Ishmael Beah (@IshmaelBeah) is a former child soldier, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and the New York Times bestselling author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and Radiance of Tomorrow: A Novel. His latest book is Little Family: A Novel.
What We Discuss with Ishmael Beah:
- What the volatility of life in a warzone is really like from the perspective of a child.
- How desperation drives human beings to rationalize committing any number of atrocities to survive.
- Why trusting old neighbors, friends, and even family in the midst of a civil war can arouse suspicion and cost you your life.
- The choice for all too many children in an area embroiled in armed conflict: accept recruitment into one of the factions as a soldier, or be killed before someone else can recruit you.
- How rap music saved Ishmael’s life.
- And much more…
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Currently, an estimated 300,000 child soldiers are exploited as pawns in over 50 conflicts across the world. And before becoming a New York Times bestselling author, our guest Ishmael Beah spent almost three years of his early adolescence conscripted into service by the government army against the rebels during the Sierra Leone Civil War in the ’90s. He witnessed unfathomable atrocities while committing a number of his own before escaping and finding his way to a foster family in New York, where he was given a second chance at life.
On this episode, Ishmael joins us to discuss the events chronicled in his book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Here, we explore what surviving in a warzone looks like from a child’s eye view, how desperation can dispel any semblance of civility from otherwise rational human beings and compel them toward acts of shocking barbarity, and what it takes for someone to return to civilization after being forced to participate in such brutality beneath the ever-present shadow of death.
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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Miss our two-parter with professional pickpocket Bob Arno? Start catching up with episode 530: Bob Arno | Schooled by the Professor of Pickpocketry Part One here!
Like true crime tales? The Court Junkie podcast shines a light on the injustices of the judicial system by delving into court documents, attending trials, and interviewing those close to these trials to root out the whole truth. Check out the Court Junkie podcast on PodcastOne here!
Thanks, Ishmael Beah!
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Resources from This Episode:
- Little Family: A Novel by Ishmael Beah | Amazon
- Radiance of Tomorrow: A Novel by Ishmael Beah | Amazon
- A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah | Amazon
- Ishmael Beah | Website
- Ishmael Beah | Twitter
- Ishmael Beah | Instagram
- Ishmael Beah | UNICEF
- Author and Former Child Soldier Ishmael Beah Signs on as Unicef Advocate | UN News
- The Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002) | BlackPast
- Commando | Prime Video
- First Blood | Prime Video
- Child Soldiers | Human Rights Watch
- O.P.P. by Naughty By Nature | Amazon Music
- The History of the Walkman: 35 Years of Iconic Music Players | The Verge
- Educational Songs & Nursery Rhymes For Kids! | CoComelon
- Brown-Brown | Wikipedia
- General Butt Naked, the Repentant Warlord | The New Yorker
- Captagon: The Drug Turning Lebanon and Syria Into Narco States | Channel 4 News
- Rutger Bregman | Humankind: A Hopeful History | Jordan Harbinger
- More Than 9,000 Anti-Asian Incidents Reported Since Pandemic Began | NPR
- 10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War | History Collection
- How I Spent the War by Günter Grass | The New Yorker
- 5 Insane Coincidences That Saved People’s Lives | Cracked
- The Complete Works of Shakespeare Online
622: Ishmael Beah | Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
[00:00:00] Jordan Harbinger: Today's episode is brought to you by Oura Ring. This Valentine's Day buy Oura Ring and get 50 bucks off a second smart ring.
[00:00:05] Coming up next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:08] Ishmael Beah: Well, I think the fear of human beings, who have not experienced the depravity of life and violence, how it really gets into the community and changes everything around, the fear is that they don't want to believe that they too can be capable of those things. So we come up with this explanation that says that where we have layers of things. No, no, no, no. People can lose it very quickly when their life is threatened, their family's life is threatened. They don't have any they can lose, they can do things they don't imagine they can do. It's very real. It's very possible.
[00:00:39] Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people. We have in-depth conversations with people at the top of their game, astronauts, entrepreneurs, spies, and psychologists, even the occasional Russian chess grandmaster war correspondent, or a music mogul. Each episode turns our guests' wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding of how the world works and become a better critical thinker.
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[00:01:38] Today, Ishmael Beah, I am just proud to call this guy a friend. He is absolutely an incredible human being. He grew up in Sierra Leone and ended up forcibly becoming a child soldier who grew up inside an absolutely bloody brutal civil war and faced just unimaginable cruelty. Obviously, for something like this, by the way, not good if you got kids in the car. There's plenty of other shows you can listen to. This is probably not the one. Welcome to the show, if you're new, this might also be a little bit heavy for you, but this story, it is harrowing, to say the least. Today, we'll follow Ishmael as he searches for his parents and grows up unwillingly almost overnight from a child into a killing machine that he himself can barely even recognize not much more of an introduction needed here. This is an important story. I'm honored to be able to bring it to you today.
[00:02:29] And if you're wondering how I managed to get people like this to do the show, it's all because of my connections and my network. And I'm teaching you how to do the same thing for free, not necessarily for your podcast, if you have one, but for your professional and personal life, jordanharbinger.com/course is where you can find it. The course, Six-Minute Networking, it's about improving your networking and connection skills and inspiring others to develop a personal and professional relationship with you. It'll make you a better networker, a better connector, and a better thinker. That's jordanharbinger.com/course. And most of the guests, you hear on the show, subscribe and contribute to the course. So come join us, you'll be in some amazing company where you belong.
[00:03:06] Now, here's Ishmael Beah.
[00:03:11] Tell me about what you saw early in the war in Sierra Leone. When did you first see violence?
[00:03:18] Ishmael Beah: Well, I mean, Sierra Leone, when I was growing up, was a pretty peaceful country. At least in the part of the country that I grew up in, there was no semblance of the type of violence that came out through the war. The only thing that I had really heard about was when the war was in the neighboring country called Liberia. And we started seeing refugees coming and they will recount what had happened to them. And that's how we began to really understand what was going on or what war really was. Prior to that, our version of the world, what we saw in Commando, in Rambo, in films like that. So it was something far-fetched, something in the movies, Hollywood, nothing real, tactile in that way.
[00:04:00] The first time I really saw it was when the war came to my part of the country in the south. And I had gone about seven miles away from my town. And I tried to go back home and just witnessed in people who are running away from war and what had happened to them. Some people had lost families, some people were carrying their children who had been shot and they were trying to still run away with them. And there was just a kind of restlessness and a kind of disbelief about what happened. Everything felt different even the air felt like it was going to choke you to some extent, you know? So that was my first introduction, really, to the reality of war.
[00:04:37] Jordan Harbinger: In the book, in one of the books, A Long Way Gone, you write about seeing babies and kids just covered in blood and dead people in cars. Did you realize there was even a civil war going on or did you just think, "Well, that's weird"? There's like people that are bleeding. Was it obvious that there was a war? Did you just think, "Wow, these people have been the victim of a crazy crime, I'm confused"? Because it seems like, you know what I'm used to as an American being here and our wars are okay, the news is on, we're at war. It's over there and Iraq or Afghanistan, and this is what's going on and we just watch it. You're sitting there. And I would imagine it's confusing in the beginning because you don't really know what's going on and nobody's able to tell you there's a large-scale conflict. You might just think like these people got robbed or attacked.
