Ishmael Beah

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Ishmael Beah
Ismael Beah retouched.jpg
Ishmael Beah, 2007
Born Ismael Beah
(1980-11-23) 23 November 1980 (age 36)
Mogbwemo, Bonthe District, Sierra Leone
Nationality Sierra Leonean
Notable works A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Radiance of Tomorrow, a novel

Ishmael Beah (born on 23 November 1980[1]) is a Sierra Leonean author and human rights activist who rose to fame with his acclaimed memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier[2]. His most recent novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, was published in January 2014.[3]


In 1991, the Sierra Leone Civil War started. Rebels invaded Beah's hometown, Mogbwemo, located in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone, and he was forced to flee. Separated from his family, he spent months wandering south with a group of other boys. At the age of 12, he was forced to become a child soldier. According to Beah's account, he fought for almost three years before being rescued by UNICEF.[1] Beah fought for the government army against the rebels. In 1997, he fled Freetown by the help of the UNICEF due to the increasing violence and found his way to New York City, where he lived with Laura Simms, his foster mother. In New York City, Beah attended the United Nations International School. After high school, he enrolled at Oberlin College and graduated in 2004 with a degree in Political Science.[1]

During his time in the Sierra Leonean government army, Beah says he doesn't remember how many people he killed. He and other soldiers smoked marijuana and sniffed amphetamines and "brown-brown", a mix of cocaine and gunpowder. He blames the addictions and the brainwashing for his violence[4] and cites them and the pressures of the army as reasons for his inability to escape on his own: "If you left, it was as good as being dead."[5]

During a 14 February 2007 appearance on The Daily Show with host Jon Stewart, Beah said that he believed that returning to civilized society was more difficult than the act of becoming a child soldier, saying that dehumanising children is a relatively easy task.[6] Rescued in 1996 by a coalition of UNICEF and NGOs, he found the transition difficult. He and his fellow child soldiers fought frequently. He credits one volunteer, Nurse Esther, with having the patience and compassion required to bring him through the difficult period. She recognized his interest in American rap music and reggae since he was a kid, gave him a Walkman and a Run DMC cassette, and employed music as his bridge to his past, prior to the violence. Slowly, he accepted her assurances that "it's not your fault."[7]

Living in Freetown with an uncle, he went to school and was invited to speak in 1996 at the UN in New York. When Freetown was overrun by the joined forces of the rebels (RUF or Revolutionary United Front) and Army of Sierra Leone in 1997 (the Army of Sierra Leone was originally fighting against the RUF), he contacted Laura Simms, whom he had met the year before in New York, and made his way to the United States.[7]

"If I choose to feel guilty for what I have done, I will want to be dead myself," Beah said. "I live knowing that I have been given a second life, and I just try to have fun, and be happy and live it the best I can."[5]

In 2009, the 29-year-old traveled home to Sierra Leone with an ABC News camera, a return that he describes as bittersweet. Later in February 2013, he traveled to Calgary and spoke at the My World Conference.[8]

Awards, recognition and works[edit]

A Long Way Gone was nominated for a Quill Award in the Best Debut Author category for 2007. Time magazine's Lev Grossman named it one of the Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2007, ranking it at No. 3, and praising it as "painfully sharp", and its ability to take "readers behind the dead eyes of the child-soldier in a way no other writer has."[9]

With his new novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, Beah explores the life of a community including Benjamin and Bockarie, two friends who return to Bockarie's hometown, Imperi, after the civil war. The village is in ruins, the ground covered in bones. Radiance of Tomorrow is said to be 'written with the moral urgency of a parable and the searing precision of a firsthand account'.[10] It earned positive reviews in the New York Times Book Review,[11] the Washington Post,[12] and the Boston Globe.[13]


The accuracy of some events and the chronology in A Long Way Gone have been called into question, particularly the claim that Beah became a child soldier in 1993, rather than in 1995.[14] Beah has defended his account.

See also[edit]

  • Children of War (2010) documentary by Bryan Single
  • Jimmie Briggs investigator and author of Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War
  • P. W. Singer investigator and author of Children at War(2005)

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ a b c UNICEF, Youth leadership profiles,; retrieved 15 February 2007.
  2. ^
  3. ^ "BEA 2013: Ishmael Beah: After War", Hilary S. Kayle, Publishers Weekly, 30 May 2013.
  4. ^ James Pitkin, "Ishmael Beah—An ex-child soldier's trip from Sierra Leone's war to a Starbucks bookshelf", Willamette Week, 14 February 2007; retrieved 15 February 2007.
  5. ^ a b Alissa Swango, NYC24, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, A Child Soldier Grows Up, 2006. Retrieved 15 February 2007.
  6. ^ The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 14 February 2007 [1].
  7. ^ a b Gumbel, Andrew (24 January 2007). "Long march to normal life for a former child soldier". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 5 October 2011. 
  8. ^ Child Soldier's Long Way Home, ABCNews.go.con; accessed 10 December 2014.
  9. ^ Grossman, Lev (9 December 2007). "Top 10 Nonfiction Books - Top 10 Everything of 2007 - TIME". 
  10. ^ Review of Radiance of Tomorrow; accessed 10 December 2014.
  11. ^ Corbett, Sara (November 17, 2014). "Sunday Book Review: A Long Way Home: Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah". New York Times. Retrieved March 15, 2015. 
  12. ^ Review of Radiance of Tomorrow,; accessed 10 December 2014.
  13. ^ Review of Radiance of Tomorrow,; accessed 10 December 2014.
  14. ^ Sherman, Gabriel; The Fog of Memoir: The feud over the truthfulness of Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone,; accessed 10 December 2014.

External links[edit]