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Our Common Humanity

By Ishmael Beah
photo Ishmael signs copies of his book after speaking at the SGI-USA New York Culture Center  [Kirk Condyles]

Ishmael Beah was 13 when he was forced to become a soldier in Sierra Leone's civil war, which had already claimed the lives of his immediate family. In A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, he describes this experience and the two years he spent fighting in that war before entering a rehabilitation camp for former child soldiers and going to live in the United States with Laura Simms, who became his mother. His book has become an international bestseller. The article below is an edited excerpt from an address he gave on May 12, 2008, at the SGI-USA New York Culture Center, as part of SGI-USA's "Culture of Peace Distinguished Speaker Series."

I didn't write this book just to explain what had happened to me. This book came out of frustration. And it speaks to the idea of promoting respect for all human rights.

When Sierra Leone began appearing on the news, the way it was spoken about was as if it had always had a civil war. We became known to the international community because of the war--Sierra Leone equals civil war and amputation, madness and nothing more. People could not see the Sierra Leone that existed before the war: the place where I grew up, where I went to school, learned Shakespeare, where I listened to American hip-hop; a place with a very strong community--there was storytelling in the evening where you sat around and adults told stories to young people. All of these things disintegrated because of the war.

When this country was spoken about, that context wasn't there. And when people don't see that context, it brings about a sense of hopelessness--there's no presence of humanity within the telling of the story.

Because of the way stories are told about other places, there's an absolute need for us to expose ourselves to the world, to learn about other places and other people. When we do so, we see those people are as human as we are--they have the same human tendencies, desires, needs and wants. Then we begin to value their lives--even if they don't have electricity or tap water.

I think respect for human rights really comes down to the willingness of people to understand that, regardless of how people live their lives and the circumstances they're in, the sacrosanct nature of each human life is the same.

I don't think we have gotten to that point as human beings where we truly believe that all life is valuable. We put a different value on different lives. I think that is the biggest problem, because once we begin to understand that each person's life is absolutely valuable, regardless of what our differences are, that would compel us to try to defend that life, to try to take care of it when it's threatened.

So I wanted to put that human context in the story, but more importantly, I wanted to speak about the strength of the human spirit, particularly of the children who were dragged into this war; not only how they fall into this madness, but how they come out of it--the possibility that is there. Some of us have been able to see that strength because life has thrown us into difficult times, but all of us have that strength within us, and I want people to really believe that.

The Cost of War

What I learned after I came out of this war is that when you are in a violent situation, one that only creates fear and distrust, it doesn't even allow you the luxury to know yourself, to know your own capacity to do something else. What fear and intimidation does is prevent you from connecting with people, from seeing other people's humanity.

I wanted to show people, particularly young people, that violence, war, is not as romantic and fascinating as people think it is. There's a fascination with it because people are removed from the reality of it.

You see Hollywood films where somebody is going into battle and there is music in the background--rock 'n' roll! Somebody in a gunfight will pull out their phone and call their wife or girlfriend to tell them they love them. These are Hollywood realities of what war is like. The reality of war--there is no background music first of all! Second, you don't have the luxury to call your girlfriend. You don't have the luxury to even love yourself.

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During war you dehumanize other people in order to take their lives. But when you dehumanize somebody, when you hate somebody severely even without war, what it does, in reverse, is that you hate yourself and you dehumanize yourself. And it takes a lot of undoing to undo that, regardless of what the reason is for that war. But people don't want to believe these things because then we would not have people joining armies to fight.

When I was in the war, apart from the coercion, one of the motivating things about it was that we would avenge the death of our families. I really believed it deeply. But when I was removed from the war and I began to make friends with kids who were in the different groups that fought the war, I found out they had been told the same rhetoric. They were told we were responsible for what had happened to them and that we didn't deserve to live. Everyone had the same rhetoric but a different enemy. So we went out with this hate, and we took other people's lives who had nothing to do with what had happened to us. And the people who survived those massacres had more reason to be part of this madness. We were creating a cycle of violence.

When I was removed from the war and learned this reality, it was so difficult for me to handle: to understand that we have actually perpetuated this thing, when we thought we were doing something to prevent it. I realized that revenge doesn't do anything for anyone at all. It's only through forgiveness that understanding comes about.

The Power of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is also a word that people throw around quite a lot. It's not easy--it's absolutely difficult. When you forgive somebody, it allows you to transform the situation, so that people can learn from it. But forgiveness has a practical side too. It's not just about saying, "I forgive you." It's also a process.

When I was a child in Sierra Leone, when someone wronged another in the community the punishment was you spent time with the person you have wronged helping them work on their farm. When you have to eat from the same plate, you have to rest together, you have to go to the river together--you repair the relationship that has been damaged.

Punitive measures do not really provide us the understanding of how to prevent the reoccurrence of something that has happened.

So for me, the willingness to see people's humanity, to learn to forgive, to learn about other people's lives and culture--when we can do these things I think it will be very difficult to make a case for war.

photoIshmael speaks as part of SGI-USA's "Culture of Peace Distinguished Speakers Series"

I am always quite amazed when I go to conferences where there are youth from all over the world--from Brazil, from Iraq, from Afghanistan--and they all sit in the room and they talk. Sometimes people say, "Well, what will that really do?" Perhaps nothing comes of it, but what is important is that people make friends with other people of the world.

Ten, 15 years from now, if any of those kids who were in that room becomes a leader in Afghanistan or Iraq or the United States, they're less likely to engage in war.

There is so much that is overwhelming when you turn on the television, when you read the news, people sometimes feel that there's nothing they can do: "What will my contribution do? The problem is so big." If everyone felt that way, then none of the problems would be fixed. If everyone had thought, "Oh, these kids that are dragged into this war--it's sad, but what can I do?" I wouldn't be standing in front of you. I am, because there are people who are willing to say, "Alright, we can do our part." Each one of us, our contribution is absolutely valuable and important. "We went out with this hate, and we took other people's lives who had nothing to do with what had happened to us. And the people who survived those massacres had more reason to be part of this madness." "Once we begin to understand that each person's life is absolutely valuable, regardless of what our differences are, that would compel us to try to defend that life, to try to take care of it when it's threatened."

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