[00:05:25] Ishmael Beah: Well, it's more than confusing. It's very frightening. And obviously, one of the reasons why I wanted to write that book is actually to take away that mystery or de-mystify that idea when people talk about war. Sometimes there's this element that is cool because it's happening over there. We're going to go and liberate these people. We're going to fight and do this and do that just because people don't know what it means to really be in war or in a situation of war. So I started writing this book when I was in the United States and it was a response to that. When they would say, "Oh, where are you from?" "Sierra Leone." "Oh, there's war going on there." "Yes." "Oh, how is it?"
[00:05:58] So for me, when the war started in my country, we knew there was a civil war because there was a political climate that had led to the war and it started in the Eastern part of the country. So before he came to my part of the country, I had heard about it quite a lot. So I knew the devastation that I had heard of it, but then I experienced it firsthand. And it is beyond frightening because what happens is that your life cease to exist as you know it. Immediately, there's almost like you go to the store to get something to drink and you can come back home for the rest of your life because that home may not exist anymore.
[00:06:32] So I wanted people to understand what that feels like. So people understand how volatiles life is, you know, how quickly things can shift for the worst and you can never get them back. So really that's war is. All of a sudden your town is attack and you start to run for your life. You don't know where your grandmother is, your grandfather is, or your parents are, where your siblings are. You try to find them and you can't, you got to run for your life. And basically, you just start to run because you imagine you're a civilian, this is not a case of where police are chasing you. This is people armed with weaponry, sophisticated weaponry, and the object is to either capture you or kill you if you resist. And there'll be no trial at that moment, probably never. And so it's basically very frightening and it is not a school as sometimes people make it seem in war films, you know, where you kind of running around and hiding behind. No, none of that stuff.
[00:07:25] Jordan Harbinger: I don't know. I think most adults, most mature people realize war is horrific, but most people I've never seen it literally in their own neighborhood. And we'll get to that in a little bit as well. I know there's some sort of up close and personal stuff that you dealt with. That's primarily is what the book is about. But who's doing this, you know, you say the rebels in the book, but who are the rebels? What are they rebelling against? It doesn't really make a lot of sense. If there's a functioning government in most people are living peacefully, who are these people?
[00:07:54] Ishmael Beah: That's a good question. So for the book, A Long Way Gone, when I wrote it, because the war came into my life when I was a very young kid, I wasn't a very politically involved because I'm a kid.
[00:08:04] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:08:04] Ishmael Beah: I worried about what children worried about. I wasn't walking around thinking, "Oh, the political climate in my country—" I think I didn't care, you know, I was just doing what kids do. So when I wrote the book, I wanted to honor that. But in retrospect, obviously I went through the war and I understood what the reasons were behind it, which was that we had a political climate and a government in power at the time that had basically destroyed the country, the infrastructure, the way things were, the rule of law, everything and there was a need to get rid of that government. There was a need for revolution. And often when people prescribe a solution, which is a revolution that you have, or the outsiders who influence the outcome of that by then, you know, seeking the violent solution, which is basically let's go to war. And then when a war begins, you cannot control what happens.
[00:08:51] It's the same thing. Let's take the US for example, US had decided, "We're going to go to Iraq or Afghanistan," for whatever reason they want to go there for. When they get there, that reason does no longer works because that's the nature of war. You will have an idea, you start it, and then it gets out of hand. So basically there were people who felt there was a revolution that was needed. Through the RUF, they wanted to jump on the one by one to get rid of the government that was in power at a time. And a lot of people supported it, but they realized that the RUF itself was doing the same thing that it was advocating to be against, even in the course of the war that led to it.
[00:09:26] And so I realized that the country was more rotten than that. So basically, at some point, if you read my book closely, what I tried to explain, it didn't really matter what part of the war you were in. At some point, everybody was basically doing the same thing, including the government army. Everybody was doing the same thing because there was no command structure. There was no something like a Pentagon where they'd be like, "These are the rules. This is what we're going to do." If you had a little area that was your mandate, you became your commander there, you did whatever you could. If you took a damn on mind, you made sure you got it in. And other people from external forces used you to get the resources and you got ammunition and you did what you could. If you had a weapon, you're part of a group you looted because only thing you could get now was to loot. If you came to town, you have a weapon and there were three, four bags of rice, some water and whatever, you had the weapon, you get access to it because you can make sure you get it. The war became that. It lost its focus completely as most wars do.
[00:10:21] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. At that point it becomes about survival and people can rationalize or justify pretty much any action that they take because we hear about some of the atrocities. And we'll get to that in a bit here. Surely, these people committing these horrible atrocities, they still thought they were on the right side, even with all the psychopathic sh*t they were doing to civilians, right?
[00:10:41] Ishmael Beah: Of course.
[00:10:42] Jordan Harbinger: They still were able to justify it.
[00:10:44] Ishmael Beah: Of course, that's the nature of war. In war for war to function, there's a requirement for the other to dehumanize the other, and to do so you have to justify why you're doing that. You have to basically say I'm doing this because so and so. You come up with your explanation, right? For example, during the war, we were like, "Okay, we're going to get rid of these guys who are destroying this country." Then it became, "Okay, those people destroy my town with my village and we going to find justice. So we're going to create our own group and we're going to fight for that." So it just becomes that level. You find reasons to explain your actions that are completely crazy. That's why in war is everybody feels they're good guys.
[00:11:25] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:11:25] Ishmael Beah: Everybody feels they're good guys. Even if you fight somebody else, if you're fighting against the rebel, the rebels think that they are good guys, because they're fighting for people and you feel like fighting against them because they are coming and destroying your livelihood and whatnot. So everybody's a good guy. Nobody ever wants to say that I'm the bad guy in a war. I've never had anybody say that. Everybody says that I'm the one who's trying to fight this war because I want to protect my people.
[00:11:47] Take what's going on anywhere in the world, right? The United States army goes to Afghanistan or wherever. They fight ISIS with Taliban. The ISIS says we're fighting for our people and the USA says we're fighting to free you from it. Everybody's always right. But what is true is this is just an explanation to dehumanize each other and gives us the leverage and excuse to kill each other. Because once you engage in war, everybody loses because life is not valuable anymore, becomes a piece of lint or water bottle or cap. You can throw and do whatever you want with it. Right?
[00:12:19] So when we cannot talk, whatever our differences are, problems are that we cannot discuss it. And we get to that level where it becomes that survivor to that extent, which is why sometimes people are shocked when soldiers come back from fighting in wherever US is fighting and they're traumatized. And you know sometimes they shoot themselves, they become violent and people are worried about why is that . It is because when you go and take out another life and dehumanize it. In reverse, it dehumanize yourself, your own spirit, your own being, and it takes a lot of undoing. It doesn't matter what the reason is. And when you're fighting, you cannot really say, "Hey, Jordan, you know, I used to know you're a nice guy. You're running with that weapon towards me. Let's talk about it." You want to survive? You've got to fight. You got to shoot. You got to do things you didn't think you 'd be able to do. Otherwise, you can live.
