By Ishmael Beah
Sometimes I feel that living in New York City, having a good family
and friends, and just being alive is a dream, that perhaps this second
life of mine isn’t really happening. Whenever I speak at the United
Nations, Unicef or elsewhere to raise awareness of the continual and
rampant recruitment of children in wars around the world, I come to
realize that I still do not fully understand how I could have possibly
survived the civil war in my country, Sierra Leone.
Most of my friends, after meeting the woman whom I think of as my
new mother, a Brooklyn-born white Jewish-American, assume that I was
either adopted at a very young age or that my mother married an African
man. They would never imagine that I was 17 when I came to live with
her and that I had been a child soldier and participated in one of the
most brutal wars in recent history.
In early 1993, when I was 12, I was separated from my family as the
Sierra Leone civil war, which began two years earlier, came into my
life. The rebel army, known as the Revolutionary United Front (R.U.F.),
attacked my town in the southern part of the country. I ran away, along
paths and roads that were littered with dead bodies, some mutilated in
ways so horrible that looking at them left a permanent scar on my
memory. I ran for days, weeks and months, and I couldn’t believe that
the simple and precious world I had known, where nights were celebrated
with storytelling and dancing and mornings greeted with the singing of
birds and cock crows, was now a place where only guns spoke and
sometimes it seemed even the sun hesitated to shine. After I discovered
that my parents and two brothers had been killed, I felt even more lost
and worthless in a world that had become pregnant with fear and
suspicion as neighbor turned against neighbor and child against parent.
Surviving each passing minute was nothing short of a miracle.
After almost a year of running, I, along with some friends I met
along the way, arrived at an army base in the southeastern region. We
thought we were now safe; little did we know what lay ahead.
1994: The First Battle
I have never been so afraid to go anywhere in my life as I was that
first day. As we walked into the arms of the forest, tears began to
form in my eyes, but I struggled to hide them and gripped my gun for
comfort. We exhaled quietly, afraid that our own breathing could cause
our deaths. The lieutenant led the line that I was in. He raised his
fist in the air, and we stopped moving. Then he slowly brought it down,
and we sat on one heel, our eyes surveying the forest. We began to move
swiftly among the bushes until we came to the edge of a swamp, where we
formed an ambush, aiming our guns into the bog. We lay flat on our
stomachs and waited. I was lying next to my friend Josiah. At 11, he
was even younger than I was. Musa, a friend my age, 13, was also
nearby. I looked around to see if I could catch their eyes, but they
were concentrating on the invisible target in the swamp. The tops of my
eyes began to ache, and the pain slowly rose up to my head. My ears
became warm, and tears were running down my cheeks, even though I
wasn’t crying. The veins on my arms stood out, and I could feel them
pulsating as if they had begun to breathe of their own accord. We
waited in the quiet, as hunters do. The silence tormented me.
The short trees in the swamp began to shake as the rebels made their
way through them. They weren’t yet visible, but the lieutenant had
passed the word down through a whisper that was relayed like a row of
falling dominos: "Fire on my command." As we watched, a group of men
dressed in civilian clothes emerged from under the tiny bushes. They
waved their hands, and more fighters came out. Some were boys, as young
as we were. They sat together in line, waving their hands, discussing a
strategy. My lieutenant ordered a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) to be
fired, but the commander of the rebels heard it as it whooshed its way
out of the forest. "Retreat!" he called out to his men, and the
grenade’s blast got only a few rebels, whose split bodies flew in the
air. The explosion was followed by an exchange of gunfire from both
I lay there with my gun pointed in front of me, unable to shoot. My
index finger became numb. I felt as if the forest had turned upside
down and I was going to fall off, so I clutched the base of a tree with
one hand. I couldn’t think, but I could hear the sounds of the guns far
away in the distance and the cries of people dying in pain. A splash of
blood hit my face. In my reverie I had opened my mouth a bit, so I
tasted some of the blood. As I spat it out and wiped it off my face, I
saw the soldier it had come from. Blood poured out of the bullet holes
in him like water rushing through newly opened tributaries. His eyes
were wide open; he still held his gun. My eyes were fixed on him when I
heard Josiah screaming for his mother in the most painfully piercing
voice I had ever heard. It vibrated inside my head to the point that I
felt my brain had shaken loose from its anchor.
