Ishmael Beah was 13 years old when he was forced to become a child soldier in Sierra Leone in the early 1990s. But in his introduction to a packed room last night, Professor Samantha Power said that, since then, “he has become a rock star of epic proportion.”
He spoke at the Institute of Politics last night as part of “I Was A Child Soldier,” a forum on the causes and implications of the conscription of children.
“I still like to think of myself as a very simple young man,” Beah said, but he has already spoken in front of the United Nations, appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and written an article for the New York Times Magazine, and published a book on his experiences.
His appearance filled all the seats in the Littauer building.
Power, who is the Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy, and Jacqueline Bhabha, the Executive Director of Harvard’s Committee on Human Rights Studies, asked Beah about how he thought the availability of light arms encouraged the use of child soldiers.
Beah captured the attention of his audience not only with his opinions, but also with personal anecdotes from his life in Sierra Leone and after, in rehabilitation programs and the United States.
When asked by Bhabha whether child soldiers should be viewed as victims or perpetrators, Beah said that the recruiters do not exactly pose the question, “Would you like to join us? Walk around the block and think about it.”
A high school senior from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High, Dan M. Glanz, said “The whole notion was pretty shocking, to know that he saw a war when he was younger than I am now.”
Beah also discussed the arrival and purpose of his bestselling new book, ‘A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier.’
“I felt the need to write because I was remembering the children who were still there,” he said.
Jacqueline Bhabha said she hopes Beah’s presence will drive home the reality of the effect of warfare on children.
“I hope it makes people realize how many important human rights issues there are that really need intelligent attention,” she said.
Beah said that in the past he could not accept that his involvement in the war was not his fault.
At the end of the evening, Power asked him whether he still believes that now.
Beah replied that he had finally recognized he was in fact a victim.
He won a standing ovation and a crowd gathered around Beah as the room slowly emptied. One audience member, Carr Center member Rahim B. Kanani, said at the end of the night, that he, like Power, had been convinced.