[00:13:08] Jordan Harbinger: You tried to escape that area, of course, after you saw some of the violence coming to where you were and it sounds like you realized you couldn't even opt to be peaceful because people thought you're a rebel. You're coming to cause us problems. You were getting beaten and tied up and captured by local villagers. Tell us about that because that's kind of horrifying, right? You're just saying, "Hey look, I'm a civilian." And they're saying, "No, you're a military-age male. We're going to hogtie you or, you know, cut you into pieces because we just don't trust you because we can't trust anybody who's not somebody who grew up next door to me right now."
[00:13:44] Ishmael Beah: No, but even people who grew up next door to you, if you haven't seen them for a month or two, they become suspicious. This is the nature of civil war that is very difficult to enter because civil wars are fought in the country where people are the same from that country. So for example, if people are coming, I don't know, from Russia to fight Syria, I won't be able to distinguish the Russians coming to Syria. But Syria leaders fight israel Unions, most people look the same. Most people have the same common name. These people speak similar languages. It becomes very complicated to determine who is the perpetrator, who is the peaceful one. And sometimes that decision, if you don't make it the right way could cost you your life.
[00:14:22] So what happens is that people then begin to survive, just take the high ground in terms of saying that everybody's bad because from their own you can survive. But if you say, "Well, maybe this guy used to be good. It's still good." That could cost you your life. So as a boy running, one of the difficulties in the civil war, in Sierra Leone, that happened was that because they started recruiting children, it changed how people perceived childhood. It changed how people perceive innocence, right?
[00:14:51] So when you came through a town where there are adults who had survived, brutal experiences from children who are being coerced into fighting, who had been drugged, who had been traumatized when they saw you as a child now, they did not really see you anymore as, "Oh, this little boy or this little girl who used to run around." They saw you as a threat because they've seen children who look like you, who did something to them. So then you have to explain yourself that you are not that person in a climate where that's impossible to do. So that's basically, it became difficult to be a child, you know, because anyway, you came, people will want to either to kill you or to recruit you. So basically, one way or the other, you have to find a way to survive one of them, or you had to join one of them. You really don't have much of a choice.
[00:15:42] Jordan Harbinger: So this is kind of a hellscape at this point. And, you know, spoiler alert, it gets worse as you go. But you mentioned the lack of trust. This is a little detail from the book that I thought was very interesting. You were very into rap music and these villagers captured you essentially. And they found a tape and they're like, "What is this?" And they start interrogating you. And you're telling them, "Oh, this is down with OPP." And they're like, "What is that?" Right? So tell me how Naughty by Nature saved your life in this particular instance?
[00:16:13] Ishmael Beah: Well, I mean, one of the things, you know, because I was living in the US and I started writing this book and I began to realize that when people hear about a place like Sierra Leone or the places where there's conflict, they think is almost on another planet, they don't realize that actually the people they're consuming, particularly your age group, the same content, you may be consuming elsewhere. Maybe you get to them a little later, some months later than you, but they still are doing the same thing. And so I realized that the same, you know, like a kid born in the '80s, other people were born in the '80s who were consuming the same music I was.
[00:16:48] You know, I had a cassette tape. My father worked for an American mining company in the Southern part of the country. And through that company came American popular culture through the quarters, because if your family worked for the company, you had access to the quarters, the mining quarters with a common area. So they had mounted televisions. And so they would play the Yo! MTV Raps will come on. I didn't have electricity, but when I went there, I will see it. So you see the Run-DMC and these people rap. And I was like, "Wow, these guys look like me and they can speak English so fast. I'm down with them." This is how I was introduced to this rap music.
[00:17:27] And my older brother who went away for school then brought me these cassette tapes with like the OPP, with the Naughty by Nature, OPP, and then with the LL Cool J with the Run-DMC. And those have always been in our pockets. And in those days you have the Walkman, like the original Walkman, you know, with a battery. And if you didn't want your battery to die, then you had a pen so you flip the cassette like this to rewind it, you know, and then you put it back in. I don't think this generation even know what that is.
[00:17:55] Jordan Harbinger: No. They don't. That's funny that you would rewind it manually to save battery though. I didn't think about that. That's a good idea.
[00:18:01] Ishmael Beah: Of course, because the battery wasn't, you couldn't buy it. This is a remote area. So you couldn't just get batteries like that. So you got to to make sure when you press play, you are listening to what you wanted. So anyway, these cassettes were always in our pockets because they're also doing the running man, the MC Hammer, all of that stuff. So at some point, because as I mentioned, the ways in which you could have spoken about your innocence was no longer believed in this community, that people are looking for other ways.
[00:18:29] And I happened to have a cassette in my pocket. So when they pulled it out and they said, "Well, what is this?" And I said, "Well, this is a cassette tape." And so they put it, they brought out cassette player and they put it in and then obviously, you know, who's down with OPP, started playing and they're like, "What is this? "And I tried to explain to them what it is, "You know, it's kind of like a parable." The guys kind of say, "If it's your cassette, can you remind me? So we know." So obviously, I'm there. Who's down with OPP and after they put LL Cool J and I'd sing, I Need Love, you know? And I was thinking in my head, I was like, I really need love right now. Nobody's giving it to me, but Hey, I'm still going do the rap. And after what the chief was laughing, they were like, "Yeah, he's just a kid." so that was what made them believe that I'm a kid because they thought what I was doing was silly. And so they gave me back my—
[00:19:13] Jordan Harbinger: How did you explain, how did you explain it? Where they, like, "What do these words mean?" And then you had to, because I'm imagining you sitting in front of a village of like armed people, tied up with ropes and they're like, "What does OPP mean?" And you're like, "Okay, you're probably not going to like this."
[00:19:27] Ishmael Beah: No, no, I didn't have to get into the details of what OPP means. I just said the name of the song, I thought that would get me into all of the areas, you know?
[00:19:36] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:19:37] Ishmael Beah: But I just tried to explain to them the equivalent of this in our culture like a storyteller who is very lyric, who's telling parables and doing things and kind of jiving with audience. And so they got that part, you know? So for example, I was like, "Who's down with OPP? Hey, you know me." And they said, "Ah, so it's like a call and response." And I'm like, "Yeah, like that." At this point, I was just trying, whatever they could latch on to I was trying to go with it because I thought that would make them understand that I was in who they thought I was. I wanted them to think of me as whatever I was to save my life.
[00:20:13] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:20:13] Ishmael Beah: So whatever that was, I was willing to go with it.
[00:20:16] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. The idea that you could have been killed, except you had a Naughty by Nature cassette in your pocket is pretty wild to think about.
[00:20:24] Ishmael Beah: Yeah, it is. I mean, it's very interesting because you know, like when I was writing the book, I had to get permission from Naughty by Nature and from Run-DMC from everybody's lyrics I used, so my publishing house reached out to them and they were like, "He can have it." They were like, "You can have the permission.' When they heard his story, they were like, "Oh man, you know, when we were making this music, we didn't think that it would be in that sense to do that for somebody. So you can have the permission to use the lyrics in the book."
[00:20:54] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. They must've been pretty surprised because most of the time, when they get a request for lyric permission, it's like, "Oh, we're going to use this in a video game. We're going to use it in a movie. We're going to sample it for another song." And they're like, "Okay, write me a check."
