A Former Child Soldier Tells His Story

Ishmael Beah
To be a boy forced to bear arms in an adult conflict is to be a prisoner of war of a terrible kind. Ishmael Beah, 26, went through that extraordinarily horrific struggle as a child in Sierra Leone. He details his story of survival in the new book, "A Long Way Gone."

"'We must strive to be like the moon,' an old man in Kabati repeated this sentence often," Ishmael Beah read from his book for Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith. "I remember asking my grandmother what the old man meant. She said that people complain when there is too much sun. But she said, no one grumbles when the moon shines. The moon was kind of struggling to stay alive even though these clouds were trying to cover it. And you know, our journey was like that, too."

A war almost put out the light in Ishmael Beah but he wouldn't let that happen. That is why he has a story to tell.

It begins in 1993, in his small, close-knit village.

"My life before the war was very simple but very happy," he said. "Very peaceful, beautiful, and the people are incredibly kind and nice. I didn't fear anything. Anything! Nothing at all. A lot, a lot of trust among people; perhaps way more than we should."

In other parts of his country a civil war was raging and spreading. Still, it seemed far away to the young Ishmael who was most interested in American hip-hop.

"Our community and my father, they would be like, 'What is going on with these kids,' you know? Cause we started dressing like that," he said. "You know sometimes we would talk to each other like, 'Yo, peace out, son. I'm out.' And people would be like, 'What? Like, are you serious?'"

When he was just 12 years old he and his friends left home to perform in a talent contest in a town just miles away.

"You know, we had no idea that actually we were leaving home and never to return again, and that things were going to change very quickly," Ishmael said.

When he and his friends were just 16 miles from home, they found out their village was attacked.

"First of all, we couldn't believe it because that kind of place we had grown up, we didn't think anyone would be capable of doing some of the things we had heard people were doing to each other," he said.

While his village was under attack, Ishmael still tried to go home. When he did, he witnessed horrific images.

"We encountered people running," he said. "We saw men carrying their dead children in their arms. I saw a man cry for the first time in my life, so this really disturbed me quite a bit. So we decided that, you know, we can't go back home anymore and decided to wait. Hopefully to see our families would come through but they didn't come. Maybe they went another way."

His country was at war and there was no safe haven. So Ishmael and his friends wandered from village to village scrounging for food and water. Weeks stretched into months. And after a year he received some unbelievable news: He finally found out that his family was in the next village. But when he went to find them, he encountered more violence.

"We started hearing gunshots," Ishmael said. "Pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow. And then we started seeing smoke and we looked around where my family had been. I went in there and there were only like heaps of ashes all over the place, and I know that they had been burned and everything. The pain of knowing what had just happened was so severe that I wished I'd actually been in the village to die with them."

No longer was there reason to run.

"My friends were actually dragging me along because I'd lost hope," he said.

Sierra Leone's civil war started in 1991 with a military coup. As the war escalated, rebels and government soldiers accused each other of vicious brutality against civilians. Differentiating between the good guys and the bad guys was difficult.

Ishmael came upon a village that was being protected by men he thought were the good guys: Government soldiers. There was food, soccer games, places to sleep. It seemed like a happy place, Ishmael said. But the happiness didn't last long. The army needed soldiers and the recruitment was brutally simple.

"One day they just said, you know if you're in this village, you're gonna have to fight, otherwise you can leave," he said. "That may seem like a choice to someone who doesn't know the situation. Some people tried to leave, but they were shot."

Ishmael and his band of brothers were nothing but boys. Their tools for survival were guns and narcotics.

"First, you know, you get your own weapon and everything and the magazines and the bullets, and then they give you drugs," he said.

They would take cocaine, marijuana and sometimes cocaine mixed with gun powder, known as brown brown. The kids would watch "Rambo," then head to the killing fields.

"I was descending into this hell so quickly and I just started shooting and that's what I did for over two years basically," Ishmael said. "Whoever the commander said, 'This guy is the enemy,' there were no questions asked. There was no second guessing because when you ask a question and you say 'Why,' they'll shoot you right away."

Kill or be killed was the lesson young Ishmael learned. The moonlight — his light — was growing dim.