Hundreds of people gathered in the Calvin College Fine Arts Center and many more filled lecture halls and classrooms across the campus on Friday to listen to Ishmael Beah, who fought as a child soldier in Sierra Leone.
Author of the best-selling book “A Long Way Gone: Memoir of a Boy Soldier,” Beah told of a wretched, violent childhood that stripped him of humanity and of the unspeakable acts that he and other young people committed during his country’s bloody civil war.
“It is only through the grace of God and pure luck that I survived the war and can be talking to you here,” said Beah, who spoke as part of Calvin’s January Series.
Also watching and listening were people at remote sites in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and in other cities. This is the first year in which the January Series has been beamed to places beyond the campus.
“I want to explain what war and violence do to the human spirit. As children we were forced to do things that are completely unimaginable to some people,” Beah said. “In my book, I wanted to tell how I felt during the war and I want people to smell and hear and see how things fell apart and I lost my humanity.”
Although Beah didn’t mention it during his talk, the Christian Reformed Church, which owns Calvin College, has a nearly 30-year history of mission and development work in Sierra Leone.
The CRC has been involved in education, job creation and spiritual development since the late 1970s, says Ron Geerlings, Africa director for Christian Reformed World Missions. It recently played a role in helping to organize a new Christian Reformed denomination of churches that sprang up after the civil war in Sierra Leone.
CRC missionaries occasionally found themselves in the midst of the fighting that took place during the war, Geerlings says. “Workers who were there saw the war as planned diabolical terror on civilians. It was as close to hell as anyone could experience.”
The war was recently depicted in the hit movie “Blood Diamond.”
After the deaths of his parents and two brothers in the war, Beah said, he escaped into the bush, hoping to stay clear of the horror and brutality that enveloped his country. But he was recruited to fight as a child soldier.
Drugged with cocaine and marijuana, he fought for more than two years in the forests and villages of Sierra Leone, until he was removed from the army by UNICEF and placed in a rehabilitation home.
He said the path back from the savage place that war had taken him was not easy. “People didn’t believe that child soldiers who went through this could recover,” he said. “But it can happen. Children who go through this can recover.”
He had terrible nightmares, awful withdrawal from the drugs, and trusted no one for a long time. It took him many months and the support of people from UNICEF and elsewhere to lead him out of the dark place inside himself that he had been forced to live.
After he had started to recover from the trauma, he was invited to attend a conference at the United Nations to talk about his experience. That was the start of career as a writer and the teller of the story of his life as a child soldier.
“I’m one of the very lucky ones who was able to rediscover my humanity and to realize that there are other things that I can do with my life,” he said.
Beah says he started to write the book while a student at Oberlin College. Dredging up the past was not easy, he says. He did it because he believes he has the responsibility to tell his story to as many people as possible. As he does so, he particularly tries to pass on a crucial message that applies to everyone who suffers pain, loss or trauma.
“The human spirit is capable of finding hope in hopelessness itself,” he said. “The human spirit is amazingly resilient.”