[00:21:05] Ishmael Beah: Yeah.
[00:21:05] Jordan Harbinger: And then there's this other request from this guy who was going to get executed by villagers in Africa, but then he rapped part of your song and they spared his life. And they're like, "Okay give this guy a free pass on using the lyrics in a book."
[00:21:20] Ishmael Beah: That's basically what everybody did and including Run-DMC because I use some of the lyrics too in the book when I talk about them. And so actually funny story, I was on my way to Aspen, Colorado to give a talk, to give a reading. And I am sitting at Denver Airport. And I see this guy and I thought to myself, "Oh, I recognize the guy. That's like DMC from Run-DMC." And he's sitting at an airport across from me. And so he kept looking at me and should I go and say, "Yo man, you know when I was a kid, all the way from Sierra Leone in this village in Africa, I used to listen to your song." And then all of a sudden he's standing over me and he's like, "Your name is Ishmael." I was like, "Yeah." He said, "Yo man, I'm reading your book."
[00:22:00] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:22:02] Ishmael Beah: "And you're talking about us and all our lyrics and stuff." He was like, "Where are you going?" I'm like, "I'm going to Aspen. He was like, "Me too. I have a concert there tonight." And I was like, "Yeah, I'm giving a talk there at the Aspen Institute." And he was like, "You know what, man, do you want to come on stage and tell that story to introduce me?" He's like, "This would be the best way to ever introduce me as a rapper because I've never had any of that." And I was like, "Sure, are you sure?" He was like, "Yeah."
[00:22:27] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:22:28] Ishmael Beah: I could not have even made that story. I couldn't imagine. I was like, "Wow." I was like, "All right, I've come a long way from home," you know?
[00:22:36] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. That's incredible. So you're sitting there thinking, "Should I approach him? I'm a huge fan." He approaches you. He's a fan. You end up on stage at a Run-DMC concert—
[00:22:44] Ishmael Beah: Yeah.
[00:22:45] Jordan Harbinger: —telling this story. I mean, it's got to be a highlight of your life experience to have something like that happen to you.
[00:22:52] Ishmael Beah: Of course.
[00:22:52] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:22:53] Ishmael Beah: Yeah.
[00:22:54] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. No pressure though because you're standing up there. I would imagine what, you know, you're used to telling stories, you're used to media, but going up in front of however many thousand people at a Run-DMC concert, that's a lot of pressure.
[00:23:06] Ishmael Beah: Yeah. It is a lot of pressure and I was sort of the hype man, you know?
[00:23:10] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:23:10] Ishmael Beah: So I was trying to say, "Well, you know, I come from this country where there's a war, but tonight we're not going to talk about war, but let's just party. There's a story now I don't worry about it. I'm here now, you know? So which means I survive. It's all good." You know, I was trying to like, amped it up like that.
[00:23:25] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I can imagine if the story had kind of gone a little bit toward the dark stuff that we're going to talk about here in a minute, people would be like, "Yo, whose idea was this? Like, we're trying to have — I got like two drinks in. I'm ready for a rap concert. This guy is telling me this, I didn't sign up for this," you know? So it could be a bit, but I can see that how interesting that must have been both for him and to be in your position, but yeah, you probably had to think good and hard about what you were going to say so that you didn't just go off the deep end and start talking about.
[00:23:54] Ishmael Beah: I mean what I basically was trying to explain to them was the power of the arts. Like when you create something or whatever you create in the world, you don't know where it goes and what it does to people and how that playing field is so wide. You have no idea. The thing to say, what you put out in the world, who it touches, whose life is changed, whose life it saves. You don't know. So that's basically what I tried to talk about, the power of that.
[00:24:18] Jordan Harbinger: It's such a contrast from the reality of your situation as well, right? You're using rap and music as kind of, I guess, it's an escape, right? And justifiably so, because you don't have a lot at this point in your life as a kid, going back to your childhood in Sierra Leone, you don't have a whole lot to look forward to, you're separated from your family and this is horrible, but I just want to go over some of the atrocities that you were seeing during this time, because it's easy for us to say, oh, there was a war going on, but this is very graphic the things that you're dealing with. And I think it's helpful to get an idea of the sheer inhuman brutality of this conflict.
[00:24:53] And by the way, if you're listening to this right now with your kids or you're in the car with your kids, I would turn this off and pick it up at another point and put on some Cocomelon or something, because this is not going to be a kid friendly part of the show here.
[00:25:05] But in the book, and this is just some of the things from the book, there are kids showing up in your camp or that you're meeting along the way with RUF, which is the rebel force name, carved into their chest. And all of their fingers are missing, right?
[00:25:20] Ishmael Beah: Yes.
[00:25:20] Jordan Harbinger: What is the purpose behind something like this? Is it just a message to others? Is that the idea?
[00:25:26] Ishmael Beah: I mean, at some point during the war, every other side was trying to show the other that they are stronger. That they are capable of violence more than the other side. This is basically what you try to tell the other person or the other group that you have power over them, or that you can bring more violence to them. So you destabilize wherever they hold there. You start with the communities. You come to town, you get some young kids, you give them weapons and you have them shoot their grandparents in front of everybody. So from there on, everybody knows you mean business. You understand, the idea of voice to bring terror to people. That's it.
[00:26:00] And how you bring that terror? The more you augment it, the more it shows your stronger side. So that's basically what everybody was doing. For the area in particular, they also tried to make sure that sometimes when they capture kids or recruit them, they did not. So by carving RUF on your body anywhere, if you escape, any other group found you and pull your clothes off and they saw RUF they will kill you, which means that you did not escape, because if you did, even civilians would try to kill you. Any of the armed groups would try to kill you. You will not be afforded the explanation that your kid and this was inflicted upon you. You will not.
[00:26:33] So this was a way to make people stay, but even in the war itself, as a kid, when I was in the war to make sure that you comply, they will show examples by killing people in front of you. So you understood that if you didn't follow the order, this is what will happen to you. So it wasn't like some silly thing where you'd be like, "Oh, do you want to join us? Think about it." No, if you did not join, you'd be killed and you will be shown what the consequences are if you don't do what you're told, right? So at some point you begin to realize that whatever they ask you to do, if you do, it's your life depended on it, the more violence you committed, the chances are you could survive the next day. And if you didn't, you wouldn't be able to live.
[00:27:08] Now with this, it may mean and how that started into war, it started because somebody in the RUF have decided that to make sure that the population knows that they will not vote for the next people who wanted to run the government, they will cut people's hands up so that you won't be able to vote. But what they didn't realize is what if that person wanted to vote for the RUF if they became a political party, they don't have any hands anymore. So what then? So you see, so these things were, again in war, things don't make sense. It sounds like it could make a great sense, but then when you really think about it, it's just violence being inflicted on people.
[00:27:43] And sometimes they're also cut people's hands who are children, who are not of a voting age. So how do you explain that then? And some people that they cut their hands are not even registered to vote or they don't even vote in the beginning. Like I said, the madness of voice, it starts with an idea. People think, "Oh, this is really great. Let's go for it." And then they do it thinking, for example, the drugs that were introduced in the war came out of that. They just wanted people to be so high, to not question the violence that people started taking mismatch of different drugs. You know we had all kinds of things that were terrible for our health, but people took it because you need needed to survive the violence, like the brown-brown, for example.
