Pop Culture Finds Lost Boys

7 minute read
Belinda Luscombe

Ishmael Beah doesn’t realize it, but he’s about to become a rock star. Well, the literary-humanitarian equivalent of a rock star. (I’ll eat my hat if he does not meet Bono in the next 12 months.) Beah, 26, slight and handsome with a ready but wary smile, has written a memoir, and it’s a doozy. Separated from his parents at 12 when rebel soldiers attacked his Sierra Leonean village, by 13 he was a child soldier and a drug addict. By 19 he was living in the U.S., at Oberlin College, in Ohio. In February he’s starting on a book tour.

Beah’s book, A Long Way Gone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 229 pages), which comes out this month, is a breathtaking and unself-pitying account of how a gentle spirit survives a childhood from which all the innocence has suddenly been sucked out. It’s a truly riveting memoir. But just as crucial to its success is its arrival at what might be called a cultural sweet spot for the African child soldier. The kid-at-arms has become a pop-cultural trope of late. He’s in novels, movies, magazines and on TV, flaunting his Uzi like a giant foam hand at a baseball game. He’s in the latest James Bond movie and The Last King of Scotland and is the key plot point of Blood Diamond. His American cousin was on the most recent season of HBO’s The Wire. The Gorillaz have a song about him. The Onion.com has a parody.

Why the sudden prominence? As a symbol of a situation gone rancid, the weaponized child is nigh on irresistible. Aristotle would call him the essence of tragedy, a figure who inspires both pity and fear. Directors would call him a great scene setter. Even in an age when it’s hard to get people to agree even on what they disagree about, nobody lobbies for sending children into battle, and the people who put them there serve as the kind of villains any storyteller would love. The first person the controversial International Criminal Court will try is a Congolese warlord accused of conscripting kids.

Hollywood, currently nursing a weapons-grade crush on Africa, has also turned its klieg lights on the plight of its children. Perhaps you heard about a couple of celebrities adopting kids from there? Fascination with the continent’s woes dates back to Bob Geldof’s famine-relief concerts in the mid-’80s. Bono picked up the baton in the ’90s, and now every African nation seems to have its own celebrity benefactor. George Clooney has made the situation in Darfur one of his key talking points. Madonna is building an orphan center in Malawi. Brad Pitt helped produce and Nicole Kidman narrates God Grew Tired of Us, a documentary currently in cinemas about the Lost Boys of Sudan. It follows the lives of youngsters who, separated from their parents, banded together and walked more than a thousand miles to escape the civil war. As some of them eventually are resettled in the U.S., they face a whole new set of challenges (including escalators and freezers).

The journey of the Lost Boys is poignant and engrossing, but it’s not unfamiliar. Beah, however, is a new breed; he’s not just a victim but a perpetrator. For almost the first time, we are seeing life from behind the dead eyes of a killer child. And life is not good. How many people did he kill? “I really have no idea,” Beah says during an interview in Paris, where he is taking some time off before his publicity tour. “I never thought to keep count. We attacked civilians, villagers–anyone the commander deemed was an enemy; we killed them. If you thought they maybe aided the rebels, you shot them. If they withheld food, you shot them. And if you came across a group of refugees who appeared too quickly, or gave you some reason to suspect–you shot them too.”

Beah was in a nearby town performing with a little dance-and-rap troupe in 1993 when his village was torched by rebel soldiers. After many months of privation and searching for his parents, he fell into the hands of the Sierra Leonean army. It offered protection for a while–and then conscription. Fueled by anti-rebel lectures, constant war movies, speed pills and “brown-brown” (cocaine mixed with gunpowder, which the soldiers sniffed), Beah became a killing machine. “That was your life,” he says of his two years of endless fighting. “That’s what you did unless you wanted to stop and die.” His lieutenant liked him–they discussed Shakespeare–and when the order came to disarm the children, he was one of the first chosen to be rehabilitated.

From the rehabilitation camp where he was weaned off drugs and violence (not an easy task; Beah calls the workers there “truly heroic”), the former soldier went to live with an uncle. But the civil war was not over, and his uncle died, so Beah, who had visited New York City in 1996 as a guest of the U.N., eventually was adopted by a woman he met then. He went to school and college. And now, in one of those American-dreamlike turns, he’s going on a 10-city book tour sponsored by Starbucks.

Starbucks? Yep. The company that brought the word venti into daily use has become a purveyor of solidly middlebrow culture to go with its joe. Beah’s is the second book it has chosen to feature in its 6,000 stores. Its first was by best-selling male weepmeister Mitch Albom (he of those Tuesdays with Morrie), which suggests how far the child-soldier has moved as a phenomenon for mass consumption.

U.N. figures put the number of child soldiers at about 250,000, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Even for those who are no longer fighting, the future is bleak. “That is the stage we usually fail them,” says Olara Otunnu, a friend of Beah’s and a former undersecretary general to the U.N. “Child soldiers may be, for want of a better word, the most sexy category of children affected by war; but they are not the only ones.” Sometimes families cannot be found or refuse to take the ex-soldiers in; sometimes they can’t kick the drugs; frequently they return to soldiering.

Beah escaped this fate and thrived, he says, through pure luck. But he’s one of those very quick studies who could have succeeded anywhere. He learned to kill fast, and he learned how to blend in at an American high school fast. Even in Paris, he looks as relaxed as any tourist. Of course, what he did and endured has long contrails. His migraines have gone, but the faces of people on the street will sometimes remind him of people he killed and of the very bad days of his youth. It’s not what he did, though, that most disgusts him. It’s what he was. “The thing that causes me to wince most is when I remember all the really bad stuff we did that I laughed at,” he says. “You wonder how anyone with a soul could do that.”

Now that the celebrity-entertainment complex has its huge eyeball trained on the issue of child soldiers, the danger is that they will become trivialized–cheap, ubiquitous images, dropped in like clip art for a hit of emotion and danger. But with a memoir as vivid as Beah’s, the clear-eyed tale of a child determinedly pursuing his own humanity against all odds, the spotlight may yet produce more than just titillation.

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