I searched for Josiah. An RPG had tossed his tiny body off the
ground, and he had landed on a tree stump. He wiggled his legs as his
cry gradually came to an end. There was blood everywhere. It seemed as
if bullets were falling into the forest from all angles. I crawled to
Josiah and looked into his eyes. There were tears in them, and his lips
were shaking, but he couldn’t speak. As I watched him, the water in his
eyes was replaced with blood that quickly turned his brown eyes red. He
reached for my shoulder as if to pull himself up. But midway, he
stopped moving. The gunshots faded in my head, and it was as if my
heart had stopped and the whole world had come to a standstill. I
covered his eyes with my fingers and lifted him from the tree stump.
His backbone had been shattered. I placed him flat on the ground and
picked up my gun. I didn’t realize that I had stood up to take Josiah
off the tree stump. I felt someone tugging at my foot. It was the
corporal; he was saying something that I couldn’t understand. His mouth
moved, and he looked terrified. He pulled me down, and as I hit the
ground, I felt my brain shaking in my skull again, and my deafness gave
"Get down," he was screaming. "Shoot," he said, as he crawled away
from me to resume his position. As I looked to where he lay, my eyes
caught Musa, whose head was covered with blood. His hands looked too
relaxed. I turned toward the swamp, where there were gunmen running,
trying to cross over. My face, my hands, my shirt and my gun were
drenched in blood. I raised my gun and pulled the trigger, and I killed
a man. Suddenly all the death I had seen since the day I was touched by
war began flashing in my head. Every time I stopped shooting to change
magazines and saw my two lifeless friends, I angrily pointed my gun
into the swamp and killed more people. I shot everything that moved,
until we were ordered to retreat because we needed another plan.
We took the guns and ammunition off the bodies of my friends and
left them there in the forest, which had taken on a life of its own, as
if it had trapped the souls that had departed from the dead. The
branches of the trees seemed to be holding hands and bowing their heads
in prayer. In the swamp, crabs had already begun feasting on the eyes
of the dead. Limbs and fragmented skulls lay on top of the bog, and the
water in the swamp was stagnant with blood. I was not afraid of these
lifeless bodies. I despised them and kicked them to flip them and take
their guns. I found a G3 and some ammunition. I noticed that most of
the dead gunmen and boys wore lots of jewelry on their necks and wrists.
We arrived in the village, our base, with nightfall and sat against
the walls of houses. It was quiet, and perhaps afraid of the silence,
we began cleaning the blood off our guns, oiling their chambers, and
shooting them into the air to test their effectiveness. I went for
supper that night but was unable to eat. I only drank water and felt
nothing. I lay on my back in the tent with my AK-47 on my chest and the
G3 I had taken from a dead rebel leaning on the peg of the tent.
Nothing happened in my head. It was a void, and I stared at the roof of
the tent until I was miraculously able to doze off. I had a dream that
I was picking up Josiah from the tree stump and a gunman stood on top
of me. He placed his gun against my forehead. I immediately woke up
from my dream and began shooting inside the tent, until the 30 rounds
in the magazine were finished. The corporal and the lieutenant came in
afterward and took me outside. I was sweating, and they threw water on
my face and gave me a few white capsules. They were the same capsules
that we’d all been given before we had gone into battle, and to this
day, I do not know what they contained. I stayed up all night and
couldn’t sleep for days. We went out two more times that week, and I
had no problem shooting my gun.
After that first week of going out on raids to kill people we deemed
our rebel enemies or sympathizers of the rebels, our initiation was
complete. We stayed put at the base, and we boys took turns guarding
posts around the village. We smoked marijuana and sniffed "brown
brown," cocaine mixed with gunpowder, which was always spread out on a
table near the ammunition hut, and of course I took more of the white
capsules, as I had become addicted to them. The first time I took all
these drugs at the same time, I began to perspire so much that I took
off all my clothes. My body shook, my sight became blurred and I lost
my hearing for several minutes. I walked around the village restlessly.
But after several doses of these drugs, all I felt was numbness to
everything and so much energy that I couldn’t sleep for weeks. We
watched war movies at night, Rambo "First Blood," "Rambo, First Blood,
Part II," "Commando" and so on, with the aid of a generator or a car
battery. We all wanted to be like Rambo; we couldn’t wait to implement
When we ran out of supplies, we raided rebel camps in towns,
villages and forests. "We have good news from our informants" the
lieutenant would announce. "We are moving out in five minutes to kill
some rebels and take their supplies, which really belong to us." He
often made speeches about how we were defending our country, how
honorable we were. At these times, I would stand holding my gun and
feeling special because I was part of something that took me seriously
and I was not running from anyone anymore. The lieutenant’s face
evinced confidence; his smiles disappeared before they were completed.
