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Ishmael Beah's 'Memoirs of a Boy Soldier'

Ishmael Beah has written a memoir about his years as a child soldier in Sierra Leone. Orphaned by the civil war there, he was carrying an AK-47 by the age of 12. Pumped up by drugs, he was forced to kill or be killed.

When he was 15, UNICEF took Beah to a rehabilitation center. He was eventually adopted by an American woman and brought to the United States, where he attended high school and graduated from Oberlin College.

His book is A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.


Other segments from the episode on February 21, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 21, 2007: Interview with Ishmael Beah; Review of the album "Uri Caine Ensemble Plays Mozart."


DATE February 21, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Former child soldier Ishmael Beah talks about his new
memoir, "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When my guest Ishmael Beah was 12, killing became a daily activity. He was
recruited into the army as a child soldier in Sierra Leone's civil war in
1993. His family had been killed and his village destroyed, so his squad
became his family. He followed orders and was sent into villages to kill
rebels and civilians. His life changed at the age of 15 when he was taken by
UNICEF workers to a rehabilitation camp run by an NGO called Children
Associated with War. He was later adopted by an American and moved to the US
in 1998. After finishing high school at the UN International School in New
York, he attended Oberlin College and graduated in 2004. He's now a member of
the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Division Advisory Committee and has
spoken before the UN about child soldiers. He's written a new book called "A
Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier."

Ishmael Beah, welcome to FRESH AIR. You were performing with your hip-hop
group when the civil war in Sierra Leone started. You were separated from
your family, you ran away, saw the remains of massacres. How did you actually
become a boy soldier?

Mr. ISHMAEL BEAH: Well, during the war, I had been running away for months
and months with the hope of finding my family. I was running with my elder
brother and a few other friends who were in this rap group performing with me
and others who were our secondary school friends. So we ran for months and
months, surviving rebel attacks in villages, escaping almost when we're about
to get killed until, you know, seeing the path littered with bodies, littered
in different positions. Until finally, we found out that I lost my elder
brother during this time when we were running, and then I ended up finding
another group of boys. And it was dangerous to be in a group of young people
because both sides, the army and the rebels, the RUF, Revolutionary United
Front, was recruiting children so everyone when they saw a lot of young people
together, they were very terrified. So that was also another problem we had
to face. But it was good being together. And, finally, I came into a village
where my family was supposed to be, but by the time I could get there, it was
too late. They were killed and houses were all burnt down and everything.
And so I was very devastated because I went from knowing that I had a family
and the next minute having no one.

GROSS: How did you actually become a child soldier?

Mr. BEAH: Well, I--after my family was killed--two brothers, mother and
father--I ended up arriving at army base in Yele where I was basically
finding, you know, finding shelter and safety, and that was there for a while
and then that stopped, and I was basically given the choice in that situation
along with a good number of orphans who at the space at the time--and so we
were basically asked to be a part of this war or leave. And leaving,
actually, was as good as being dead because the rebels who were surrounding
the village would kill you because they would consider you a sympathizer of
the army. So we were pressed into this after that with no choice.

GROSS: So once you were basically forced to be a soldier, how were you
trained for it? How were you taught to shoot and do whatever else you were
told to do?

Mr. BEAH: We were taught in a very brief period. The training was about a
week. And, basically, we were just taught how to do a few military techniques
like to crawl and to--if the commander raised his hand this way, this is what
you do and that kind of stuff. And then the AK-47, which is a light weapon
that is fairly easy to operate, we were taught how to use that. How to fire
it, how to reload the magazine, and that was it. Everything else
came--everything else, you know, perfection came with actually being in the
war and fighting in the war.

GROSS: In regular armies, soldiers are taught to attack and to kill other
soldiers, and they're taught how not to kill civilians. Now things often go
wrong and civilians end up being killed, but it was part of your job in this
army to kill civilians, too.

Mr. BEAH: Well, part of our job, basically, was to go out and kill whoever
the commander had said we will go out and kill. So there were no questions
asked. If this--if we went into a civilian village, if the commander said the
civilian village was sympathizers of the rebels, we went out and did that and
killed them, whoever. If we ran across somebody on the path that we didn't
like or didn't trust, we killed them. So this was not a conventional military
kind of thing and, you know, it was--you went out and did whatever you were
told, and at some point, it becomes so much a part of your reality and you did
not question anything. Even in the beginning you did not, because if you
questioned, you can get killed by questioning certain things. So if you're
reluctant--you know.

