Perhaps you saw the movie “Blood Diamond.” If so, you may recognize the place, the names and some of the action of this first-person account of the civil war in Sierra Leone, Africa. Although diamonds are not discussed in this memoir, the same rebel group—the RUF—is rampaging through 1990s Sierra Leone, destroying villages and killing the occupants, save the young boys that it forces to be soldiers.
Ishmael Beah miraculously lived through many such village takeovers. When his own village is attached, he escapes, but loses track of all but his older brother. They, along with some friends, journey from village to village, half-starved, hiding from the RUF. Often, they are cruelly treated, as the general population has grown afraid of groups of boys—and with good reason. However, there are brave or at least just souls who sometimes feed the boys and allow them a place to stay. Often these same people are killed by the rebels and the boys return to villages to find hacked bodies being eaten by dogs and vultures. Eventually, Ishmael is separated from his friends and finds another group. All these boys are under fifteen. They had been fun-loving, respectful of elders, and concerned for one another. Ishmael loves rap music and Shakespeare. He’s twelve. And he’s sleepless and experiencing migraines because of what he’s witnessed.
After a year of roaming the countryside, Ishmael and his friends are picked up by the government army. They are reminded that the RUF rebels killed their families and destroyed villages. They are brainwashed, given a constant supply of drugs—marijuana, cocaine mixed with gunpowder (brown-brown) and ‘white pills’ that give them energy and anesthetize them to killing. They have become ‘boy soldiers.’ For two years they fight, making use of their bayonets and AK-47s. Ishmael becomes so numb to death and killing that he is able to walk up to a man tied to post and slit his throat as part of a contest among the boys.
How one not only survives this life, but moves on to become whole and humane again is part of Beah’s story. He and some other boys are rescued by UNICEF workers, but cannot appreciate this fact until they have been rehabilitated in a home for boy soldiers. His story is a great reminder to all of us that violence and chaos can be overcome.