We would tie our heads with the green cloths that distinguished us from
the rebels, and we boys would lead the way. There were no maps and no
questions asked. We were simply told to follow the path until we
received instructions on what to do next. We walked for long hours and
stopped only to eat sardines and corned beef with gari, sniff brown
brown and take more white capsules. The combination of these drugs made
us fierce. The idea of death didn’t cross my mind, and killing had
become as easy as drinking water. After that first killing, my mind had
stopped making remorseful records, or so it seemed.
Before we got to a rebel camp, we would deviate from the path and
walk in the forest. Once the camp was in sight, we would surround it
and wait for the lieutenant’s command. The rebels roamed about; some
sat against walls, dozing off, and others, boys as young as we, stood
at guard posts passing around marijuana. Whenever I looked at rebels
during raids, my entire body shook with fury; they were the people who
had shot my friends and family. So when the lieutenant gave orders, I
shot as many as I could, but I didn’t feel better. After every
gunfight, we would enter the rebel camp, killing those we had wounded.
We would then search the houses and gather gallons of gasoline,
enormous amounts of marijuana and cocaine, bales of clothes, watches,
rice, salt, gari and many other things. We rounded up any civilians —
men, women, boys and young girls — hiding in the huts and houses and
made them carry our loot back to the base. We shot them if they tried
to run away.
On one of these raids, we captured a few rebels after a long
gunfight and a lot of civilian casualties. We undressed the prisoners
and tied their arms behind their backs until their chests were tight as
drums. "Where did you get all this ammunition from?" the corporal asked
one of the prisoners, a man with an almost dreadlocked beard. He spat
in the corporal’s face, and the corporal immediately shot him in the
head at close range. He fell to the ground, and blood slowly leaked out
of his head. We cheered in admiration of the corporal’s action and
saluted him as he walked by. Suddenly, a rebel hiding in the bushes
shot one of our boys. We dispersed around the village in search of the
shooter. When the young muscular rebel was captured, the lieutenant
slit his neck with his bayonet. The rebel ran before he fell to the
ground and stopped moving. We cheered again, raising our guns in the
air, shouting and whistling.
During that time, a lot of things were done with no reason or
explanation. Sometimes we were asked to leave for war in the middle of
a movie. We would come back hours later after killing many people and
continue the movie as if we had just returned from intermission. We
were always either on the front lines, watching a war movie or doing
drugs. There was no time to be alone or to think. When we conversed
with one another, we talked only about the movies and how impressed we
were with the way either the lieutenant, the corporal or one of us had
killed someone. It was as if nothing else existed.
The villages that we captured and turned into our bases as we went
along and the forests that we slept in became my home. My squad was my
family, my gun was my provider and protector and my rule was to kill or
be killed. The extent of my thoughts didn’t go much beyond that. We had
been fighting for more than two years, and killing had become a daily
activity. I felt no pity for anyone. My childhood had gone by without
my knowing, and it seemed as if my heart had frozen. I knew that day
and night came and went because of the presence of the moon and the
sun, but I had no idea whether it was a Sunday or a Friday.
Taken From the Front
In my head my life was normal. But everything began to change in January 1996. I was 15.
One morning that month, a truck came to the village where we were
based. Four men dressed in clean blue jeans and white T-shirts that
said "Unicef" in big blue letters jumped out. They were shown to the
lieutenant’s house. It seemed as if he had been expecting them. As they
sat talking on the veranda, we watched them from under the mango tree,
where we sat cleaning our guns. Soon all the boys were told to line up
for the lieutenant who selected a few of us and asked the adult
soldiers to take away our guns and ammunition. A bunch of boys,
including my friend Alhaji and me, were ushered to the truck. I stared
back at the veranda where the lieutenant now stood, looking in the
other direction, toward the forest, his hands crossed behind his back.
I still didn’t know exactly what was going on, but I was beginning to
get angry and anxious. Why had the lieutenant decided to give us up to
these civilians? We thought that we were part of the war until the end.
