Ishmael Beah Interview

Ishmael Beah Interview

GEORGE NEGUS: Ishmael and Jo thank you very much for giving us your time, Ishmael can I ask you this, you were recruited as a child soldier at 13.


You are now 26. Is it really all behind you or is it the case what you are doing, campaigning against the whole idea of child soldiers is almost therapy for you. Is it really behind you?

ISHMAEL BEAH, FORMER CHILD SOLDIER: Well I think behind is not the thing. I think this experience I have to live with for the rest of my life in terms of the memories of it. It's what I do with it. There are a lot of people think of healing as forgetting. You can't put it behind you in that way. It is therapeutic in a sense because of lack of a better word, because it allows me to understand the situation more and to continually know the need for why I need to share my story and for other people who have survived it need to share the story, so the people can see the possibilities of recovery as well.

GEORGE NEGUS: For the rest of us who have never been through what you have been through, how and why did it happen to you and as we now know, hundreds of thousands of other children throughout the world?

ISHMAEL BEAH: When war starts, eventually children will get recruited. In most of these countries, the large number of the population is youth and so basically in Sierra Leone particularly that I know of, the war started because of political corruption which led to people being extremely poor to the point that a war came along to fix, to rectify those problems but that didn't work, you know. As often wars start with good reasons and the reasons get lost along the way. In different countries it's different, the reasons why wars start and why children are dragged into war. Generally what happens to children, it's the same in a way.

GEORGE NEGUS: Could you put your finger on how you became recruited?

ISHMAEL BEAH: When the war started, you know, in 1991, I hadn't reached to my part of the country. Several years after that it came to my part of the country. My town was destroyed, my family was killed. I started running away from this war. So, you know, as a young person you are hopeless, there is nowhere to go. Everything had collapsed and as time goes on, I was compromised in the sense, I had no choice, it was either be a part of this group or be killed. Once you are dragged into this group, as time goes on with the drugs, the trauma, the constant exposure to violence, your life becomes this reality, that you accept it fully, that once it was very impossible to do, now you find yourself capable of doing. You actually come to look at these groups, the commanders, the squad that your in, as your surrogate family because you have lost everything that is dear to you.

GEORGE NEGUS: Is it possible to summarise your situation by saying you are almost left with a choice between becoming a killer, which you did, or being killed?

ISHMAEL BEAH: Well that is not much of a choice but, yes, in short that's what it is. You either kill or you are killed. Not only that, not only who did determine the enemy, if you didn't carry out what the commanders wanted to do, they would kill you. Everyone in your squad will kill you if you didn't do what you wanted to do.

GEORGE NEGUS: Jo, is the world largely sitting on its hands where this issue is concerned? The UN have been involved, you have been involved, all sorts of bodies and institutions have been making the right noises about this whole issue. Do we not want to come to grips with the fact that this horrendous atrocity is occurring on a daily basis in any number of countries around the world?

JO BECKER, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: There are still 20 countries where children are actively fighting and dying in armed conflict. Clearly it's still a tremendous problem that we have to confront. But at the same time we are making some real progress. In the last 10 years treaties have been adopted that prohibit the use of children under the age of 18 in armed conflict. Today over half of the world's Government have ratified these treaties. We see child recruiters for the very first time being prosecuted as war criminals.

GEORGE NEGUS: Ishmael, your commanders, the people who recruited you and that you lived and killed with, if you like, for those years, did you get a sense that they felt they were doing anything wrong or did they just think that was the order of thing, grabbing children off the streets literally and turning them into soldiers it was fine?

ISHMAEL BEAH: To them it was fine and I think at that point when they are in that mind set, it becomes the reality that is acceptable. One of the reasons why you know to make a child into a killer, you have to take everything that there is, destroy their communities and their families and drug them up. The fact that you have to basically make them into something else for them to function in that light shows that of their own volition they can not perform these things. To follow up on what Jo is saying, I think it is absolutely important, a lot of people when they think of the use of children in war, they are thinking of only the internal factors that cause it. That's rightly so, but there are also external factors. Even though people are being prosecuted internally, that started the war, there is a need to look at the external factors and those people who participate in supporting wars, for those people to be brought to justice. Because together, we cannot find a holistic solution to this.

