights: Content and Discontent Global Initiatives 2008-2009 Lecture Series go to .

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