[00:28:19] Jordan Harbinger: Let's talk about that. It's very weird to hear that you were doing this brown-brown, which is essentially gunpowder and cocaine mixed together, which like why gunpowder it doesn't do anything. Is it almost like a wives' tale of folk belief that, "Hey, it's for battle, so we're just going to put gunpowder in there"?
[00:28:36] Ishmael Beah: The mixture does something to amp up the effectiveness of the cocaine in a way.
[00:28:41] Jordan Harbinger: Oh really?
[00:28:42] Ishmael Beah: Yeah, it does. I won't recommend that you try it. No, don't.
[00:28:48] Jordan Harbinger: I don't have any gunpowder here to mix with my cocaine, so I'm just doing to stick with—
[00:28:53] Ishmael Beah: There you have it, but they all that weird kinds of mixers, but again, there's a little bit of mythology to it but there's a little bit of reality to it, which also is that people are just trying to put substances together so that they didn't have to deal with what they were seeing and doing and being part of it. And whatever could get you as high as possible, so you feel like you're kind of in a long nightmare, you took it. So that's basically what happened and people just went on with it. And sometimes people got addicted to the violence. They are even in situations where people felt like if they drank blood, it will make them stronger and they did. People did all kinds of crazy stuff. Like in Liberia, our next-door neighbor, there was a general, who was part of a group, called General Butt-Naked and he would just go fight naked in war.
[00:29:37] Jordan Harbinger: General Butt-Naked is his name or what you called him?
[00:29:40] Ishmael Beah: General Butt-Naked that was his battle name.
[00:29:42] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:29:42] Ishmael Beah: So he would go fight naked. Now, first of all, there's several bad things about that. That's how you know that the person is not correct in the head. Even if you have a clothes on, you can get bullet, you know, just bullet can pierce you a little bit. Now if you're naked, there's one thing. Second, you're fighting in the bush. There are lots of mosquitoes and other animals, you know?
[00:30:01] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:30:01] Ishmael Beah: So obviously this person, you know, that something is not going up very well there to be like, "Okay, our unit is going to be called the butt-naked unit and we're just going to go out there." But then they would terrorize people because imagine somebody shows up well armed naked in your town.
[00:30:15] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:30:15] Ishmael Beah: How would you ever react to that? You're going to be like, "Ah, who is this? You know, like what do we do here?
[00:30:21] Jordan Harbinger: It signals that you're not dealing with anybody with any sort of professionalism that might spare you anything. You're just dealing with a complete, crazy psycho at that point. So it's almost like if soldiers show up uninformed, you might be like, "Okay, we'll surrender everything will be fine. They're not going to hurt us. They're here to take over. It's fine. We'll do it." But if people show up naked with weapons, you're just like run because you know you can't reason with people like that.
[00:30:45] Ishmael Beah: Absolutely. But again, that's the nature of war. You want to terrorize—
[00:30:49] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:30:49] Ishmael Beah: —your opponents as much as possible. You won't, even the thought of your opponent, the person who was coming, it will scare you to the point that you run away. And so that's what people are just coming up with all kinds of different ways to just do that. And it got completely out of hand. Incidentally, it got completely out of hand. And anywhere where war will happen, that's usually the case. It gets out of hand. People lose your mind because it's inhuman to do the things that we do in war to each other.
[00:31:15] So eventually, people are going to break. They're going to snap. Something is going to happen to somebody. And if it happened to them at the moment where they're still in the battlefield, then they just go crazy. Or sometimes it happens to them when they've left and gone back home. This is why the transition from a military person to civilian life is very difficult because how you operated war is very fast-paced, thinking quickly, making decisions in almost like a nanosecond. And then you come back to civilian life and then you have to abide by these rules, everything slows down, but then your brain is so heightened to see in so many possibilities of damage. So as soon as somebody walks past you fast, you think they're up to something. You understand? So that's why when soldiers come back, they lose it completely, you know, sounds, movements.
[00:32:00] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. This makes a lot of sense. And you hear about this with like PTSD, where guys are in a battle or a conflict or a theater of operations one day, and then like two or three days later, they're at the mall with their family or their friends in Iowa or whatever. And they are not able to relax and not able to adapt. And it's because they've been ripped from one environment and put into another so quickly, or that's one of the reasons. You know the other reasons are, of course, trauma and things like that, but it makes perfect sense that you can't adapt quickly to a peacetime environment, especially if you're in a very disorganized and chaotic war environment where everyone's taking drugs. The brutality is off the charts. There's no place that's safe. You don't know who to trust. Even your own team or side or village might not be friendly to you at some time.
[00:32:46] You are also taking these white capsules. What were those, did you ever figure out what those capsules were that they were giving you? Is it methamphetamine, some sort of speed?
[00:32:54] Ishmael Beah: Probably some sort of speed. I never figured out what they were.
[00:32:58] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:32:58] Ishmael Beah: When I was writing this book, this is one of the questions I always was asking myself. You know, I think if you're a journalist, you insert yourself in war, you come prepared, maybe you have a sample back to take what you see, make notes, but when you go through the reality of war of life itself, you're not thinking you're going to survive. So you're not thinking, you know, let me keep one of these capsules. Maybe later, I can try to sample it.
[00:33:21] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:33:22] Ishmael Beah: And see what it is. You're just going through it. And when you come out on the other end, you'd be like, "Wow, how did I come out of that?"
[00:33:28] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:33:29] Ishmael Beah: I wish I knew what it was. I wish I could find out but I know that it wasn't something that I want to take.
[00:33:34] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:33:35] Ishmael Beah: I mean, I always try to look at whatever has happened to me to try to extrapolate something good from it. And one of the ways that I used to look at it was when I started school in the United States when I was in high school and then when I went to university. Some of my friends were for the first time beginning to experiment with drugs that left home. And I was looking at them like, you know, I have been there, done that.
[00:33:57] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Like I was taking drug we didn't even know. Yeah.
[00:34:00] Ishmael Beah: Exactly. Yeah. It was a complete ball game. No, but also it was just the fact that I think because it was such a young age that I'd taken so many drugs, that my system sort of, the intake of what could get me to be high had gotten really, really high. So if I wanted to use drugs in high school or in university, I needed a trust fund for it. Because it wasn't going to be that I would just do a hit of cocaine it will work. I would need like bags of it. I'm serious.
[00:34:29] Like I remember when I first — my adopted family took me to the dentist and they wanted to clean — and they put Novocaine. This guy put maybe like 10 shots of Novocaine before I could walk. And he was looking at me, he said, "Where are you from?" And I say, "Oh, you know, I'm from the east village in New York," because I was like, if I say anything has gone, nobody will believe me. I'm just weird like that. It was just like, dude, I've never met anybody. So for me, even on a practical level, I thought to myself, if I start to take drugs, I may need to find a trust fund from somebody out there.
[00:35:01] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, you're going to have to take a mortgage on your house or something like that or take a loan out. I'm imagining this dentist being like, "How is it possible that you're still feeling — like I can't legally give you more of this painkiller?"
