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When children are pushed into the fray

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Imagine that, by age 25, the UN had appointed you as its spokesperson, Starbucks had selected your memoir as the second book ever to be offered for sale in its cafes, and Playboy was using you to model leather jackets by Armani.

Compared to all that he's already experienced, adjusting to fame in America should not be a daunting task for Ishmael Beah. That's fortunate, because he is about to become even more well-known for A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, the story of his experience as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, where civil war killed an estimated 50,000 people between 1991 and 2002. By age 12, Mr. Beah had already learned to function in the irrational ways of war and, for four years, he survived as a gun-toting child combatant.

In 1997, UNICEF removed Beah from the fighting, and he eventually went on to attend high school and college in the US. The two lives that Beah has lived are worlds apart, and "A Long Way Gone" is his attempt to bridge the gulf between his comfortable American existence and the violent coming-of-age and rules of combat that he experienced in Sierra Leone. ("A Long Way Gone" was published in the US this month, although excerpts appeared in The New York Times Magazine in January.)

Despite the epithet "child soldier," Beah's memoir focuses largely on his surreal transformation into and out of the killer mentality that war and drugs and circumstances force upon him.

Beah's story begins shortly before his family is captured (and later killed) and his village destroyed by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). He is 12 at the time and spends many months fleeing the violence, running from village to village, first in crusty sneakers and, later, barefoot.


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