GROSS: I read that you were told by the soldiers who were training you to
visualize the enemy, that these are the rebels who killed your parents, who
killed your family. These are the people responsible for everything that has
gone wrong with your life and with your country. Did you do that? Did you
kind of visualize that each time you killed somebody, that this was the person
who was responsible for killing your family?

Mr. BEAH: Yes, I did at that time and I believed it a lot because a lot of
people, a lot of the kids who were with me believed it. So every time we
would go into a rebel camp or whatever these commanders deemed a rebel camp,
when I would be looking at them, you know, the image of what had happened to
my parents and how they had been killed and things of that sort came into my
head and made me very angry. And so--but every time we shot at people or we
killed people, it didn't make me feel better, you know. And, you know, after
I got out of that, I thought about it, you know. I wasn't even sure the
people who I was shooting at or who I was killing were those who had actually
killed my parents, but at that time, you know, that explanation was very
appealing to me at that time.

GROSS: You describe in your book how in your first battle, you froze. You
couldn't pull the trigger of your AK-47, but then you saw two of your friends
killed, and what impact did that have on you?

Mr. BEAH: The impact that that had on me, I still remember these things very
vividly is that, you know, it just pushed something in me. I can't really
explain it, but it just pushed something in me that made me feel like if I
didn't pull the trigger, that I was going to end up like them and that, you
know, I had to pull the trigger, and so I started to pull the trigger.
Something inside me, you know, kind of moved and pushed me beyond this boy
that I'd been, this human being that I had been. I think, you know, that was
the point where, you know, I kind of went beyond my own humanity. You know, I
lost my humanity at that time, you know. I had been traumatized by running
away from the war, seeing things, but I think this is the final point where I
actually lost my own humanity.

GROSS: You can say now in retrospect and having gone through rehab and you
know, having gone to college and having spoken to audiences around the world
about the experiences of being a boy soldier, you can say now, `This is the
moment when I lost my humanity.' But when you're actually experiencing that,
did you think, `Well, now I've just crossed the threshold. I've lost my
humanity.' Did you have any awareness that you were in some sense losing your

Mr. BEAH: I had the sense that I was kind of--the sense that I had at the
time was that I felt like I was kind of falling to some sort of night, you
know, that because, you know, when I was there seeing so much blood and so
much bullets, you know, raining into the forest and things like that, it felt
that, you know, this was it. This was the end of it, you know. Like I could
either pull the trigger or I could die. You know, that's how I felt. And I
felt like it was, like, you know, my whole body was not comfortable with it.
You know, my veins were tightened. My head had begun to hurt. I felt like my
brain was on fire. You know, it was--it didn't feel human to me, you know?
My whole entire body felt--I felt uncomfortable in my own body in a way, you

GROSS: Well, you were also addicted to drugs during this time. To what?
Cocaine and something called brown-brown? Can you describe what brown-brown

Mr. BEAH: Brown-brown basically is a mixture of cocaine--cocaine mixed with
gunpowder. And the reason for this is that, you know, after you've been
taking cocaine, marijuana and all the different drugs, your tolerance is kind
of heightened, so brown-brown is something that can serve that to make sure
that--you know, because the potency of this mixture is very, very high. And
so not only does it make you high or it makes you numb to everything that
you're doing, you know, killing somebody, shooting somebody, stabbing somebody
with a bayonet becomes funny to some extent when you're on brown-brown. You
don't fear that people get shot or you can get killed. Everything becomes so
simple that you, you know, accept everything. And also it gives you
tremendous rush of energy that you can just go on for weeks without sleeping,

GROSS: So, you were what, like sniffing gun powder?

Mr. BEAH: Yes. You mixed it in the brown-brown. You mixed the gun powder
in the cocaine and then you sniff it.

GROSS: Wow! It's just like sniffing gun powder, that's just--I'm just trying
to imagine what that would be like. it seems like that would be harsh, first
of all.

Mr. BEAH: It is very harsh in the beginning. You get a lot of burning in
your nose when you start doing it a lot. But after, you know--as time goes
on, it becomes part of what you do and it doesn't burn so much anymore, but it
does hurt in the beginning.

GROSS: Was addiction a way of making sure that the boy soldiers stayed?
Because where else were you going to get drugs? Where else where are going to
get cocaine if you didn't stay with the army?

