This is Ishmael Beah.
The photograph was taken when he was 26.
Ishmael is from Sierra Leone.
Between the ages of 13 and 16 a lot of nasty things happened to him.
His whole family was killed by rebel forces in a bloody and brutal civil war.
He and a group of friends tried to escape from the fighting on foot across country.
But the war caught up with them and they were taken “under the wing” of the army.
But the army’s interest in them was anything but benevolent.
They were given guns.
They were given Rocket Propelled Grenades.
And they were given lots of drugs.
They were brainwashed and programmed to hate, torture and kill the rebels that had killed their families.
Ishmael committed acts of almost unspeakable cruelty.
Many of these against boys of a similar age on the rebel side.
Rebel boys who were also on drugs and programmed to kill the soldiers that had killed their families.
A vicious circle of drug and revenge fueled child on child violence that doesn’t bear thinking about.
(Especially if you have a 14 year old child yourself).
Ishmael was eventually taken out of the army and placed into a UNICEF rehabilitation programme.
That rehabilitation process eventually led to the writing and publication of this book.
New York City, 1998
My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.
“Why did you leave Sierra Leone?”
“Because there is a war.”
“Did you witness some of the fighting?”
“Everyone in the country did.”
“You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”
“Yes, all the time.”
I smile a little.
“You should tell us about it sometime.”
Ishmael Beah tells us about it in a matter of fact voice that lets the horrific facts speak for themselves.
It doesn’t feel as though there is any embellishment or exaggeration.
The result is a raw and mesmerising story with some some unexpected and gut-wrenching twists.
Like when well-meaning UNICEF officials fail to segregate former child soldiers and former child rebels.
The children had been stripped of their guns, but several (including Ishmael) had managed to conceal knives and hand grenades in their baggy shorts…
There are also some heartwarming, Primo Levi style “moments of reprieve” when unexpected acts of human kindness punctuate the mindless violence.
Like when a Run DMC cassette saves Ishmael and friends from execution by frightened villagers.
Ishmael Beah explains what happened to him, but he doesn’t try to excuse what he did.
For me this is the most impressive aspect of his writing.
The fact that he managed to redeem himself (and be redeemed with the help of others) into the smiling young adult in the picture above is nothing short of miraculous.