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Memories of war

by Archives February 5, 2008

Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier, delivered a passionate speech, Sunday; about the horrors of war, the importance of tolerance and his desire to educate the world about his home country, Sierra Leone.
Beah spoke enthusiastically as he delivered inspirational messages to the admiring crowd of over 500 people that packed into McGill University’s Leacock Auditorium.
“The way we live our lives may be different, but each human life is the same. It’s valuable, it’s important. Once we begin to understand that, we actually begin to transcend our understanding of the importance to care for other people, to not hate other people, to live in peace with other people,” said Beah, whose speech also served to promote his best-selling book “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.” The book recounts his memories of the civil war in Sierra Leone, Africa, which he says he fought in for nearly three years – starting when he was just 13 years old.
When he read an excerpt from the book, Beah’s demeanor clearly changed from smiles and enthusiasm to seriousness and focus. The crowd of mostly students hung on his every word as he described the grizzly scene of a blood-covered man weeping on the side of a road because his wife and children had just been killed.
“The reality of war is much harsher than anyone is willing to put on a television screen,” said Beah, talking about the “fascination” western culture seems to have with violence and war.
“People do not really understand what it does to the human spirit. When you take someone’s life, it does something to you. And you have to live with it for the rest of your life.”
After a several years of fighting, Beah was able to escape the war when he was rescued by UNICEF. He fled his home country and landed in New York City, where he attended the United Nations International School, and after that, Oberlin College where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science.
Beah said re-adapting to a society not marred by war was very difficult for him, and took time and patience. He entered a rehabilitation program for child soldiers that taught him to forgive himself for his past and think positively about his life.
“If I looked at the negative aspects of my experience, I would not be able to live. I would die.” Beah used his insomnia as an example of this positive outlook. When he said it gives him much more time to “study and write,” the crowd erupted in laughter.
“He had everyone’s attention and I thought that was so impressive how everyone was just focused on him. It was just so amazing to see a room full of people that were just trying to grasp as much as they can of that positive energy that’s just like.it’s flowing out of him,” said Elena Haba, a student from Marianopolis College who was in attendance.
Representatives from the three groups that organized the event – Hillel McGill, the Student Coalition Against Hate and SHOUT (Students Helping Others Understand Tolerance) – all thought the event was a great success.
“It was wonderful. To see everyone from the audience you know we’re all from different backgrounds: cultural, political, religious and this is just such a powerful message to take and it transcends all those differences,” said Ariel Pulver, chairperson of the Student Coalition Against Hate.
Eloge Butera, a representative of SHOUT said the organizers were very happy with the turnout.

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