Brenda Berck

Can good really come from bad? That seems to be the question that drew 900 people to a UBC-sponsored event in April to hear Ishmael Beah-a young, unknown author-discuss his memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Douglas and McIntyre).

The book's author photo shows a young man with a radiant smile, yet the book's title says he had been a child soldier! If it was more than a publicity photo, if it reflected who Ishmael now is, one could reasonably hope to survive the hell of being a child soldier, or any other hell.

In 1993, when Ishmael was 12, the Sierra Leone civil war (which had begun two years earlier) entered his life when rebels attacked his town while he was away playing with friends. Everyone in the town had disappeared; even the birds had stopped singing. He and his friends ran away, hoping that they would find their families.

After a year of running, they came to an army base, where they thought they would be safe. Instead, they were conscripted as child soldiers. They lived on a diet of amphetamines, marijuana and "brown brown" (cocaine mixed with gunpowder), went for days without sleeping-and killed on command. Their entertainment was to watch war movies at night. "We all wanted to be like Rambo; we couldn't wait to implement his techniques."

After two years of daily killings, Ishmael assumed that this would be his life. And then, in January 1996, four men, wearing white T-shirts that said "Unicef" in big blue letters, drove up, met with the commander, and then, taking a group of boys, including Ishmael, returned to their truck. They drove to Benin Home, a rehabilitation center run by a local NGO, Children Associated With the War.

Ishmael Beah, former child soldier

Deprived of the drugs on which they were now dependent, faced with frightful nightmares once they'd gone through withdrawal, outraged to hear their caregivers say "This isn't your fault, you know," all that the boys knew to do was to destroy: first, their living quarters, and then fight each other and their caregivers. But the caregivers' acceptance of the boys as children, their non-judgmental attitude, and their patience and compassion never wavered.

After considerable therapeutic work, Ishmael was declared rehabilitated and he went to live with an uncle and return to school. Shortly thereafter, the rebels overthrew the government. Knowing he would be killed if the rebels found him, Ishmael at 17 fled the country. He now lives in the U.S.

The audience, which included recent emigrés from Africa, had many questions.

Responding to a question about God, Ishmael said that he knew he had survived because God was looking after him. He clarified that he meant God in a general sense, explaining that he had been Muslim as a child (attending an Islamic elementary school, praying five times a day), attended a Catholic high school and went to church, and stayed in South Africa with some religious Jews. When he finally went to live with his new mother in New York, he discovered that though a Jew, she was a practising Buddhist.

In his book, Ishmael writes: "I came to the conclusion that I survived the war for a reason. That reason was to fight for peace so that the tragedy that befell me would not continue to affect the lives of other children." He quoted his father's parable "good can come from bad", and he encouraged his readers and listeners to take even one step to end the use of child soldiers.

It is estimated that in the more than fifty violent conflicts worldwide, there are some 300,000 child soldiers.

That night, 900 people left the auditorium at John Oliver Secondary with ideas for next steps, their lives touched by the life of this extraordinary young man, reminded that "good can come from bad."

The event was recorded. You can listen to the recording at: