Author still haunted by childhood

Posted: Friday, February 23, 2007

NEW YORK - The nightmares won't stop.

In one, fighters chase him with a gun. In another, he watches a person get mutilated. In a third, someone is hacking his neck with a machete. Yet, years after he left the life of a child soldier in Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah has found a reason for hope in his vivid nocturnal visions: He never dies.

"It almost makes me feel like, you know, that this whole thing will never really get me," Beah says, "that I think I have some sort of inner strength that's able to outlive everything."

Beah is a thin, wiry 26-year-old of medium height with a smile as bright as the sun. He loves Shakespeare and hip-hop and lives in a Brooklyn apartment filled with classic novels and African art. It's hard to believe he was once a drugged-up, rifle-toting boy soldier who sliced men's throats.

In his new memoir, it's clear Beah is still coming to grips with that past life.

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"A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier" tells the tale of the brutal civil war that debilitated Sierra Leone during the 1990s through the eyes of a child not old enough to understand the politics, yet old enough to kill.

Beah's book, now being promoted by Starbucks, traces what the young Sierra Leonean went through when the civil war first touched his life at age 12, and how he struggled to regain his humanity after years of killing.

When the war finally reached his region, Beah found himself separated from his parents and forced to travel with other young boys, seeking refuge in jungles and villages while trying to outpace rebel fighters who lacked any mercy. On dusty roads, sometimes wearing shoes, sometimes without, the children relied on another to stay alive.

They often could not rely on adults. In the disorient of war, people had lost their trust - even in children.

Eventually, Beah and his friends were cornered into taking up arms and joining in the fighting. Government soldiers handed him an AK-47 and trained him to kill. By that time, Beah had learned that much of his family, including his parents and siblings, had died.

"I could not put this book down - it was just an incredible story," said Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment, which picked Beah's book as the second in a series to promote. The company's first book was Mitch Albom's "For One More Day," which sold 92,000 copies through the coffee chain, a sum Starbucks hopes Beah's book can surpass.

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