A long journey: The story of Ishmael Beah

From a child in war to renowned author, human rights activist and Goodwill Ambassador.

Ishmael Beah talks to students in a school
11 November 2020

“I had no desire to survive because I had lost everything. I thought I would become crazy…” The voice of Ishmael Beah still trembles when he recalls the horror of being a child in the midst of one of the deadliest modern-day armed conflicts.

Beah has told the story of his life many times and in many countries. To some of the most influential people in the world, as well as to children who were enrolled in armed forces and groups ─ just as he had been.

The civil war in Sierra Leone lasted 11 years, killing over 50,000 people and forever marking the lives of thousands of children. In 1991, like many other children, Ishmael lost his immediate family – both his parents and his brothers.

A few months later at the age of 13, he was forcibly recruited into the armed forces.

“Being a child in war is difficult. You learn to function in madness very quickly. You have to adapt to your situation in order to survive, and often you are exposed to extreme levels of violence you have never even heard of,” explains Ishmael, who, years later, wrote his memories in a book entitled A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.

The long months of wandering in the endless tropical forest, the blood on his hands, the cruelty of the manipulation and the emptiness of the sudden loss of friends – Ishmael’s story contains everything that should never happen to a child.


“There was a lot of hardship. We had lots of arms and ammunition, but no food and no medicine. Yet, lots of drugs. When you have lost your family and everything, you quickly learn to belong to this group – but to belong to this new group requires violence. Violence becomes the way of showing loyalty.”

For Ishmael, the deadly spiral of violence broke when a group of people came to his regiment and asked for the immediate demobilization of all children recruited by armed forces.

Every time you save a child from war, there is hope.

“They put us in a car and told us we would become children again.” At this point, a new, transformative journey started for young Ishmael.

He still remembers how hostile he was to his first teachers, and the anxiety he felt when his rifle was taken from him. “I was actually very upset, because I knew what it meant to not have a weapon in the context I was in.”

Ishmael spent eight months in a UNICEF-supported demobilization centre in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and slowly recovered from the war. The kindness of the people he met there changed the way he saw the world. By this time, UNICEF had helped trace his uncle Tommy. Even though Ishmael had never before met his uncle, the reunion was a strong emotional moment.

Ishmael was warmly welcomed into his uncle’s family. At that time, Ishmael also joined Saint Edward’s Secondary School, where he discovered the pleasure of writing.

Ishmael in Kabumbeh village, Bimbali district, in Sierra Leone, talks with students learning life skills to support the healthy development of young people.
Ishmael in Kabumbeh village, Bimbali district, in Sierra Leone, talks with students learning life skills to support the healthy development of young people.

“UNICEF’s help gave me hope. It took me out of a very difficult situation, and this is what made all the other things possible for me,” explains Ishmael.

His story continues with an eye-opening trip to the United Nations Headquarters in New York, where he learned that his life could be an inspiration for others.

“After I came out of this experience of being a child in war, I thought to myself: What can I do to give back and make child soldiers understand the possibilities on the other end?” So, I decided to be an example, for people coming out of the struggle, but also for the people who are doing the work to assist people coming out of that struggle.”

Today, as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Ishmael continues to give hope to many children and young people around the world. As his father once told him, “If you are alive, there’s the possibility that something good will happen to you...”

Since the mid-1980s, UNICEF and its partners have advocated for, and secured the release of, children from armed forces in conflict-affected countries, including Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mozambique, Nepal, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda.

More than 100,000 children have been released and reintegrated into their communities since 1998 in over 15 countries affected by armed conflict.