[00:35:13] Ishmael Beah: Yeah, exactly.
[00:35:14] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. This is the unsafe amount at this point, but, okay. So during the war, then if you're taking all these drugs, I assume at this point you're just full-on addicted to drugs at this, right? You're not able to function without it at some level.
[00:35:27] Ishmael Beah: Yes. There is that. And then obviously that becomes a new reason to fight because then if they tell you wherever town or other group that we're going to attack, they may have this stash. So obviously, everybody becomes quite violent because you want it, right? Including the ammunition.
[00:35:43] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:35:43] Ishmael Beah: You didn't want to come down from the high, but there's also because you're on the high, you also get addicted to the violence itself. So all of these things go hand in hand. So to the point that's constantly what you're doing, either drugs or you're going to fight war or something happening that is in between those two constantly, because if you stop, then everything comes back to you and then that's going to really mess with you, with your being. You can't sleep. You're going to have nightmares. So you constantly keep yourself moving, being high, engaging in more violence until you were remove from it.
[00:36:16] Jordan Harbinger: You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Ishmael Beah. We'll be right.
[00:36:22] This episode is sponsored in part by Masterworks. You know, I spend a lot of time with really fascinating people and topics, but sometimes the most interesting things are right under our noses. Like how one of the oldest asset classes in history isn't on the radar of most mom and pop investors like you and I. I'm talking about blue-chip artwork, actual tangible art, like you see in a gallery museum. The ultra-wealthy have used artwork to store and grow wealth for generations. It's almost a cliche by now, right? And nowadays, it seems like only Bezos and Beyonce can get a Picasso. That's no longer the case with Masterworks. They're the start-up democratizing the art market, giving everyday investors a piece of the art pie or art palette — to run with the metaphor. Their solution is making blue-chip art investible. So you buy shares of it. Contemporary artwork has a low correlation to public equities. Art prices actually outpaced the S&P 500 from 1995 to 2021. And now, anyone can add paintings by artists like Monet, Basquiat, Banksy to their portfolio without paying millions. So you could own like one of those dots in Van Gogh's Starry Night, maybe even one of the dots has a star. Not bad.
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[00:39:01] Now back to Ishmael Beah.
[00:39:04] Do you know where the cocaine came from in Africa? Because they don't cultivate it in Africa, right? So did it come through Europe or just from South America to Africa? Who was distributing it? Do you have any idea?
[00:39:15] Ishmael Beah: Oh, if only we knew those people who are distributing it. They try to find them to prosecute them when everybody tries to fight. This comes hand in hand with the weapons. Whenever there is war, what you have to realize that whenever there is a war anywhere, it becomes a place where there are few folks in the world who this is where they come to make money. Because the border becomes very poorest. There's no longer a border.
[00:39:36] So you can go in and out of that country without anybody knowing you were there. So, it's not like if you want it to come into Sierra Leone during the time of the war, that your passport will be stamped to say that you are in Sierra Leone. You could land the plane in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night or float, whatever you wanted and fly back out, collect your money or collect minerals or diamonds in return for it and leave.
[00:39:57] So that's why wars continue longer because people profit from it. So there are people whose business is that. Whenever there's a war somewhere, they come and bring those things that will make the war continue longer so that it can pillage more. So nobody knows who they are, people know who they are, but it's hard to find them to prosecute them.
[00:40:15] Jordan Harbinger: This is sort of a sad state of affairs and a fact of every conflict is that people will go in and take humans out, so you have human trafficking. They'll bring weapons in, so you have arms trafficking. There's drug manufacturers because there's no rule of law in the area and militias need money, so they will manufacture drugs and then distribute them from that area out to other places. Like right now, there's a massive Captagon problem. I don't know if you know what Captagon is, but it's essentially a drug that's manufactured, I think, largely in Syria and the government is manufacturing it and selling it all over Europe and all over the world, because it is something they can make in pharmaceutical factories and sell for hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, depending on how much they're making and moving. And it's also that they can profit off of and fund a conflict. So you end up with war profiteering, but you also ended up with some of that profit creating and prolonging the conflict because they're bringing in more resources for each of the sides that are fighting. So it's really, unfortunately, it's kind of a vicious cycle.
[00:41:12] Ishmael Beah: Absolutely.
[00:41:12] Jordan Harbinger: You know, you don't want to cut off your source of funding unless you're winning.
[00:41:15] Ishmael Beah: Yeah.
[00:41:15] Jordan Harbinger: Unless you've won, I should say. And even then you're like, well, why am I going to stop the train now? I'm getting rich.
[00:41:20] Ishmael Beah: Yeah. In our case, in addition to all of what you say, we have natural resources that everybody wanted.
[00:41:25] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:41:25] Ishmael Beah: We have diamonds, we have timber, we have bauxite. So this was the time to get it for free. Practically for nothing, you know? So you're going to fund that person who has captured the area of the mine where the diamonds are. And then they're going to capture civilians who would then take the diamonds for free, so free labor as well. So all of these things were happening.
[00:41:45] But one thing I really want to make clear is because for many years, people would always say this whenever you talk about civil wars in a place like Sierra Leone or other countries that have been there to fight war, people always think that the weapons are coming from China. Everybody always blames China or former Soviet weapons from Russia, the AK-47, but the weapons are coming from everywhere, everywhere, including the United States.
[00:42:09] So like for example, during the war, we had some M-16 that had been brought in. We had G3 which are German rifles. We had guns from Israeli Uzis, so everybody was coming to sell stuff. It wasn't just like one bag. Everybody was profiting. They are middlemen making sure those guns were coming in and being sold. And those bullets, because a gun is not effective without the bullets. So there were people making the bullets and bringing them. Like, if a gun doesn't have a bullet, it's just a big metal piece of stick that you can fight somebody that you can beat them with it, but you can shoot them. So you need the bullets, so who was coming with a bullet? There's no factories here making but yet we had a lot of it to cause a lot of damage with it.
[00:42:51] So there are people who are bringing in knowing very well that I was going to be put in the hands of children in the hands of people who killed children and women who destroyed their country. But yet they said it was business, right? And so they did it, you know? And so this is what happens in wars. So then if the external factors are not there that exacerbate this, sometimes these things cannot continue much longer really. Right? But because there is that common, you have a problem. And how did they get here on planes, on ships, on different things. So it's going through the ports that people know. They know what's in it but they still allow it to pass.
[00:43:27] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, there's the incentives are just aligned, right? Because the people with no power are horrified in a conflict and are stuck in a conflict, they have absolutely no way to often survive unless they get involved in these illicit markets, which perpetuates the market. It's like a prisoner's dilemma, the first person to stop selling drugs or stop human trafficking or stop drug manufacturing, and distribution, they risk death. Right? So you don't want to be the first one to say, "Okay, I don't really need to do this anymore." You want to be the last one to do it. And then at that point, if you're the last one to do it where you're making more money doing it. So it's like, "Well, now I'm making more money than I ever dreamed of. Why would I stop now?" So you almost have to have this external pressure to do it, but all of the incentives are aligned in the wrong direction. It's really horrific.
[00:44:11] Ishmael Beah: Absolutely.