We were on the road for hours. I had gotten used to always moving
and hadn’t sat in one place idly for a long time. It was night when the
truck stopped at a center, where there were other boys whose
appearances, red eyes and somber faces resembled ours. Alhaji and I
looked at this group, and he asked the boys who they were. A boy who
was sitting on the stoop angrily said: "We fought for the R.U.F.; the
army is the enemy. We fought for freedom, and the army killed my family
and destroyed my village. I will kill any of those army bastards every
time I get a chance to do so." The boy took off his shirt to fight, and
on his arm was the R.U.F. brand. Mambu, one of the boys on our side,
shouted, "They are rebels," and reached for his bayonet, which he had
hidden in his army shorts; most of us had hidden either a knife or a
grenade before our guns were taken from us. Before Mambu could grab his
weapon, the R.U.F. boy punched him in the face. He fell, and when he
got up, his nose was bleeding. The rebel boys drew out the few bayonets
they had in their shorts and rushed toward us. It was war all over
again. Perhaps the naïve men who had taken us to the center thought
that removing us from the war would lessen our hatred for the R.U.F. It
hadn’t crossed their minds that a change of environment wouldn’t
immediately make us normal boys; we were dangerous, brainwashed to kill.
One boy grabbed my neck from behind. He was squeezing for the kill,
and I couldn’t use my bayonet effectively, so I elbowed him with all my
might until he let go. He was holding his stomach when I turned around
and stabbed him in his foot. The bayonet stuck, so I pulled it out with
force. He fell, and I began kicking him in the face. As I went to
deliver the final blow with my bayonet, someone came from behind me and
sliced my hand with his knife. It was a rebel boy, and he was about to
kick me down when he fell on his face. Alhaji had stabbed him in the
back. He pulled the knife out, and we started kicking the boy until he
stopped moving. I wasn’t sure whether he was unconscious or dead. I
didn’t care. No one screamed or cried during the fight. After all, we
had been doing such things for years and were all still on drugs.
We continued to stab and slice one another until a bunch of MPs came
running through the gate toward the fight. The MPs fired a few rounds
into the air to get us to stop, but we were still fighting, so they had
to part us by force. They placed some of us at gunpoint and kicked
others apart. Six people were killed: two on our side and four on the
As MPs stood guard to make sure we didn’t start another fight, we,
the army boys, went to the kitchen to look for food. We ate and chatted
about the fight. Mambu told us that he had plucked an eye out of the
head of one of the R.U.F. boys, and that the boy ran to punch him, but
he couldn’t see, so he ran into the wall, banging his head hard and
fainting. We laughed and picked up Mambu, raising him in the air. We
needed the violence to cheer us after a whole day of boring travel and
contemplation about why our superiors had let us go.
That night we were moved to a rehabilitation center called Benin
Home. Benin Home was run by a local NGO called Children Associated With
the War, in Kissy neighborhood, on the eastern outskirts of Freetown,
the capital. This time, the MPs made sure to search us thoroughly
before we entered. The blood of our victims and enemies was fresh on
our arms and clothes. My lieutenant’s words still echoed in my head:
"From now on, we kill any rebel we see, no prisoners." I smiled a bit,
happy that we had taken care of the rebel boys, but I also began to
wonder again: Why had we been taken here? I walked up and down on the
veranda, restless in my new environment. My head began to hurt.
It was infuriating to be told what to do by civilians. Their voices,
even when they called us for breakfast, enraged me so much that I would
punch the wall, my locker or anything nearby. A few days earlier, we
could have decided whether they would live or die.
We refused to do anything that we were asked to do, except eat. At
the end of every meal, the staff members and nurses came to talk to us
about attending the scheduled medical checkups and the one-on-one
counseling sessions that we hated at the minihospital that was part of
Benin Home. As soon as the live-in staff, mostly men, started telling
us what to do, we would throw bowls, spoons, food and benches at them.
We would chase them out of the dining hall and beat them. One
afternoon, after we had chased off several staff members, we placed a
bucket over the cook’s head and pushed him around the kitchen until he
burned his hand on a boiling pot and agreed to put more milk in our
tea. During that same week, the drugs were wearing off. I craved
cocaine and marijuana so badly that I would roll a plain sheet of paper
and smoke it. Sometimes I searched the pockets of my army shorts, which
I still wore, for crumbs of marijuana or cocaine. We broke into the
minihospital and stole some painkillers — white tablets and off-white —
and red and yellow capsules. We emptied the capsules, ground the
tablets and mixed them together. But the mixture didn’t give us the
effect we wanted. We got more upset day by day and, as a result,
resorted to more violence. We began to fight one another day and night.
We would fight for hours for no reason at all. At first the staff would
intervene, but after a while they just let us go. They couldn’t really
stop us, and perhaps they thought that we would get this out of our
systems. During these fights, we destroyed most of the furniture and
threw the mattresses out in the yard. We would stop to wipe the blood
off our lips, arms and legs only when the bell rang for mealtime.