GEORGE NEGUS: You seem to be saying we are not going to get to the root cause or solve the problem until we get to the root cause of the war situation that children like yourself found themselves in?

JO BECKER: That's part of it. Part of it is also looking at what leverage we have against the governments and armed groups using child soldiers and how we can use that leverage to get them to stop. One example is that world wide of the 20 countries where child soldiers are being used, in nine of them, governments are involved, either by recruiting children into their own forces or by supporting militias or para-military groups that use children. Of these 9 governments, 8 of them are receiving military assistance from the United States. So one initiative, for example, there is a now a bill pending in US Congress that would actually cut off US military assistance to any Government that is involved in the recruitment or use of child soldiers and that is the kind of thing that governments can do to really put pressure on the perpetrators to make them take a second look at their practises and take action to stop it.

GEORGE NEGUS: Jo, you have actually described Ishmael as a perfect example of how children can come out the other side. Can you explain what you meant by that?

JO BECKER: I think one of the challenges in dealing with this issue of child soldiers is that people look at the horrific experiences that many child soldiers have gone through and they wonder, you know, is this a child who can ever recover, is there someone who can become a productive member of civilian society. There is a dangerous temptation there, to write-off former child soldiers as irreparable or for ever damaged and I think one of the really powerful effects that Ishmael has had on the international public is illustrating to people that no, former child soldiers are not irredeemable, that it is possible to live through a horrific experience like that and still reclaim your humanity.

GEORGE NEGUS: For every Ishmael I imagine that there are a lot of other children who don't come out the other side?

JO BECKER: For children who have been used as soldiers, the challenges are enormous. Even if they come out of a war situation with their lives and their health intact, many of them have been deprived of an education for years, they may not have access to their family, they need a means to support themselves. For girls, there is an added burden because many of them have been sexually exploited and may have babies that have been borne out of forced relationships with their commanders. What we really need is a stronger commitment on behalf of the international community to provide that assistance to these children.

GEORGE NEGUS: Ishmael let's talk about that.

ISHMAEL BEAH: If I can interject for a second. Often times people look at me and perhaps think there is an Ishmael formula. There is no such thing. Each child heels differently. I didn't just come out of the war and came here and wrote a book. It took me many many years. It took me initially 8 months to even get a foothold to rejoin civilian live. People need to be aware there is a process that comes with healing. It's not an emergency step, it's not something you can battle easily. You cannot bring a child back into civilian life, to regain their humanity, it requires the undoing of a lot of things that you have been conditioned to believe, because after that experience you lose trust in your own humanity and the humanity of other people and other people's kindness. I was extremely lucky to have people who genuinely cared for me and look at me as another human being regardless of my experience and gave me opportunities. Not many get that. A lot of kids go to rehabilitation and when they are finished, there is nothing they can do with their lives and they go back to the groups that they came from.

GEORGE NEGUS: You are not worried about the people who are cynically suspicious and saying this guy is almost too good to be true?

ISHMAEL BEAH: That is their problem. I have had people like that asking questions like: So, why don't you write about these other people. I wrote about my experience. That's all I can do.

GEORGE NEGUS: Is going back do Sierra Leone out of the question for you?

ISHMAEL BEAH: No, it's not out of the question for me at all. Sierra Leone is where I am from and the land that I hold dearly. One of the reason I wrote this book, is to show a lot of people who didn't know about Sierra Leone during the war. They know it as only a violent place and it has not always been like that. It will not be like that for ever. It's a place that I love dearly. I was there last year and I will go back whenever I get a chance, it is my homeland.

GEORGE NEGUS: Jo, thank you for your time, Ishmael, thank you for your time.