A Child Soldier Grows Up
By Alissa Swango

An AK-47 gave Ishmael Beah power.  The 13-year old started killing because he had no choice.  

Beah was one of 300,000 child soldiers worldwide forced to the frontlines of a civil war.  Today, the 25-year-old calls New York home.  He is just one of 1,600 Sierra Leoneans who immigrated here to escape the horrors of a war-torn country.

Photo by Rebecca Castillo

Ishmael Beah, now 25 and living in New York, was once one of 300,000 child soldiers worldwide forced to carry arms in a civil war.

Ishmael Beah tells the story of his experience as a child soldier.
Want to learn more about the civil war? Ishmael Beah explains.
Ishmael Beah discovered new life in New York. Click to watch.

“When I got to America, my mother and I
rode bikes in Central Park, went to the zoo, went out to eat and even took a trip to California,” said Beah, who calls his
Brooklyn-born guardian his mother. “That meant a lot to me because I got to have a
piece of my childhood back.” 

Sierra Leone’s civil war started in 1991 with
an attempt to overthrow the government.
The rebels, who were supported by former Liberian president Charles Taylor, took over diamond mines in exchange for weapons.  Opposing armed groups formed,
destabilizing the country. Rebel soldiers recruited children to join their side. 

“The worst abuses against children are those that happen during war,” said Jane Lowicki,
an advocate for children and youth in armed conflict. “The number of children who would ever do anything violent on their own is relatively small.”  

Both girls and boys, mostly in their pre-teenage years, underwent ceremonies where they were brainwashed and subjected to propaganda. They were terrorized, beaten and forced to commit violence.  

Rebels seized Beah’s remote village when he was visiting with friends. He and his brother were on the run for more than six months in search of their family.  

When he reached the place where his family relocated, the rebels were already there. 

“I heard them laughing and giving high-fives,” Beah said of the Revolutionary Union Front. “They were smoking marijuana, playing cards and reminiscing about how surprised the village was of the massacre.” 

Beah saw everything burning. Everyone in his family had been killed.

“After losing my family,” he said, “I didn’t have a reason to live on.”

In the midst of Sierra Leone’s civil war, Beah was forced to become a child soldier. He was armed with an AK-47 and killed “too many people to count,” he says today.   He would smoke marijuana and sniff “brown-brown,” a combination of cocaine and gunpowder, with commanders and other children. The army watched war movies like “Rambo” to rally them and make them want to kill. 

“The only choice you had was to stay,” Beah said.  “If you left, it was as good as being dead.”

Three years later, he was randomly chosen to give up his guns and unwillingly left the Sierra Leonean Army with a grassroots rehabilitation organization for children soldiers. He struggled with the physical withdrawal from drugs and the emotional withdrawal from the people to whom he’d become attached. 

After rehabilitation, Beah was part of an envoy of former children soldiers selected to discuss his experience in the army to a panel at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

When Beah landed at John F. Kennedy airport, he walked outside, looked up at the sky and thought, “Wow, it must always be Christmas here.”  The only time he had ever seen snow was in Christmas movies that aired on television in his West African homeland.

Outside the United Nations headquarters, Beah met Laura Simms, a divorced, Jewish woman from Brooklyn who worked at the U.N. Simms didn’t have children of her own, and offered to pay for Beah’s school fees in Sierra Leone. Upon his return, they instantly began writing letters and occasionally spoke on the phone. 

When the rebels seized Freetown and overthrew the government in 1997, Beah knew he had to escape the country, fearing this time he’d be killed. Beah snuck in to Guinea, where he was able to call Simms, tell her he was safe from the war, and asked to come to New York. This time, it was for good.

In July of 1998, Beah boarded a plane in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, and made the transition from child soldier to New Yorker.

Today, Beah says he feels just like everyone else living in the city.  He graduated from high school in Manhattan and studied political science at Oberlin College in Ohio. He spends his days writing in his Union Square apartment and applying to graduate schools for a master's degree in fine arts. At night, he dances to New York City's hippest DJs, and blends into the attractive, educated and free-spirited gaggle that spends time in lower Manhattan.

After the hip hop music has sapped his energy, the Sierra Leonean struggles with a series of recurring nightmares. In his dreams, he is tortured and burned, chased and killed – continuously re-living the atrocities he committed as a child soldier.  

“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.”  


2006 NYC24 is a production of the New Media Workshop at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism