Sierra Leone’s child-soldier done good, Ishmael Beah, has published another book following on from his first in 2007, which detailed his gruesome life as a child-soldier and sold over two million copies. Leslie Gordon Goffe met him in New York at the launch of the new book.
Books about child-soldiers sell well. In fact, they sell really, really well. Ishmael Beah’s 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone, which tells of his life as a child-soldier forced to kill in Sierra Leone’s civil war and of his escape later to a new life in America, sold nearly two million copies and was translated into everything from Hungarian to Hebrew.
Time magazine ranked Beah’s memoir as the third best non-fiction book of 2007 and applauded Beah for taking “readers behind the dead eyes of the child-soldier in a way no other writer has”.
“The only wars I knew of were those that I had read about in books or seen in movies such as Rambo, First Blood, and the one in neighboring Liberia that I had heard about on the BBC news,” wrote Ishmael in A Long Way Gone. “The first time that I was touched by war I was 12.”
But Beah’s book and other child-soldier narratives have been dismissed by some critics as little more than “disaster pornography”. Author Myriam Denov, an expert on children and armed conflict, said the narratives contribute to a “gruesome fascination with depicting and commercially benefiting from people’s suffering and degradation”.
This criticism, though, did little to dim sales of Beah’s memoir. And now Beah, 33, who lives in New York City, is back with a new book, a novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, which looks at the struggle by Sierra Leoneans to put the past behind them and look to the future after 11 years of civil war which left 100,000 dead and over a million displaced.
“I wanted to look at why people go back after war and how do they move towards a future when the past is trying to pull at them,” said Beah at an event in New York to launch his new book.
So excited are Americans at the publication of Beah’s new book, there was standing room only at the New York book event. One American admirer shouted from the back of the room: “Mr Beah, it is an honour to be in the same room as you and your spirit! Do you have any wise words for American teenagers trying to make sense of the world?”, the man asked.
“I don’t know everything there is to know,” smiled Beah, a little overwhelmed at the status surviving life as a child-soldier has earned him. “Still, I will never write another Long Way Gone. I did that already.”
The popularity of child-soldier stories means it will be difficult to resist. Others in the mini-genre include Senait Ghebrehiwet Mehari’s 2004 story of life as a child-soldier in the Eritrean Liberation Front. Titled Heart of Fire, the book was released in Germany where she lives.
In 2007, the same year Beah’s memoir came out, Ugandan Grace Akallo’s story of life as a fighter in the Lord’s Resistance Army, Girl Soldier, was also published in the US. And in 2009, the story of Emmanuel Jal’s life as a child-soldier in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, War Child, was published in Britain, where he lives.
“People come to the stories to see and believe that the human capacity to recover is possible,” explains Beah patiently to the audience gathered at the New York book launch. People want, Beah adds, to be convinced that though the human spirit is dulled, it does not fail completely.
A half of the world’s child-soldiers are in Africa, according to a UN report. But children have been forced to fight in wars in Europe and elsewhere since time began. Eight-year-old Momcilo Gavric enlisted in the Serbian army in the First World War. Given medals for fighting, Gavric became a national hero and had memorials dedicated to him.
In the US, the 13-year-old Willie Johnston, who enlisted in the Union Army and fought in the American Civil War, was given the Medal of Honour, America’s highest military honour, awarded for personal acts of valour above and beyond the call of duty.