Mr. BEAH: Yes. Addiction was a way to make you stay, but it was also a way
to make you not have time to think about it. The whole idea of recruiting
children, what they did was that they--you were either out shooting people,
fighting or doing drugs or watching war films, you know. So there was no time
to think. If they allowed you time to think, I think you'd probably would've
started to say, `This is not good for me. I've got to get out of here.'
Things of that sort. So there was no time. There was no way to numb you to
what was going on, to not allow you to think, to allow you to completely just
accept it. And another thing that, during the context of the war, when
everything had collapsed, community, family structures, there's nothing, you
know, becoming part of this group after you've been traumatized, you're on
drugs, it becomes in a very weird way, it becomes almost family after you've
lost everything. It becomes something that you're attached to, that you
belong to, something that you're a part of when there's nothing else to be a
part of.

GROSS: You say that you watch war films when you weren't fighting. Which
were some of the war films that you watched? What did you watch them on?
Video or?

Mr. BEAH: Oh, yes, we watched them on video. They had--you know, we had
used a generator or we had a car battery that you can put a wire on the
negative and positive charge and put on the back of a television to spark it
up, it works. And so we watched "Rambo." You know, "Rambo" films, you know,
Sylvester Stallone, you know, "Rambo: First Blood," "Rambo: Second Blood,"
"Rambo" this, "Rambo" that. We watched "Commando," Arnold Schwarzenegger in
it, you know with the big bazookas. You know, these are also films that we
used to watch before the war that people knew about. But during the context
of the war, it took on a different meaning that when we watched these films,
we wanted to go out and do those things, you know. And, you know, crawl into
a village and take out a bayonet and, you know, slash somebody's throat. You
know, like we see in "Rambo: First Blood." So this was also another way, and
actually there were people who had different names. Somebody would be called
Little Rambo and people would have this for Qaddafi. There was this, you
know--so everybody had those names, all based on these movies we were watching
based on, you know, whatever somebody gave you a name or a commander gave you
a name and people lived up to these names, and watching the films, actually
also made--gave a romantic idea of warfare, you know?

GROSS: I'm wondering if the kids on the other side watched the same films?
You know, if kids who were recruited to fight with the rebel troops are
watching the same films you are.

Mr. BEAH: Yes, I think they were because when we came to the rehabilitation
center the first time, we had contact with the rebels, we learned and later
on, you know, I learned that they were giving them the same rhetoric that they
were giving us. Which is that the army is corrupt and they have this bad
squads that go around and killing people and doing things like that, which we
were doing in the group that I was in. And so, they would tell them the same
rhetoric, that they're responsible for your position, so you have to kill all
of them. And they will tell the same rhetoric and watch the same movies. So,
it was two groups using children, basically, against children or using
children to carry out atrocities. That's one of the really sad things about
the Sierra Leonean civil war is that the young people were being used on both
sides, and it's very sad.

GROSS: My guest is Ishmael Beah. His new book is called "A Long Way Gone:
Memoirs of a Boy Soldier."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ishmael Beah, and he was a
child soldier. He was recruited to be a child soldier during the civil war in
Sierra Leone, and he's written a new memoir called "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs
of a Boy Soldier."

How long were you a soldier before you were taken by UNICEF to a
rehabilitation center?

Mr. BEAH: Well, I was recruited--I started fighting when I was 13, and then
I was in it until I was over 15, so it was about--over two years. So two
years and--two and a half years. Then I was taken out after that when I was
15 and brought into Freetown, the capital, to a rehabilitation center.

GROSS: Now, you know, since you were like 13 to 15 years old, that means like
your body wasn't fully developed yet. You were smaller, you were not like a
full-grown man yet. Your muscles weren't fully developed yet. Were you used
to do things? Were you and the other, like boy soldiers, used to do things
that full-grown men couldn't have done so well to get into spots or do certain
things that would've been harder for a fully grown man?

Mr. BEAH: Yes. I wasn't fully grown yet. I'm a naturally skinny person,
even to this day, so I wasn't fully grown or muscular as some of the other
boys who were slightly older, but I think one of the advantages that--of being
smaller in the context of that madness was that you can actually go into a
village and spy on them without being noticed. You can sit under, you know, a
very tiny shrub and take out a whole village without being noticed. So
actually, being smaller was advantageous in some sense, in terms of gaining
popularity because you could--you're so small. You can, you know, maneuver
yourself pretty quickly where people who are bigger cannot do that. So that
was one of the--I think that's one of the reasons why they recruit children
because, first, they have nothing to lose, and, second, they are smaller and
they can do things that are impossible for adults to do very easily and

GROSS: When you were a child soldier, did you feel like anybody in a
leadership position in the army cared at all whether you lived or died?