It had been more than a month, and some of us had almost gone
through the withdrawal stage, even though there were still instances of
vomiting and collapsing at unexpected moments. These outbreaks ended,
for most of us, at the end of the second month. But we now had time to
think; the fastened mantle of our war memories slowly began to open. We
resorted to more violence to avoid summoning thoughts of our recent
Whenever I turned on the faucet, all I could see was blood gushing
out. I would stare at it until it looked like water before drinking or
taking a shower. Boys sometimes ran out of the hall screaming, "The
rebels are coming." Other times, the younger ones sat weeping and
telling us that nearby rocks were their dead families.
It took several months before I began to relearn how to sleep
without the aid of medicine. But even when I was finally able to fall
asleep, I would start awake less than an hour later. I would dream that
a faceless gunman had tied me up and begun to slit my throat with the
zigzag edge of his bayonet. I would feel the pain that the knife
inflicted as the man sawed my neck. I’d wake up sweating and throwing
punches in the air. I would run outside to the middle of the soccer
field, sit on a stone and rock back and forth, my arms wrapped around
my legs. I would try desperately to think about my childhood, but I
couldn’t. The fighting memories seemed to have formed a barrier that I
had to break in order to think about any moment before the war. On
those mornings, I would feel one of the staff members wrap a blanket
around me, saying: "This isn’t your fault, you know. It really isn’t.
You’ll get through this." He would then pull me up and walk me back to
Past and Present
One day after I’d been in Benin Home for more than three months, I
was sent to the minihospital for a checkup. The nurse on duty was named
Esther. I had met her once before when I was sent to the minihospital
after cutting my hand punching a window. Esther wore a white uniform
and a white hat. Her white teeth contrasted with her dark, shiny skin,
and when she smiled, her face glowed. She was tall and had big brown
eyes that were kind and inviting. She must have been about 30, which I
thought was too old.
That day, before Esther examined me, she gave me a present, a
Walkman and a Run-DMC tape. I used to listen to rap music a lot before
the war and loved it because of its poetic use of words. I put the
headphones on and didn’t mind being examined because the song had taken
hold of me, and I listened closely to every word. But when she began
examining my legs and saw the nasty scars on my left shin, she took my
headphones off and asked, "How did you get these scars?"
"Bullet wounds," I casually replied.
Her face filled with sorrow, and her voice was shaking when she
spoke: "You have to tell me what happened so I can prescribe
treatment." At first I was reluctant, but she said she would be able to
treat me effectively only if I told her what happened, especially about
how my bullet wounds were treated. So I told her the whole story not
because I really wanted to but because I thought that if I told her
some of the truth of my war years, she would be afraid of me and would
cease asking questions. She listened attentively when I began to talk:
During the second dry season of my war years, we were low on food
and ammunition. So as usual, we decided to attack another village,
which was a three-day walk away. We left our base that evening,
stopping once a day to eat, drink and take drugs. Each of us had two
guns, one strapped to our backs, the other held in our hands. On the
evening of the third day, the village was in sight.
Surrounding it, we waited for the lieutenant’s command. As we lay in
ambush, we began to realize that the place was empty. We were beginning
to suspect that something was amiss when a shot was fired from behind
us. It was clear now: we were being ambushed. We ended up in a fight
that lasted more than 24 hours. We lost several men and boys. When we
finally seemed to have captured the village, we began to look around
for anything we could find. I was filling my backpack with ammunition
from a hut when bullets began to rain on the village again. I was hit
three times in my left shin. The first two bullets went in and out, and
the last one stayed inside. I couldn’t walk, so I lay on the ground and
released an entire round of the magazine into the bush where the
bullets had come from. I remember feeling a tingle in my spine, but I
was too drugged to really feel the pain, even though my leg had begun
to swell. The sergeant doctor in my squad dragged me into one of the
houses and tried to remove the bullet. Each time he raised his hands
from my wound, I saw my blood all over his fingers. My eyes began to
grow heavy, and I fainted.
I do not know what happened, but when I woke the next day, I felt as
if I had nails hammered into the bones of my shin and my veins were
being chiseled. I felt so much pain that I was unable to cry out loud;
tears just fell from my eyes. The ceiling of the thatched-roof house
where I was lying on a bed was blurry. My eyes struggled to become
familiar with my surroundings. The gunfire had ceased and the village
was quiet, so I assumed that the attackers had been successfully driven
away. I felt a brief relief for that, but the pain in my leg returned.
