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A killer at 13, a writer at 26

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Ishmael Beah killed his first man when he was 13 years old. Born in Sierra Leone, he was recruited by the government to fight rebels as a child soldier in a civil war that raged throughout the 1990s. Shortly before Beah began his stint as a child soldier, his entire immediate family was murdered by rebels, and that — along with a hard diet of Rambo movies and ”brown brown” (a sniffable mixture of cocaine and gunpowder) — fueled the bloodlust of a formerly very gentle kid.

”The corporal gave the signal with a pistol shot and I grabbed the man’s head and slit his throat in one fluid motion,” reads one shocking sentence in A Long Way Home, Beah’s new memoir about his experiences as a boy soldier. (See the EW review.) But the book is not just a harrowing confession of past atrocities. Beah was lost for a time, but after an intervention by UNICEF got him into a rehabilitation center when he was 16, he’s turned his life around in a major way. Since 1998, the Oberlin College graduate, now 26, has lived in New York City and done activist work related to his experiences in Sierra Leone.

His profile is sure to be boosted by — of all things — Starbucks, which began selling Beah’s memoir in stores today. After Mitch Albom’s For One More Day novel from late last year, it’s only the second book Starbucks has shilled (and it’s donating $2 for every book sold at Starbucks to the U.S. Fund for UNICEF). EW talked to Beah about his book, the power of Starbucks and celebrity when it comes to Africa, and his future.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are you amazed to be alive today?
ISHMAEL BEAH: Yes. I think about that a lot. I feel that either there was some other thing — God or something else — looking out for me, or I’m just really lucky. Because that war was such madness. Surviving a minute of it didn’t have to do with whether you knew how to fight, or whether you were smart, or whether you knew how to run fast. It had nothing to do with any of that.

How long were you a boy soldier?
About two years and a few months. From 13 to 15, or so.

In the book, you talk about having flashbacks about the war. Do you still have them today?
Yes. Those memories of the war are now part of my makeup. But I think I’ve been able to transform them, so that I can use them positively, rather than focus on their harshness, because that would actually kill me — there’s so much bad stuff. But I still get flashbacks. When I look at different things, it triggers memories for me.

What’s an example?
Walking down the street and seeing an entire family — Mom, Dad, and things like that — reminds me of what I missed, of what I will never have. Or I hear a sharp crack on the street, it reminds me of a day in the war. Things like that. But I’ve learned to not lose myself in these instances.

What do you think about Starbucks picking your book to sell in its stores?
I want this book to be read by so many people, by ANYONE who can lay their hands on it. So I’m very excited.

Lately it seems like Africa is getting a lot of attention, but I feel like it’s only because people like Brad Pitt — and now companies like Starbucks — are drawing attention to it. It doesn’t feel like politicians or the media are talking about it. It’s celebrity power. What do you make of that?
Yes, it’s a strange thing that has happened in the United States, but at least celebrities are using their fame and their power to do something, you know? I think that’s absolutely fabulous. If there aren’t huge atrocities being committed, it’s not newsworthy for a lot of people. But when a celebrity speaks about it, then it becomes newsworthy, because the celebrity is newsworthy, so I’m glad that they’re using that. Now it almost seems like if you were to call a conference and say, ”I’m an expert on genocide or human rights,” no one would show up. But if you have Angelina Jolie be a part of it, then all of a sudden, [all the] media will be there.

Yeah, I hear people say, ”Brad and Angelina should stop talking about Africa,” and I always think, ”It’s GOOD they’re talking about Africa, because nobody else really is.”
Yeah, exactly! Thank God they are, because they might actually lead somebody to go online and learn something. No one else is doing that, not the politicians.

During the war, what was the most horrifying thing you witnessed?
There are so many. The entire war was a long terror — one after another, a long nightmare. But before I was in the army, when I was still running away from the war, I had seen an old man have his head bashed with a huge rock. That memory stuck with me, because I just couldn’t believe his brains were on the rock. Having grown up in a culture that was so friendly and loving and kind, caring to strangers and everyone, seeing this kind of thing was very difficult for me to stomach. My world changed rapidly overnight, and everything became brutal and violent.

I read that you don’t now how many people you killed, and you didn’t just kill rebels. Is that true?
Well, in the context of the war, and the kind of war it was, [killing] was what everyone did. But, you know, the point of the book is not for me to be proud of myself for what happened. And it’s not like I was in the war and I was thinking to myself, ”Ooh, five down! I want to write a book so I need to keep count of who I shot.” Also, the point of the book is not to glorify or romanticize war. The number of this or that is not the point of the book.

I was impressed by the book’s very calm tone. Is it much easier to kill, or watch somebody being killed, than people think it is? Do you get used to it?
One thing I tried to do in the book was write it as I felt then, not how I feel now, because during that time we were in this context of madness. What happens is you accept your reality, because if you don’t, you’ll die, basically. You accept it, and become desensitized to things. For example, toward the end of the war, people would say, ”Oh, don’t go out, because guns are being shot over there.” But then two or three days later, people will accept that they must go out and find food, and risk all those bullets. So it’s a choice that you make. You either stay home and die, or you go out and look at bodies. Over time, you accept it.

How long did it take you to assimilate to life in the U.S. after you moved here in 1998?
One thing I learned in the war was to adapt very quickly to wherever I am, so that helped me here. But it was very difficult in the United States, because everything was very different. First of all, I didn’t know the names of the food, so I couldn’t even go out to a store and say, ”Let me get a roast beef sandwich.” I didn’t know what that meant! [Laughs] I couldn’t order any of that kind of stuff. So it took me a while to learn these kinds of things. And one thing I didn’t like very much was that when I made friends, I had to call them to go see them, make plans. In Sierra Leone, you just show up at your friend’s house, because you’re friends. I had to get used to calling somebody before I showed up at their house here.

When did you decide to write the book?
When I was in college at Oberlin. But I didn’t take it seriously until my junior year, because by then I’d been going around speaking out about the issue on U.N. panels and for Human Rights Watch and all those places. Then it really struck me that getting 15 minutes on a panel wasn’t really enough for me to describe how this happens. So I realized that writing a book could actually be a much more powerful way to talk to people.

And you took creative writing courses in college?
Yeah. I had a professor at Oberlin [Dan Chaon, a novelist himself] who pushed me to do it [as a memoir]. Because when I wrote the first few pages under the pretense of fiction, just to test it out, my professor said to me, ”Either you have a really sick imagination, or all this stuff is true.” So I told him it was true, he pushed me to finish, and before I finished college I had a draft of it.

At one point in the book, your interest in rap and hip-hop literally saves your life. Are you still a hip-hop fan now?
I listen to all kinds of stuff. I still listen to hip-hop, but the hip-hop nowadays is basically nonsense. It’s people rapping about, you know, the tires of their cars and things like that. I started listening to hip-hop because of the poetry. I still listen to hip-hop, but just the MCs who are still holding it down, like Common, OutKast, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def. I listen to people who have substance in their stuff.

What’s next for you? Want to try fiction?
Yes! I’m actually working on a novel right now about the war and Sierra Leone and families and things of that sort.

Want to write another memoir?
It depends. I’m gonna try fiction, but [A Long Way Gone] ends when I get out of Sierra Leone, and there’s a whole lot that happened after that. If people are interested, perhaps I can write another memoir. And I haven’t given up the idea of going to law school. But I’m only 26, man. I’ve had a rough childhood and everything, but I still have to learn about life! I’m just like any other American kid who’s confused about what they want to do.

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