Mr. BEAH: Yes. I--you know, when I was in the army I developed a
relationship with a lieutenant who was--I was in the army with and he had a
Shakespeare book, "Macbeth" and "Julius Caesar" that he read a lot. So, and
because when I was a child before the war, I loved Shakespeare and I loved
literature, so I really felt at that time that this was my family, that they
cared about me and that--and I cared about them, and I did everything in my
power to make sure that I was with them and didn't, so that required me going
out and doing whatever they wanted me to do. And at some point, actually, I
became a leader of first squad that went out to sight--you know, scout in
different villages or different rebel camps that we would attack so we could
get ammunition and food that they had. So I--you know, I did feel like that
there was some sort of caring in a very weird way. I mean now, thinking about
it, I have different opinions about that but, at that time, I fully believed

GROSS: What was the most difficult order for you to follow?

Mr. BEAH: I would say there was never a difficult order. I think the first
thing that was very difficult to do was to go into war the first day. The
first day was the most difficult part, but after that, everything became very
easy, you know. Killing somebody became as easy as taking a glass of water
and drinking it, you know. So the first day was the only time that was very
difficult, and after actually the first fight, I had nightmares and I wasn't
myself, but then after that, you know, killing was going on and shooting
people became a reality that I embraced fully and enjoyed to a certain extent,
actually, at that time.

GROSS: What do you mean when you say enjoyed?

Mr. BEAH: Well, for example, you know, when we would go out into villages
that we attacked and we killed everyone and the corporal would, you know, we
would have some prisoners and the corporal will stab a prisoner in the neck
and kill it, and some of us would participate in doing this kind of
exhibitions. We would high-five each other. We would laugh because it was
so, in a sense, it was nice. It was fun to do that to rebels or to whoever we
deemed a rebel or whoever we deemed somebody who sided with the rebels. So,
you know, it became sort of intriguing and joyful in a very weird way, you
know, to watch the corporal or even me or my fellow young soldiers to kill
somebody. We will high-five each other when these things happen. We will
cheer. We will raise our guns in the air and cheer and dance around and did
these things, you know.

GROSS: Ishmael Beah will be back in the second half of the show. His new
memoir is called "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier."

This is a recording by the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite from Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars song)

SIERRA LEONE REFUGEE ALL-STARS: (Singing) "I'm not crazy, I'm not a fool.
I'm not crazy. I'm not a fool. I'm not crazy. I'm not a fool. How can you
just keep fooling me, fooling me, fooling me. How long you been fooling me,
fooling me, fooling me. Every day, you play me the same thing. Every time
you're used to fooling me. You kill me and you waste all my time..."

(End of soundbite)


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to our interview with Ishmael Beah, who's written a memoir
about his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone's civil war. When he
was 15, he was taken to a rehabilitation center and was later adopted by an
American. He's written a memoir called "A Long Way Gone."

How did you end up getting taken by UNICEF to a rehabilitation center near

Mr. BEAH: What happened is that basically one morning I was--I had come,
because my squad had gotten quite big, so I'd come to another town where half
of the squad was and where the lieutenant was based at that time to get more
ammunition and go back to our home base, and so we spent the night there, and
so the following morning a truck came with--at that time I didn't know what
UNICEF was. I never heard of them. I grew up in a village. I didn't know
anything about these kinds of stuff. So, but I saw men wearing blue jeans,
white shirts with somebody holding--I vividly remember the picture with the
picture of, you know, a woman holding a baby up and this thing says in blue
UNICEF on it, and so they went and spoke to the lieutenant, and then the
lieutenant asked a private to have all the boys lined up. And so he basically
walked down the line and selected a few of us to go, so they say it was like a
natural selection process and asked us to drop all guns and follow these
people. They were going to give us a different life. Give us education and
things like that. I was very upset, and I was very confused. I follow
orders, and so I was used to following orders, so I went. But throughout the
trip and going to the rehabilitation the first few months, I was very upset
why I had left this group that I felt so attached to that I felt like it was
mine. It was like my family. Why were they giving me up? So I didn't want
to go on my own accord. It's different. Some children want to go on their
own accord in different contexts of war, but for me, I'd developed such an
attachment that I actually didn't want to go.