I tucked my lips in, closed my heavy eyelids and held tight to the
edges of the wooden bed. I heard the footsteps of people entering the
house. They stood by my bed, and as soon as they began to speak, I
recognized their voices.
"The boy is suffering, and we have no medicine here to lessen his
pain. Everything is at our former base." The sergeant doctor sighed and
continued. "It will take six days to send someone to get the medicine
and return. He will die from the pain by then."
"We have to send him to the former base, then," I heard my
lieutenant saying. "We need those provisions from that base, anyway. Do
all you can to make sure that the boy stays alive," he said and walked
out. "Yes, sir," the sergeant doctor said. I slowly opened my eyes, and
this time I could see clearly. I looked at his sweaty face and tried to
smile a little. After having heard what they said, I swore to myself
that I would fight hard and do anything for my squad after my leg was
"We will get you some help," the sergeant doctor said gently,
sitting by my bed and examining my leg. "Just be strong, young man,"
"Yes, sir," I said, and tried to raise my hand to salute him, but he tenderly brought my arm down.
Two soldiers came into the house, took me off the bed, placed me in
a hammock and carried me outside. The treetops of the village began to
spin around as they carried me out. The journey felt as if it took a
month. I fainted and awoke many times, and each time I opened my eyes,
it seemed as if the voices of those who carried me were fading into the
Finally we got to the base, and the sergeant doctor, who had come
along, went to work on me. I was injected with something. I was given
cocaine, which I frantically demanded. The doctor started operating on
me before the drugs took effect. The other soldiers held my hands and
stuffed a cloth into my mouth. The doctor stuck a crooked-looking
scissorslike tool inside my wound and fished for the bullet. I could
feel the edge of the metal inside me. My entire body was racked with
Just when I thought I had had enough, the doctor abruptly pulled the
bullet out. A piercing pain rushed up my spine from my waist to the
back of my neck. I fainted.
When I regained consciousness, it was the morning of the next day,
and the drugs had kicked in. I reached my hands down to my leg and felt
the bandage before I stood up and limped outside, where some soldiers
and the sergeant were sitting. "Where is my weapon?" I asked them. The
sergeant handed me my G3, and I began cleaning it. I shot a couple of
rounds sitting against a wall, ignoring the bandage on my leg and
everyone else. I smoked marijuana, ate and snorted cocaine and brown
brown. That was all I did for a few days before we went back to the new
base we had captured. When we left, we threw kerosene on the
thatched-roof houses, lighted them with matches and fired a couple of
RPGs into the walls. We always destroyed the bases we abandoned so that
rebel squads wouldn’t be able to use them. Two soldiers carried me in
the hammock, but this time I had my gun, and I looked left and right as
we traveled the forest path.
At the new base, I stayed put for three weeks. Then one day, we
heard that a rebel group was on its way to attack our village. I
tightened the bandage around my shin, picked up my gun and followed my
squad to ambush them. We killed most of the attackers and captured a
few whom we brought back to base. "These are the men responsible for
the bullet holes in your leg. It’s time to make sure they never shoot
at you or your comrades." The lieutenant pointed at the prisoners. I
was not sure if one of the captives was the shooter, but any captive
would do at that time. They were all lined up, six of them, with their
hands tied. I shot them in their shins and watched them suffer for an
entire day before finally deciding to shoot them in the head so that
they would stop crying. Before I shot each man, I looked at him and saw
how his eyes gave up hope and steadied before I pulled the trigger. I
found their somber eyes irritating.
When I finished telling Esther the story, she had tears in her eyes,
and she couldn’t decide whether to rub my head, a traditional gesture
indicating that things would be well, or hug me. In the end she did
neither but said: "None of what happened was your fault. You were just
a little boy, and anytime you want to tell me anything, I am here to
listen." She stared at me, trying to catch my eye so she could assure
me of what she had just said. I became angry and regretted that I had
told someone, a civilian, about my experience. I hated the "It is not
your fault" line that all the staff members said every time anyone
spoke about the war.
I got up, and as I started walking out of the hospital, Esther said,
"I will arrange a full checkup for you." She paused and then continued:
"Let me keep the Walkman. You don’t want the others to envy you and
steal it. I will be here every day, so you can come and listen to it
anytime." I threw the Walkman at her and left, putting my fingers in my
ears so I couldn’t hear her say, "It is not your fault."
After that, whenever Esther would see me around, she’d smile and ask
me how I was doing. At first I detested her intrusions. But slowly I
came to appreciate them, even looked forward to them. It was like this
at the center; most boys found a staff member whom they eventually
began to trust. Mine was Esther.
Over the next few months, I started to visit Esther occasionally at
the minihospital, which was just across the dirt road from the dorm
that I shared with more than 35 boys. During that time, Esther got me
to tell her some of my dreams. She would just listen and sit quietly
with me. If she wanted to say anything, she would first ask, "Would you
like me to say something about your dream?" Mostly I would say no and
ask for the Walkman.
One day Esther gave me a Bob Marley tape and a really nice notebook
and pen and suggested that I use them to write the lyrics of the songs
and that we could learn them together. After that I visited Esther at
the minihospital every day, to show her what I had written. I would
sing her the parts of songs I had memorized. Memorizing lyrics left me
little time to think about what happened in the war. As I grew
comfortable with Esther, I talked to her mainly about Bob Marley’s
lyrics and Run-DMC’s too. She mostly listened.
One night, close to my fifth month at the center, I fell asleep
while reading the lyrics of a song. I startled awake after having a
dream that involved lots of people stabbing and shooting one another,
and I felt all their pain. The room I stood in filled with their blood.
In the dream, I then went outside to sit at dinner with my father,
mother and two brothers. They didn’t seem to notice that I was covered
It was the first time I dreamed of my family since I started running
away from the war. The next afternoon I went to see Esther, and she
could tell that something was bothering me. "Do you want to lie down?"
she asked, almost whispering.
"I had this dream last night," I said looking away. "I don’t know what to make of it."
She came and sat next to me and asked, "Would you like to tell me about it?" I didn’t reply.
"Or just talk about it out loud and pretend I am not here. I won’t
say anything. Only if you ask me." She sat quietly beside me. The
quietness lasted for a while, and for some reason I began to tell her
At first she just listened to me, and then gradually she started
asking questions to make me talk about the lives I had lived before and
during the war. "None of these things are your fault," she said, as she
had repeated sternly at the end of every conversation. Even though I
had heard that phrase from every staff member — and had always hated it
— I began that day to believe it. That didn’t make me immune to the
guilt that I felt for what I had done. But it somehow lightened my
burdensome memories and gave me strength to think about things. The
more I spoke about my experiences to Esther, the more I began to cringe
at the gruesome details, even though I didn’t let her know that. I
still didn’t completely trust her. I only liked talking to her because
I felt that she didn’t judge me for what I had been a part of; she
looked at me with the inviting eyes and welcoming smile that said I was
still a child.
One day during my fifth month at Benin Home, I was sitting on a rock
behind the classrooms when Esther came by. She sat next to me without
uttering a word. She had my lyrics notebook in her hand. "I feel as if
there is nothing left for me to be alive for," I said slowly. "I have
no family, it is just me. No one will be able to tell stories about my
childhood." I sniffled a bit.
Esther put her arms around me and pulled me closer to her. She shook
me to get my full attention before she started. "Think of me as your
family, your sister."
"But I didn’t have a sister," I replied.
"Well, now you do," she said. "You see, this is the beauty of
starting a new family. You can have different kinds of family members."
She looked at me directly, waiting for me to say something.
"O.K., you can be my sister — temporarily." I emphasized the last word.
"That is fine with me. So will you come to see your temporary sister
tomorrow, please?" She covered her face as if she would be sad if I
"O.K., O.K., no need to be sad," I said, and we both laughed a bit.
Rejoining the Civilian World
Soon after, a group of visitors from the European Union, the United
Nations, Unicef and several NGOs arrived at the center in a convoy of
cars. At the request of the staff, we boys had prepared a talent show
for them. I read a monologue from "Julius Caesar" and performed a short
hip-hop play about the redemption of a former child soldier that I had
written with Esther’s encouragement. After that event, the head of the
center asked me to be the spokesman for Benin Home and to speak about
I was at the beginning of my seventh month at Benin Home when one of
the field agents, Leslie, came to tell me that he was responsible for
"repatriating" me — the term used to describe the process of reuniting
ex-child soldiers with their former communities. My family was dead,
but I knew that my father had a brother whom I had never met who lived
somewhere in Freetown. Leslie said he would try to find him, and if he
couldn’t, he’d find me a foster family to live with.
One Saturday afternoon about two weeks later, as I chatted with
Esther at the minihospital, Leslie walked in, smiling widely. "What is
the good news?" Esther asked. Leslie examined my curious face, then
walked back to the door and opened it. A tall man walked in.
