War, Education & International Justice: Ismael Beah's Journey From Child Soldier to Activist Storyteller

03/04/2015 02:54 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

It's not every former child soldier who has a memoir on the New York Times bestseller list. Or has the Washington Post's reviewer declare that, "everyone in the world should read this book." Ismael Beah's A Long Way Gone is a phenomenon, selling 1.5 million copies and even being offered over the counter at Starbucks alongside your morning frappuccino.

A Long Way Gone tells the story of the day the civil war in Sierra Leone came to Beah's home town. Displaced and separated from his family, he wanders from village to village with his boyhood friends trying to stay ahead of the rebels who are laying waste to everything in their path. Beah eventually becomes a child soldier and, by his own admission, partakes of acts of bloodthirsty revenge against Revolutionary United Front rebels and their supporters. He is then rescued by UNICEF who help him rehabilitate himself. Finally, through luck, talent, and sheer determination, he makes his way to a new life, and high school, in New York in 1998.

Published 10 years later, A Long Way Gone is nothing if not compelling storytelling. There has been criticism about the accuracy of Beah's personal timeline, but no one has challenged his central claim that he was both a victim and perpetrator of war and bloodshed. It may have been safer for A Long Way Gone to be published as autobiographical fiction, but Beah's activism since his book came out - speaking for human rights organizations and as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations - point to his deep commitment to fix what is broken in himself and with the world.

My own work brings me into contact with children of war from time to time. For example, some years ago I was helping lead a program to Rwanda that involved taking African university students from countries in conflict and exposing them to survivors and perpetrators of the fastest genocide of the twentieth century. Over just 100 days in 1994, more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were murdered, mainly with machetes, farm implements, and other improvised weapons, as the world sat on its hands.

Our itinerary included a visit to the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village where, following a model originally developed by Holocaust survivors in Israel, families had been constructed with orphans from the genocide. As we arrived, one of our students, I'll call him Terry, became very agitated. As the rest of us slowly strolled towards where some of the orphans were waiting, Terry strode ahead, kicking up dust. He desperately wanted to share an emotional reunion with children he had never met before.

As a young boy thrown into the chaos of the 1991-2002 civil war in Sierra Leone, Terry had lost his family and ended up in a foreign orphanage. It took many years and much heartbreak before Terry discovered that his mother had actually survived the war and he was able to return to a country that he only half remembered. Ultimately, education saved Terry. The Catholic nuns who raised him during the civil war later offered him a scholarship to go study in South Africa. He told me he felt he had closed some sort of circle within his soul when he sat with the Rwandan orphans at Agahozo-Shalom.

I also recall something that General Roméo Dallaire, the former commander of the embattled and abandoned United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force in Rwanda, once told me. The most afraid he had been during the 1994 genocide was when he had to face child soldiers at roadblocks run by the genocidaire. The adults he could negotiate with, but the child soldiers' unpredictability and volatility meant that his life was literally often in the hands of a young boy with his finger on the trigger of a gun or on the handle of a machete. Since the genocide Dallaire has been an inspiring campaigner against mass atrocity crimes, and he also leads the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative, aimed at ending that iniquitous practice across the world.

The political and moral overlap between these concerns is obvious. While Dallaire is a patron of my organization, Beah sits on the International Advisory Board of Dallaire's Child Soldier Initiative. The group I work for has also been involved with the UN Security Council's efforts to permanently end the threat posed by the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) in central Africa.

Started by the homicidal warlord Joseph Kony in northern Uganda in 1987 as a religiously-inspired militia, the LRA has perpetrated atrocities across central Africa for decades. In a 2013 report the UN claimed that between 1987 and 2012, the LRA was responsible for 100,000 deaths and abducted at least 60,000 children. The LRA's penchant for mutilating its victims and carrying out terrifying massacres of entire villages made it one of the most notorious groups of mass killers on the African continent.

Although Kony still eludes capture the LRA is not, thankfully, the threat it once was. Its forces have dwindled, Kony is hiding deep in the bush somewhere, and as I write this, one of the LRA's few surviving senior commanders, Dominic Ongwen, is sitting in a prison cell in The Hague. Ongwen was captured in January in the Central African Republic. After complex negotiations he was surrendered to the International Criminal Court (ICC) where he is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. The charges stem from numerous atrocities Ongwen perpetrated with the LRA, including a ferocious attack on a displaced persons camp in Uganda in 2004.

What is less well known about Ongwen is that he is also a former child soldier. In 1990 Ongwen was abducted by the LRA in Uganda while on his way to school. He was just 10 years old. Although he was first used as slave labour, Ongwen later rose to be one of the most feared, and fearless, of Kony's officers. In 2005 Ongwen made history when he was the first person to ever be charged by the ICC for a crime that he was also a victim of - enslavement.

Ongwen's childhood was stolen from him as he was stolen by the LRA. But Ongwen's fighters also abducted civilians and left a trail of death across central Africa. This dark moral terrain between victim and perpetrator is a landscape that also belongs to Ismael Beah.

In a few weeks I am scheduled to visit South Sudan, a country born of war that, after two years of independence, has plunged back into catastrophic armed conflict. It has been estimated that 12,000 children have been recruited by armed groups fighting on both sides of the civil war. My organization and other human rights groups have documented atrocities, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed in South Sudan, including the use and abuse of child soldiers.

I will find it hard not to think of Ismael Beah's memoir of suffering during my visit. But it is Beah's redemption and reeducation that gives me hope. And when all is said and done, that is his story's enduring power.

Ismael Beah will speak at NAFSA's annual conference in Boston this summer.

Simon Adams, PhD, is the executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and a member of the NAFSA Board of Directors.