GROSS: In your memoir, you write about how you really hated to be told by
civilians at the rehabilitation center what to do. Had you lost your respect
for civilians, including civilians who were doctors and nurses?

Mr. BEAH: Yes. When you've been subjected to the life of being in the army
or, you know, having a gun in your hand in the Sierra Leone civil war, that
gave you a sense of power, a sense of invincibility, and then, all of a
sudden, you were somewhere where these civilians who were like, a day or two
ago you could have decided whether they lived or died, and they're telling you
what to do. It was very, very annoying at that time. and it really got to me
so much. So being in a place--all of a sudden, being put in a place where,
you know, it didn't matter whether you were an adult or not, you know, we'd
lost all of that, you know, that was very cultural to respect
the...(unintelligible). As long as you were not in the army, you were not a
civilian--we even didn't like the city soldiers because we didn't think they
had any expertise in warfare, so it was something that we felt very strongly
about, that had been ingrained in us.

GROSS: When you were brought into the army, when you were recruited into the
army, you were told that every time you had to kill somebody, you should think
of them as being your enemy, the person who killed your family and killed your
friends. When you were in rehab, the line that you heard repeated over and
over again was `It wasn't your fault. It wasn't your fault that you were
forced to kill so many people.' Did that line have any meaning to you when you
first started hearing it from the people at the rehab center?

Mr. BEAH: When I first started hearing that line from people at the
rehabilitation center, actually, frankly, I hated it because I felt like it
was--I did not believe it at all because at that time, I was still on drugs.
I was still, you know, traumatized to a certain extent. I loved what I did,
you know. I didn't think there was anything wrong with it. I didn't think I
should apologize for it or anything of that sort. At that time, I strongly
believed it, so that line really got to me. It really made me very, very

But, as time went on, as time went on--you know, at the rehabilitation center,
we would attack the staff. We would stab them when the food--we would bit
them. Some of them fainted and bleeded and then would go to hospital. They
would come back the next day with a smile on their face, and so over time,
over time, as time went on, it was the way, it was the way they said it. It
was not just the words themselves but it was the feeling behind it and the
genuine feeling behind it, and the way they looked at us that regardless of
what we had been through, what we had participated in, what we had done, they
were still willing to look at us as children. That it was the feeling behind
it, I think, that touched us, that made us start opening up to the individual
staff members we had become close to.

GROSS: So, you know, initially, you didn't feel you had anything to regret.
You weren't guilty about having killed all the people. You thought you did a
good job, and you were kind of proud of it. Was there a turning point for you
when you started to have a different opinion of what you had to do?

Mr. BEAH: Yes, there were several turning points. One of them was that this
nurse that I befriended, slowly, at the rehabilitation center. You know,
she--you know, I could not believe that she was willing to look at me, you
know, with eyes that said, `You're still a kid, you're still a child,' you
know, like `Something must have happened to you but you're still a kid.' So
for me, that was the point that I started, I started kind of getting in touch
with things, and also by being at the rehabilitation center and, you know,
having withdrawn from the drugs and, you know, the trauma was kind of going
down a little bit, so you started to really think about stuff, because during
the war you didn't have time to think and now that you had time to think, now
that you were not taking drugs, none of that was happening, you started to
remember these things. You started to remember things that you did. I
vividly remember some of the things that I have participated in doing, some of
the things that I had seen done that I laughed about. When I would think
about it, when I thought about it then, I would cringe. I would--you know, it
would send shivers down my own spine. So then I began to realize that, you
know, that those were the moments that kind of I began to change, you know.

GROSS: Now you mentioned you were still addicted to cocaine and brown-brown,
that mix of cocaine and gun powder when you went to the rehab center. Did
they help you withdraw from drugs?

Mr. BEAH: Yes. One of the things that they did, because the center, they
didn't let us leave and we had no access to any kind of drugs. We tried to do
different things by breaking into the hospital and taking up tablets and, you
know, grinding them, capsules and mixing it up and taking them just so that we
could get some effect, but that didn't work. So, basically, they put us in a
position where we could not continue taking anything, so, you know, for
several months, you know--or vomit or do different kinds of things. People
would, you know, choke the person next to them. People would run around,
people would punch walls and things like that. So it was like, basically we
had time to--they didn't give us anything, per se, in terms of something that
helped you to kind of bring down your craving. They just--it was just like a
very harsh way. They didn't have any more drugs to take and because of that
the drugs started wearing off you, and so if you fainted or anything like that
or you were being abusive to yourself, then they would kind of give you an
injection that made you sleep for a long time, you know, so that you wouldn't
hurt yourself and things like that, but other than that, they just left us to
kind of...

GROSS: You know, you write in your memoir that while you were a boy soldier,
you didn't feel any pity for anybody who you had to kill, and you really
couldn't allow yourself to, otherwise, you wouldn't have been able to do it.
So, you basically had to shut off, you know, basically al your emotions, and
the drugs, I'm sure, were effective in helping you to do that. So when you
got off the drugs and when you were in rehab, what were the first emotions
that started coming back to you?

Mr. BEAH: Well, first of all, there were a few things. First of all, it was
difficult for me to remember beyond the war because it was very difficult to,
you know--in order to get to the childhood memories, I had to go through the
war memories. So I think one of the things that started happening is that I
started sleeping, which I had actually forgotten how to do very well. So I
started sleeping, and when that happened, I had dreams that went beyond the
war, and so that's how I started getting in touch with my emotions, and also I
started--when I developed this relationship to Esther, you know...

GROSS: This is the nurse.

Mr. BEAH: The nurse...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BEAH: Esther the nurse. When I developed a relationship to her, I
started looking forward to going to see her, which is something that I didn't
have in the war. And also she allowed me to start thinking by giving me the
Walkman with the music that I'd listened to before the war. Those are the
emotions started taking me back to places that I knew as a child, landscapes
that I knew, and you know, it was very difficult to remember these things, you

GROSS: Was there a particular cassette or a particular song that meant a lot
to you that really helped you a lot during the rehab period?

Mr. BEAH: Yes. Before the war, you know, I was a big fan of the reggae
before rap music, so the song, you know, "Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley,
you know, `Don't worry about a thing, everything little thing's going to be
all right.' That really meant a lot to me, and that song, to this day, I
listen to it, you know, every day because it kind of--it makes me hopeful a

GROSS: How long did you spend in the rehab center?

Mr. BEAH: I was in the rehab center for eight months. Now--and because
there were so many children in line, they would have you spend eight months
there and then they would put you with a foster family, but the process I
think continued after that.

GROSS: You went--you were repatriated and sent back to live with your uncle,
who died not long after you went to live with him. What was it like for you
at first to be back in the world, back in the world but not as a soldier?

Mr. BEAH: It was very strange--I mean, you know, I think, you know, turning
a child into a soldier is the easiest thing anyone can do. It's very easy,
once you become violent, but actually it is so difficult to regain your own
humanity, to trust yourself, to have people trust in you. So for me, not
having lived with a family, having, you know, been in a life of violence and
just all of a sudden being around people who were happy, they were smiling,
they would do these things, was very strange for me. There were things that
were so difficult for me to accept because I'd come to believe that, you know,
happiness was fragile, you know, that, you know, and I didn't want to be happy
because I didn't want to swing back and forth between emotions and being happy
and being sad. So I was very--it was very difficult to be part of a family
and to be in the real world, and you know, at that time, the war hadn't
reached the capital city yet, so a lot of people didn't trust us at all so
that made it even difficult. They didn't believe that we could actually
change from what we had been subjected to do or to be a part of. So I
remember like one of the times when I started secondary school, briefly, at
Centero Secondary School in Freetown, going to school the first day, like
looking forward to going to school, and everyone's sitting away from my friend
and I who had been in the rehabilitation center because they'd heard we had
been child soldiers, and sometimes you'd be talking to somebody, you put your
hand in your pocket and people run away because they think you're reaching for
a knife to stab them or things like that so it is very difficult. It is a
process that continues. It is not an emergency thing, but it's one of the
most difficult things really, to feel like you're human again and people to
accept that as well.

GROSS: My guest is Ishmael Beah. His new book is called "A Long Way Gone:
Memoirs of a Boy Soldier."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest, Ishmael Beah, was recruited to fight in Sierra Leone's civil
war. He has written a book called "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy

When you were 17 you were adopted by an American woman. How did you meet her?
How did she adopt you?