"This is your uncle," Leslie proudly announced.
The man walked over to where I was sitting. He bent over and embraced me long and hard. My arms hung loose at my sides.
What if he is just some man pretending to be my uncle? I thought.
The man let go of me. He was crying, which is when I began to believe
that he was really my family, because men in Sierra Leone rarely cried.
He crouched on his heels next to me and began: "I am sorry I never
came to see you all those years. I wish I had met you before today. But
we can’t go back now. We just have to start from here. I am sorry for
your losses." He looked at Leslie and continued: "After you are done
here, you can come and live with me and my family. You are my son. I
don’t have much, but I will give you a place to sleep, food and my
love." He put his arms around me.
No one had called me "son" in a very long time. I didn’t know what
to say. Everyone, it seemed, was waiting for my response. I turned to
my uncle, smiled at him and said: "Thank you for coming to see me. I
really appreciate that you have offered me to stay with you. But I
don’t even know you." I put my head down.
"As I said, we cannot go back," he replied, rubbing my head and
laughing a little. "But we can start from here. I am your family, and
that is enough for us to begin liking each other."
I got up and hugged my uncle, and he embraced me harder than he had
the first time and kissed me on my forehead. We briefly stood in
silence before he began to speak again. "I will visit you every
weekend. And if it is O.K., I would like you to come home with me at
some point, to see where I live and to meet my wife and children — your
family." My uncle’s voice trembled; he was trying to hold back sobs. He
rubbed my head with one hand and shook Leslie’s hand with the other.
As my uncle promised, he came to visit every weekend. We would take
long walks together, and they gave me a chance to get to know him. He
told me about what my father was like when he was a child, and I told
him about my childhood. I needed to talk about those good times before
the war. But the more I heard and talked about my father, the more I
missed my mother and brothers too.
About a month or so later at Benin Home, Leslie told me it was time
for me to go live with my uncle. I was happy, but I was also worried
about living with a family. I had been on my own for years and had
taken care of myself without any guidance from anyone. If I distanced
myself from the family, I was afraid that I might look ungrateful to my
uncle, who didn’t have to take me in; I was worried about what would
happen when my nightmares took hold of me. How was I going to explain
my sadness, which I was unable to hide when it took over my face, to my
new family, especially the children?
I lay in my bed night after night staring at the ceiling and
thinking, Why have I survived the war? Why was I the last person in my
immediate family to be alive? I went to see Esther every day, though,
and would say hello, ask how she was and then get lost in my own head
thinking about what life was going to be like after the center. At
night, I sat quietly on the veranda with my friends. I wouldn’t notice
when they left the bench that we all sat on.
When the day of my repatriation finally came, I walked to the
minihospital building where I was to wait, my heart beating very fast.
My friends Alhaji and Mambu and a boy named Mohamed were sitting on the
front steps, and Esther emerged, smiling. Leslie sat in a nearby van
waiting to take me to my new home.
"I have to go," I said to everyone, my voice shaking. I extended my
hand to Mohamed, but instead of shaking it, he leapt up and hugged me.
Mambu embraced me while Mohamed was still holding me. He squeezed me
hard, as if he knew it was goodbye forever. (After I left the center,
Mambu’s family refused to take him in, and he ended up back on the
front lines.) At the end of the hug, Alhaji shook hands with me. We
squeezed each other’s hands and stared into each other’s eyes,
remembering all that we had been through. I never saw him again, since
he continually moved from one foster home to another. Esther stepped
forward, her eyes watery. She hugged me tighter than she ever had. I
didn’t return her hug very well, as I was busy trying to hold back my
tears. After she let go, she gave me a piece of paper. "This is my
address," she said. "Come by anytime."
I went to Esther’s home several weeks after that. But my timing
wasn’t good. She was on her way to work. She hugged me, and this time I
squeezed back; this made her laugh after we stood apart. She looked me
straight in the eyes. "Come and see me next weekend so we can have more
time to catch up, O.K.?" she said. She was wearing her white uniform
and was on her way to take on other traumatized children. It must be
tough living with so many war stories. I was living with just one,
mine, and it was difficult. Why does she do it? Why do they all do it?
I thought as we went our separate ways. It was the last time I saw her.
I loved her but never told her.
Ishmael Beah is the author of "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy
Soldier," which will be published next month by Sarah Crichton Books,
an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and from which this article
is adapted. He now lives in Brooklyn.