Backtalk with Ismael Beah

At the age of 12, Ishmael Beah lost his village, his family, and his boyhood to the civil war plaguing his native land of Sierra Leone. Captured and forced to participate in the brutality, Beah was eventually rescued and rehabilitated by UNICEF before seeking refuge in the United States. In his book, A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $22), Beah gives readers a glimpse into what life was like for him then. Today, the 26-year-old is a college graduate and member of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division Advisory Committee. Here he talks about reclaiming his life and the children who are still victims of war.

Do you miss your homeland?
It’s a place that I love dearly regardless of what happened to me. It’s my home; I cannot live without it. I visited last year. That was my first time going back, and it was bittersweet. There’s a feeling I get there that I can’t get any where at all, so regardless of the difficult memories, it’s also a place that I hold in my heart.

Although you’ve been through rehabilitation, does your mind often revert back to your wartime experience?
A lot of people think that healing requires forgetting everything. I wish it was so, but it’s not the case. I still get nightmares, still get flashbacks. Different instances in my life trigger different things. I know that I have no control over them. I’ve learned to live with them.

So what’s your definition of healing?
Not necessarily to forget, but rather to transform the experience so it becomes more of an instructional tool to you, to your life. I am aware that there’s continuous work that needs to be done, so just being appreciative of each moment of your life, being able to wake up in peace, that’s what I call healing.

But how do you cope with the memories?
They don’t destroy me as much as they used to. It’s what I do with them that matters. But, you know, I’m one of the lucky ones. There are a lot of people who cannot live with the nightmares or flashbacks or people who died during the war. So for me, this is a price that I pay to continue to live on.
Have you had trouble rebuilding personal relationships?
Well, for a while it was difficult. It took some time for me to understand that there are indeed people who will care for you deeply. I have come to renew my faith in human beings. When I meet or befriend people now, I come to the table with a clean slate. And I’m able to form those relationships, because I see that not everyone is as awful as I had come to believe.

What do you want people to understand about children of war?
Some of these children have never had a sense of peace in their life. They’re not going to grow up to have the same kind of understanding of moral and ethical standards, because they live

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