[00:44:12] Jordan Harbinger: There's almost no limit to the brutality. And I know I mentioned no kids in the car. I meant to go over this list earlier, but I'll just briefly list some of the things that you wrote about in the book, which is old people executed with their genitals cutoff, beheading people in front of their kids and parents, cutting open pregnant women and killing the babies, slicing babies and young children in half because they made too much noise, forcing sons to rape their mothers. I mean, this is like depraved sh*t, man. How long did it take you to sort of wrap your head around this? I assume in the moment, you're just blocking it out, right? You have drugs. You're going through this violence. You're perpetuating the violence in many ways. After the fact, how did you start to even realize how horrific that situation was? What was that process like?
[00:44:55] Ishmael Beah: It takes a lifetime. I think I'm still dealing with some of it. The majority of it I've learned to, but it took quite a long time, very, very long time. I mean, first of all, even the basics, like when I came out of the war, when I was removed from the war and I went through a rehabilitation program for about eight months, just to learn to function, to learn how to sleep, to sit in one place without being restless, to not resort to violent means to solve any problem. Like all of these things I had to learn to just basically be a kid again, even though I really didn't have those things that sort of innocent children have towards the word, I didn't. Because every time I walk now, everything about me was heightened. I had seen the word for what it is from the best of it to the worst of it. I was very restless.
[00:45:42] And to this day, it takes a while to wrap your head around how this can happen. But once you get to realize that this situation was not only isolated to a place like Sierra Leone, anywhere where there's war, this is what happens. All of these things happen. In some places, you're able to record it like I wrote about it. In some places, you hide it because you don't want people to know that kind of brutality, but anybody who's in war, these things, you would witness them or you'll be part of conducting them. There's no other way.
[00:46:11] Even wars that are fought to save people's lives, these things exist in them because people lose themselves in trying to dehumanize your own, trying to go in battle, and do all of those things because everything collapses and in our war, particularly, you know, what was horrible about it at some point there was no rule of law. It wasn't like if somebody shot you, you could take them to the courts.
[00:46:32] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:46:33] Ishmael Beah: Or the policeman could come in and intervene or anything like that. Even policemen didn't want anybody to know that they are policemen because that could make big trouble for them. You know? So if you can imagine living in New York City where there is no rule of law, there are no police, there's none. Everything goes, you can see what happens with people, right?
[00:46:50] And the closest I used, when I used to say to people that I grew up in a place where if you are calm and set to any of us, that the things that happened was possible, nobody will believe you. And nobody believed it until it started happening. And when I lived in New York and I would tell my friends, they say, "No, but these things only happen there." And I said, okay. And then when 9/11 happened in New York, people that I knew who were very well educated got so upset in that moment, the weeks and months that followed, that other Americans that looked different from them, they were willing to kill them on the street or attack them. Imagine that with no police, no law in a place where everything just collapsed. What would you do? You will go further than that. The only reason why people stopped, even to this day, people are still doing that, right?
[00:47:34] When Coronavirus started, people started attacking people who are Asians, because they think they are responsible for it. There are all kinds of violence. This is what happens. Human beings are capable of the worst things, but giving them the space where there's no regulations, people just will — before these things came to us, everybody said, "No, we will never be like that. We can't be like that. We're very nice to each other," and we were. But then we realized that yes, we can lose our humanity. If everything is set in place for that to happen, we will.
[00:48:01] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I want to clarify though, that I don't think this is inevitable, right? I think there can be times when things fall apart or there's problems. And I don't think we're just chained up barely holding on to civilization. I think a lot of things have to happen in order for people to lose their humanity and especially to go down that road. And it's not just my opinion, Rutger Bregman, who was on the show episode 494 talks about there's a lot of science and sort of real-life case studies that show, you know, we're not buffered from acting on our violence and most selfish instincts by a thin veneer of civilization.
[00:48:35] We actually have quite a thick bedrock of civilization and civility towards one another in good nature towards one another. But like you said, when things start to fall apart in multiple areas, right? So you have violence, but you also have food insecurity and you also have people perpetrating violence against you and you have no rule of law and you have no sort of hope for the future. And you also can't escape the area among other factors, then you have the ingredients for a brutal civil war, like the one that you faced.
[00:49:05] But I don't think that if the police went away in New York tomorrow, the whole place would turn into a post-apocalyptic nightmare, some areas for sure. And there would be bad actors, but I don't think everyone would start. There's a famous quote, I can't remember who this was, but I agree with that. He said something along the lines of I rape and pillage and murder as much as I want to, which is zero, right? I already do that as much as I want to, which is zero. That said, if people were trying to kill me at any given moment, and it was the majority of other people that were afraid of me and I was afraid of them, then we have a different scenario on our hands.
[00:49:36] Ishmael Beah: You know, I think people can theorize all the one, but I think, even this idea of civilization or civility, it depends on where, what the situation is and what is happening. I think the fear of human beings who have not experienced the depravity of life and violence, how it really gets into the community and changes everything around the fear is that they don't want to believe that they too can be capable of those things.
[00:50:01] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:50:01] Ishmael Beah: So we come up with this explanation that says that where we have layers of things. No, no, no, no. People can lose it very quickly when their life is threatened, their family's life is threatened. They don't have anything. They can lose it. They can do things they don't imagine they can do. It's very real. It's very possible. But I think we say these things because we don't want to accept that we too can be like those we condemn.
[00:50:24] Jordan Harbinger: I agree with you.
[00:50:25] Ishmael Beah: For example, let's look at the American civil war. It wasn't that long ago.
[00:50:29] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:50:29] Ishmael Beah: The American civil war was very violent. There was still a level of civility at that time in the United States of America before that happened. But people lost them very quickly between the south and the north. For reasons, some people even went to the same school. Some soldiers went to West Point and all of a sudden they have pulled them from the south, from the north, and they were willing to inflict violence on the other because of an ideology, a small way.
[00:50:52] Think about it. I think we don't want to believe it because we think that they will make us feel like, well, we're not really as civilized as the other. Maybe it's not about civility. I think it's about when you, like you said, when you push human beings' corner, where you take away certain things from them, they would go to their most carnal instinct, which is to survive and survival requests sometimes lashing out.
[00:51:15] Think about what happened during Coronavirus, right? People were going to the stores, buying everything they could. Not thinking that, "Hey, maybe my neighbor is old. They need something." Nobody thought of that. They just said, "I want the most so that I will survive." That if it's uncontrolled, you know, there are so many other things.
[00:51:32] Jordan Harbinger: This is true. Although I will say there's a lot of instances of people helping one another during Coronavirus as well.
[00:51:38] Ishmael Beah: Yes, of course.
[00:51:39] Jordan Harbinger: The news and the media focused on the worst part of humanity as they often do. But there were a lot of instances of people banding together as well. And look, don't get me wrong. If someone comes after me or my family, they're going to get cut in half, right? But I'm also not going to cut their children in half just to make them miserable.
[00:51:56] Ishmael Beah: Yeah.
[00:51:56] Jordan Harbinger: You know what I'm saying? Like there's a little bit of a difference.
