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Ishmael Beah’s New Battles

Former boy soldier Ishmael Beah takes on new battles

There’s no couch in Ishmael Beah’s New York City loft. The elevator opens to a long narrow room, empty save for a few X-shaped wooden African chief’s chairs, a bunch of pillows on the floor and a massive dining table. There’s one cluttered corner of cushions, books and a tall stand where Beah writes. But the kitchen is modern–his pregnant Congolese wife Priscillia and Iranian mother-in-law are cooking in there, and in the corner is a big fancy rock-star drum set.

Beah is getting good at living between two worlds. He has the odd distinction of being one of his continent’s most famous literary and military figures, thanks to his 2007 memoir A Long Way Gone, which introduced millions of readers to the plight of the boy soldier. The book details his life from 13 to 16 years old, the deaths of most of his family, his coercion into serving in Sierra Leone’s army, his battles (usually fought hyped up on “brown-brown,” a cocktail of cocaine and gunpowder) and his rescue and subsequent difficulties re-entering civilian life.

Now a huge international best seller, it has not changed things much for him in Sierra Leone. “When I go to buy a beer, people say, ‘You have to pay first,’ because they assume I can’t afford it,” he says. Having been invited to meet the President on one of his twice-yearly trips, the author was blocked by guards who declined to believe he was that Ishmael Beah.

He’s short and soft-spoken and looks much younger than 33, which may be what throws people off. In Sierra Leonean culture, respect is usually directed the way of old people. What made the civil war that knifed through his country from 1991 to 2002 so destructive, says Beah, was that boys, enlisted by both sides, killed elders. The elders’ job is to protect the young; when they feared them instead, it made resuming normal life much more complicated.

This is the territory that Beah’s new book, Radiance of Tomorrow, explores: how communities knit together after such an unraveling. It’s set in a village not unlike his home, Mogbwemo. An old woman emerges from the forest and begins to clear away the bones of the victims, much as Beah’s grandmother did. She is joined by other survivors–a girl with a baby she hasn’t named, a family who lost all their possessions, a father and his children who are all amputees–and former boy soldiers, one of whom is likely the amputater.

The villagers’ biggest obstacles, however, are not one another but forces beyond their control. “I realized as I talked to people that everybody thinks that peace means the absence of any challenge,” says Beah, who noticed a sharp drop-off in interest in his homeland’s destiny after the fighting ceased, as if living there were now a cakewalk. “The radiance and beauty of life is that people are able to move on with their lives even with the backdrop of all these difficulties.”

Beah has had his own trials. A year after A Long Way Gone came out, an Australian newspaper ran a series of articles questioning its veracity, including his length of service in the army. The paper’s interest was sparked when an Australian mining executive in Sierra Leone met a man who claimed to be Beah’s father, a claim that proved to be false. Former soldiers don’t lose their cool easily, but Beah bristles a little at this subject. “Nobody would ever do this, for example, to a Holocaust survivor,” he says about the suggestion that his father was alive. “Nobody would ever bring up stuff like that and not apologize, but, fine, you can do it to an African person. I just let it go.”

In any case, the controversy hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for the memoir. Beah went on what he calls “the world’s longest book tour”–about three years–before scaling back to write the novel. Gone has been translated into more than 30 languages and is now required reading at many schools and universities.

With the fancy Manhattan loft, a growing family and the remunerative writing career, it’s tempting to see Beah as a classic American success story. That’s an impression the author is at pains to dispel. He has little intention of staying in the States and is adamant that it is Sierra Leone, not the U.S., that made him. “Where I was destroyed was where I was formed again,” he says. He points to former army comrades who stayed in Africa and are successful there–some of them in the army.

Beah’s already investing in Sierra Leone. He wants to help move the country’s oral storytelling tradition to a literary one. “When you allow other people to write your history or literature, you give them permission to be in charge of not only how you function but even how you dream,” he says. If creating a national literary voice doesn’t sound quite ambitious enough, he also barely disguises his intention to run for political office.

While Beah still has vestigial shadows from his past life, he believes they have less power than they once did. “Now if I have a nightmare, I wake up and think, O.K., one of those,” he says. Time has helped; success more so. “One of the best therapies is to have opportunity in your life. Then you know you are capable of something else.”

In his side job as a UNICEF counselor for kids who are just being extracted from conflict, Beah recognizes the wariness that comes with no longer carrying a weapon. “I tell them the future is going to be very difficult,” he says. “But you’ve already done the most difficult part–you’ve survived.”

This appears in the January 20, 2014 issue of TIME.
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