In the backstage area of the MacEwan Ballroom, Ishmael Beah is ushered from the hallway to an otherwise empty stairwell because the photographers think there's better light there. This is nothing new for Beah on his book tour, here from New York City by way of Sierra Leone. He's happy to oblige, straightening up from leaning relaxed against the wall and heading to the stairwell; a nervous handler leads the way for him while she constantly checks her watch. For his part, the unflappable Beah just smiles like he has all night and walks through the hallway, careful to give everyone he passes a moment of eye contact and a nod. Beah loses his easy smile as the photographers snap away. They want their pictures of him to reflect the tragedy of his story. He's not supposed to be a happy person. He's supposed to be a victim. At the age of 12, the slight African man sitting casually in the stairwell of the MacEwan Ballroom became a child soldier and was forced into Sierra Leone's civil war. In his three years of combat, Beah killed more people than he can remember.
He was 12 years old when the war came to his village of Mogbwemo, which sat in the southern region of the West African country. The rebels attacked while Beah and three friends travelled to a neighboring village to perform in the talent show, where they would lip-synch and dance to the American hip-hop music they loved. During their travels, the boys learned their homes had burned and their families were at best displaced, at worst dead.
With no option but to move on, Beah and several friends spent weeks surviving through the jungle trappings of Sierra Leone, with the war seeming to follow their exodus north. During these travels, Beah would come within hours of reunion with his family, tragically arriving late and finding his mother, father and two brothers dead.
Later meeting up with Sierra Leone's armed forces, Beah believed he had found sanctuary under their protection. Instead, the military pressed Beah and others, boys as young as seven, into military service.
At 13, Beah killed for the first time. From that point on, his life became a regimented waking nightmare. He was trained to eat meals in 60 seconds, although his real fuel was the constant marijuana, amphetamines and a cocaine-gunpowder concoction called "brown-brown," which they snorted.
"In the beginning, there was a sense that what we were doing was wrong, but when we began doing this for weeks and months and getting addicted to the drugs and the constant violence in our life and the trauma, we accepted it fully," said Beah to a sold-out crowd in the MacEwan Ballroom on Sun., Mar. 16.
When he was not fighting, Beah and the other soldiers watched Rambo films, cleaned their guns and futilely attempted to sleep.
"The reality of war and violence is only destruction," explained the 27-year-old Beah. "When we fought and took other humans' lives, it didn't make us happy. It only made us suffer more."
In 1996, with the help of UNICEF, Beah and other children were rescued from the front lines and rehabilitated in the capital city of Freetown under the watchful eye of the United Nations. The overarching mantra of the program was "it's not your fault," always stressing that the boys were victims. While these surroundings promoted healing, the rehabilitation was a difficult process.
"I was in the rehabilitation centre for eight months before I could take a foothold," said Beah.
Despite rehabilitation, Beah could not escape the war. In 1997, Freetown fell into fighting, and Beah's old life beckoned.
"Friends from the war were showing up in the capital city and would say to you, 'do you want to come back?'" he said. "You couldn't say no, because if you said no, they would kill you."
Fortunately for Beah, while in rehabilitation, he had travelled to New York for a United Nations conference and met a woman named Laura Simms. With the war once again beating down his door, Beah used that contact to escape from Sierra Leone and into the care of his new mother in America. Once there, he finished high school and went on to college, where he began writing his memoirs.
"I was someone who had been extraordinarily lucky to have survived and to have my education," he said. "I had to put a human face to the story."
His book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, has won awards, become a bestseller and provided an audience for Beah's important story and an outlet of reconciliation for the man.
"Healing is just learning to live with it," said Beah. "People ask me why I keep speaking about it, because it must be so difficult. But whether or not I speak about it, it will always come up in my life. For me, when it comes up, I'd rather use it to benefit others."
Today, a decade removed from both his war and his country, Ishmael Beah is not the man many expect him to be.
"They expect me to be dysfunctional or to have blood-shot eyes," he said. "They don't expect a regular guy."
Beah, now a UNICEF spokesperson, explained he hopes the success of the book will spur the creation of a foundation that could provide educational scholarships and help victims of war, especially in his home country.
"I want to start it in Sierra Leone, because that's where I know best," said Beah, who aims to help more than just child soldiers, of which there is an estimated 300,000 in 50 different conflicts. "After that, I want to spread it around. My idea of a child soldier is a broader definition. I'm not just saying it's the people who carried the guns, but all the people who suffered, people whose childhoods ended because of the war."
Despite his intentions, some sources, most notably an Australian newspaper, have attempted to discredit the timeline of Beah's story and have accused him of inserting fictionalized events into the memoirs. Beah has officially refuted these claims and said that the actions of the newspaper only serve as motivation to continue his work.
Beyond his efforts on behalf of the victims of war, Beah bears an essential message for those whom war has never touched.
"I came to appreciate what it means to just wake up in the morning and have peace," said Beah. "That is a miracle. During the war, you could not dream past a minute in a day. You just dreamt of surviving that minute and if you did, you dreamt of surviving another minute. Miracles are the human interactions we have on a day-to-day basis."