Washington, D.C., May 29, 2008--- He seems to be a nice young man: age 27, a winning smile and an easy going sense of humor that quickly charms his audience. I’m attending, along with 9200 others from around the globe, the 60th annual convention of NAFSA, the top international-education organization. This particular event is a speech by Ishmael Beah, who last year published “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.” The grand ballroom of the Washington Convention Center is full to overflowing for Beah’s talk.
Wisely, young Ishmael focuses his address on his experiences since leaving Sierra Leone to live in the U.S., where he attended a United Nations high school in New York, then Oberlin College. He alludes only obliquely to the dark days of his country’s civil war, when, as a child of 13, he was recruited into the army and transformed into a teenaged killing machine.
Beah’s book tells that earlier story. After losing his family to rebel atrocities, Beah and his boyhood buddies roamed from village to village, until finally being conscripted into a unit of the national armed forces. Issued an AK-47, he was fed a seemingly endless supply of cocaine, marijuana, something he calls “brown brown” (a concoction which he claims contained gun powder), and unidentified white capsules that probably were “uppers” (since he says he seldom slept).
Following a few weeks of “basic training” Beah and his buds were deployed into action. Action, one gathers from his book, typically involved raiding villages, shooting everyone in sight and looting whatever was found of value, be it food, drugs, or munitions. He describes in gory detail cutting the throats of prisoners and burying wounded rebels alive. Summing up, he says he killed “too many people to count.”
Eventually, Beah and many another boy soldier were rescued and rehabilitated by UNICEF in cooperation with various NGOs operating in the war-torn, West African nation, situated between Liberia (an equally blood-soaked and diamond rich state), and Guinea. So thoroughly was Beah reformed that he was picked from among his comrades to address the United Nations in New York on the plight of Africa’s children. There he met the woman who would adopt him, once he managed to make good his final escape from Sierra Leone. All this occurred before he was even out of his teens.
Pondering the war crimes Beah describes in “A Long Way Gone” and trying to connect them up with the pleasant young fellow at the podium, I am reminded of the late philosopher, Hannah Arendt. In the words of Wikipedia, “The Banality of Evil is a phrase coined in 1963 by Hannah Arendt in her work ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem.’ It describes the thesis that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal.”
Arendt’s premise fits the West African experience of the 1990s and early years of the new century as snuggly as it fits the Holocaust. If “A Long Way Gone” isn’t a good fit on your summer reading list, try the film “Blood Diamond” on for size. You’ll get the idea. Today, the sub-Saharan traveling horror show described in Beah’s book and depicted in the Leo DiCaprio movie has moved to the Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Meanwhile, here I am in line outside the convention center’s massive ballroom, standing in a long line to get my copy of “A Long Way Gone” autographed by its author. When it’s finally my turn, I watch as Ishmael Beah inscribes his large and rather elegant signature on the title page. As he hands the book back to me, I say, “Hell of a book, man. Thanks a lot.” Ours eyes meet momentarily and he beams back at me… the boyish smile of a lad who never could have pulled the wings from a fly.