Mr. BEAH: Well, after I'd finished rehabilitation and I went to live with my
uncle, an opportunity came to come to the United Nations here in New York to
speak about what was going on in Sierra Leone and how it was affecting
children, and so my mother actually now was one of the facilitators for this
program that I came in, this UN UNICEF-sponsored program that I came to, and
so, you know, during the time of the conference, you know, we kind of knew
each other a little bit, and then when I left, she gave me--I went back to
Sierra Leone after the conference--she gave me her number and I kept in touch
with her, and so when the war reached Freetown, she got me out. It took a
very long time to get to the United States. Finally, in 1998, and I lived
with her and continued school and, yes.

GROSS: One of the things I found really interesting about your memoir was how
important rap music was to you before, during and after your time as a child
soldier in Sierra Leone. You were in a hip-hop group before you were a child
soldier, and in the rehab center, the nurse that befriended you who you really
liked, knew that you liked hip-hop and she got you rap cassettes and stuff.
You write that when you went to New York, you expected it to be like in a lot
of gangsta rap. You thought New York was a place where people shot each other
in the streets and got away with it. How did you first hear rap in Sierra

Mr. BEAH: When I first heard rap--well, my father worked for this company
and it had Americans and Australians who, you know, came into mine certain
minerals in Sierra Leone, so they had an area where we would go, like a
center, where they had television and swimming pool and things like that. So
we would go there and watch television. So I remember going with my
brother--this was when I was seven, eight years old--I remember going with my
brother there and--to swim, and while we were sitting, we saw this music
television that came on, and it was, you know, a bunch of black guys, you
know, speaking really fast in English. We didn't know what it was. They were
speaking really fast in English and to this beat, and we were quite taken by
it. We were, like, wow, you know. We were very surprised, you know. Growing
up, knowing that English is not our first language, seeing black people who
look like us who were speaking in English so fast, and so--they had mastered
the language so--and then in the bottom, my brother wrote the name of it, and
it was the Sugar Hill Gang, you know, the "Rapper's Delight" song. So he
wrote it down and then--so we would come, every other evening to this place to
listen to this kind of music because we were so taken by it. And then later
on, we started to actually listen to it and write the words down and memorize
it and recite it and try to come up. It really gave--for me hip-hop, you
know, opened up a whole different world to me, but also it made me want to go
look in the dictionary to find out what words they were saying, whether I knew
them or things like that. So it was very exciting, actually, at that time.

GROSS: Well, you know, "Rapper's Delight" is a party rap. It's all, you
know, it's just--it's really about bragging. What--of the rap lyrics that you
heard, you know, before you became a soldier, which were the ones that really
meant the most to you in terms of like the language, in terms of what it was

Mr. BEAH: Well, first of all, I really liked the Rakim a lot at that time...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BEAH: know, and some of his lyrics really speak. There's one,
you know, the score, `I know you've got soul,' you know, and he talks about,
you know, being on the mike but also, you know, the verbal conquest of the
mike, finding the right words. It's almost like, you know, like when you rap,
you're speaking directly to your soul, you know, and I know you got soul
inside, so that was one of my favorite ones, but then all the other songs came
along as time went on, you know.

GROSS: And you're still listening?

Mr. BEAH: I still listen to hip-hop. Not so much the current hip-hop
because it's not so--they don't say anything. People rap about the wheels of
their cars and things like that. I'm not interested in that kind of stuff.
But I still listen to the old school rap that I used to, and there's still a
few MC's, you know, that are very good that I still listen to and follow that
have been good since I was young as well, you know.

GROSS: Now that you've been through, not only rehab but you've been to
college in the United States, you work with Human Rights Watch with the
children's rights division advisory committee. You've spoken to UN groups.
I'm sure that you have a much deeper understanding of the meaning of your
experience than--as a child soldier--than you did as you were experiencing it.
So, like, are there things you understand now about your experience and about
what it means to be a child soldier that you couldn't have understood then.

Mr. BEAH: Well, there's a whole range of things. First of all, you know,
the reason why I decided to start speaking about it is because I realized that
I was in a position that I could do this, but also so that--I wanted to put a
human face to this, you know. One of the things that I've wanted--gotten to
understand now is that at that time, I felt like this was OK, that this was
something to belong to. That being at a military base, you know, you
found--you sought safety and being part of the group was something that was
good to do. But now that I've stepped away from it and have reflected on it,
I realized that whether a child voluntarily enter a military group, whether
they're pressed into it, whether even the children pushed into it, which are
different things that happen in different countries that this happens. These
are the different scenarios. That is--you know, it's bad either way, because
you're not psychologically matured to make that decision for yourself and it's
psychologically harmful afterwards, physically for some people as well, and
that there is absolutely nothing romantic about warfare at all. Nothing. It
only brings suffering and suffering and continued suffering to--whether you're
the perpetrator and the victim or people who are in between, things like that,
that there's nothing romantic about war, and that's what I've set out to do in
my work.

GROSS: Well, Ishmael Beah, thank you so much for talking with us, and good
luck to you.

Mr. BEAH: Thank you.

GROSS: Ishmael Beah's new memoir is called "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a
Boy Soldier."

Here's that Bob Marley recording he said means a lot to him.

(Soundbite from Bob Marley's song)

Mr. BOB MARLEY: (Singing) "Don't worry about a thing 'cause every little
thing going to be all right. Singing don't worry about a thing 'cause every
little thing going to be all right. Rise up this morning, smile with the
rising sun. Three little birds beside my doorstep singing sweet song. A
melody pure and true saying this is my message to you. Singing don't

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Coming up, jazz musician Uri Caine and his ensemble reinterpret
Mozart. Kevin Whitehead has a review of their new CD.

This is FRESH AIR.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews Uri Caine's new CD,
"Uri Caine Ensemble Plays Mozart"

A decade ago, jazz pianist Uri Caine began a series of radical retoolings of
music by European composers, such as Mahler, Schumann, Wagner and Beethoven.
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead especially liked Caine's take on Bach's Goldberg
Variations a few years ago. Now Kevin reviews the new CD "Uri Caine Ensemble
Plays Mozart."

(Soundbite from CD "Uri Caine Ensemble Plays Mozart")

Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Uri Caine in the role of a hapless pianist who kicks
off his Mozart a bit too fast and leaves his left hand behind. But once that
hand takes freedom, it makes a run for it, like it harbored a boogie pianist
trying to break out.

(Soundbite from CD "Uri Caine Ensemble Plays Mozart")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: That ability to work subtle and surprising variations on
familiar material is a tribute to Uri Caine's pianist chops, broad musical
knowledge and dry sense of humor. On "Uri Caine Plays Mozart" he doesn't go
digging for the forgotten Wolfie. Instead, he makes a beeline for some of the
world's best-loved melodies and then stuffs them in his blender. He'll play
the music almost straight, move his hands out of sync, like the 19th-century
pianist who invited ragtime, jazz up the rhythms like some swinging '60s
Frenchmen or throw in a little rock and noise.

But Caine's no post-modern coroner slicing up the corpse of old European
culture. Much as he tinkers with the rhythms, he's so attentive to the
melodies, you know he prizes Mozart as living music. His treatments may be
weird, but they're not ironic.

(Soundbite from CD "Uri Caine Ensemble Plays Mozart")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Uri Caine's eight-piece band, including electric guitar and
DJ Olive on turntables meets the pianist on his own ground, tweaking but not
tearing the material. Violinist Joyce Hammann does the heavy classical
lipping. Jim Black does wonders finding a role for the very un-Mozarty drum
set. Shying away from the ride cymbals, he doesn't clash with the high
overtones of violin or Chris Speed's clarinet. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi has the
right combination of jazz feeling and classical chops to nail this stuff.

(Soundbite from CD "Uri Caine Ensemble Plays Mozart")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Mozart's Turkish Rondo stretched across a Turkish five-beat
rhythm, an odd meter recalling Dave Brubeck, back when he cut his "Blue Rondo
a la Turk." True, that had a different Turkish beat, but those are the sorts
of deep connections Caine makes. In the end, his reworkings confirm the power
of Mozart's melodies, both irresistible and indestructible.

"Uri Caine Ensemble Plays Mozart" is a miracle of tone, somehow respectful and
overly familiar at the same time. It makes me wish Caine would turn his
attention next to Charles Ives, an American composer with a taste for musical
role play, humor and exploiting familiar tunes. Then again, after this, maybe
that would seem too easy.

(Soundbite from CD "Uri Caine Ensemble Plays Mozart")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the University
of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for He reviewed "Uri Caine
Ensemble Plays Mozart" on the Winter & Winter label.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite from CD "Uri Caine Ensemble Plays Mozart")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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