[00:51:59] Ishmael Beah: But listen, even in the war in Sierra Leone, there were a lot of good moments. But because we are talking about the nature of people to slip into the horrible, that's why we're emphasizing that. Even in the war in Sierra Leone, the Sierra Leone war ended because Sierra Leone wanted it to end. Even when all of these things were going on, there were people who were very kind. It cost them their lives, who took in children, like me coming from war who nobody believed that could ever change or do anything with their lives. So these things were still happening at the same time while these other things happened where people were losing themselves completely. So it's not necessarily one or the other. You understand what I'm saying?
[00:52:35] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:52:35] Ishmael Beah: So I think what it is is that I think I've heard this a lot. For example, I'll give you an example. Some years ago, I think it was in Canada somewhere, I was on a television show and I had sat in this chair right after a Canadian soldier at the time, I think, was fighting in Afghanistan or wherever. And they were asking him all these very heroic questions about war, about decency in war, rules of war, all of these things. And then afterward, it was my turn to be interviewed. And so as soon as I sat down, the host basically said to me, "Wow, it's the first time somebody has sat in this seat that actually killed somebody."
[00:53:13] Jordan Harbinger: Yikes.
[00:53:14] Ishmael Beah: And I said to him, "Well, what about a soldier that just left?" He said, "No, but he was a professional soldier in a war in Afghanistan." I said to him, "What do you think it took for him to come home alive?"
[00:53:23] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:53:23] Ishmael Beah: What do you think it took for him? You think he was just there be like, "Hi, I'm a nice Canadian. Hey, I'm here. You know, let's talk. Hey buddy." No war is violent to require killing somebody so you can live. But I think it's easy to say that where the others are more barbaric to do it like that and we can't.
[00:53:40] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:53:40] Ishmael Beah: Because often we don't see the wars that are fought on our behalf. So it's very easy to put the hero thing around our people who come, but whereas the way it happens to us in the naked version, because we see it, and there's no hero at the end of the day in war because we all see it. We all see what becomes of everybody in that moment. And some very nice people, decent people who can go back I have met. You know, I'd also do this work as a UNICEF Goodwill ambassador. I've gone to places where I've met warlords that are completely feared by everybody. And they have grandchildren who come running in their arms in the village and be like, "Hey, Grandpa is back," or, "Papa is back," and they love them dearly. But when they enter that bush to fight, completely different.
[00:54:23] So what I mean is that these things exist everywhere in the world. It's not because some people are there, some people are not. And I think we all have those tendencies—
[00:54:30] Jordan Harbinger: Well, sure, yeah.
[00:54:31] Ishmael Beah: —when those situations are right. I will lose it. I don't want to lose it, of course. I've been through it. I came out of it. I have a family now I don't want to go there, but I will never make a promise to anybody that if things come to that level, I'll be this nice peace-loving guy be like, "Yeah. You know, I've been to war before. I love human rights and everything." No, man, if somebody tries to kill me, I can't promise you what I will do to them. I can't make any promises ahead of time because I know what that is.
[00:54:58] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I think there's definitely sort of a difference of philosophy on this. I mean, I don't have an opinion one way or the other. I'm bringing the counterpoint from Rutger Bregman that shows, you know, and historically humans have not acted on their most base instincts just given the ability to do so. It does take a lot of the downfall of what we consider civilization before that will happen. Right? It's not just, but for the police in my neighborhood, I would be murdering my neighbors because they have a nicer TV than me. There's a whole lot that has to happen before that. And it sounds like what you're saying is yes, there's a whole lot that needs to happen, but those things can happen very quickly and very suddenly, without you realizing that they're happening.
[00:55:35] Ishmael Beah: Absolutely.
[00:55:35] Jordan Harbinger: Am I on the right track?
[00:55:37] Ishmael Beah: Absolutely.
[00:55:38] Jordan Harbinger: Tell me about trying to find your family, right? You had quite a journey, you know, you were this close and it's kind of heartbreaking, well, the whole book is heartbreaking, but it's a particularly heartbreaking part of the book. Tell me about this.
[00:55:50] Ishmael Beah: Well, during the war, I think one of the things that kept me alive and going was that idea that I'll be able to find family, you know, security, immediate you can call family. That I'll be able to find them and that whatever I was going through and seen and surviving, there'll be a reason for it, for me to have gone through them. And obviously, so each time I heard where they could be, that gave me more zeal to continue, you know, to continue moving and running towards wherever I was going.
[00:56:17] Because what you have to realize is when the war reached to most people in Sierra Leone at the time, most people were not really leaving their areas going anywhere. So it was the first time most people ran away from home. And it wasn't around the time where you have like, I don't know, Google map where you could be like, all right, if I go left, I will go to the capital zone this way. You can just instinctually, you'd be like, okay, there's gunshots coming from that area. So we go this way, and the next one is coming from that area, so we go this way. And so that's what I did. And I almost found my family and then I lost them again.
[00:56:47] And so that really devastated me. And I thought to myself, well, what's the point of going in this war anymore? Why continue? And I was with a bunch of other kids who are going through the same thing. We've lost complete hope.
[00:56:59] And at this point, again, this is the part that I really want to highlight, in wars, and particularly, the one we had in Sierra Leone, people are very strategic of who they recruit. They already recruited people who are fed up with society, who are at the bottom of it, who basically have been given the shorthand of existence in society. So they're angry, they want somebody to be responsible for why their lives cannot go forward. So those people are perfect recruits.
[00:57:22] The second is people whose lives have been completely decimated. They've lost family, community, homes. They have nothing to go back to. They have nothing to lose. When you recruit those people, they are very dangerous because they don't care whether they live or die. So this is the group of people that they recruit. And I was in that category where there was no reason to be alive anymore. So I might as well do whatever I can while I'm around to survive.
[00:57:48] And also, lastly, then that idea of revenge, somebody is going to pay for what happened to me. And then there's somebody who tells you, this is the person that did that to you in the midst of all this madness, this trauma that you have. You believe them. And then that becomes your reason to fight. And so for me, all the kids who I end up within that category, and then we were willing to do whatever, because we thought, "Hey, they've destroyed our lives. We want to make sure it doesn't happen to other people. And also those who are responsible can be held accountable because there was no justice system. There was nothing going on.
[00:58:22] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, of course. So you knew that it's either, you're going to take revenge or people are going to get away with it. I mean, in the book, you're very clear, they told you, "You can leave if you want, but there's nobody who's going to protect you and there's war all around you also, you can't take any weapons or food with you, so good luck out there, man."
[00:58:40] Ishmael Beah: Yeah.
[00:58:40] Jordan Harbinger: Or, "You can fight with us. We'll protect each other like brothers and we'll get these bastards who killed your parents." And to just go over it very briefly, you tried to find your family, a friend of yours said, "Hey, your family's in this village, but first help me get some firewood." And you go with him to get firewood and you come back and the whole village is on fire.
[00:58:58] Ishmael Beah: Yep.
[00:58:58] Jordan Harbinger: And you can just know at that point that your family was likely in there. And it sounds like afterward, there was a couple of soldiers you saw. And they said, "Oh, well, we killed everyone. Nobody got away." And they had like human heads in their hand at that point, right? It's just like a scene straight out of hell. So if you hadn't gotten firewood, you might've seen your family again, but also it sounds like you would have been murdered right alongside them, right?
[00:59:23] Ishmael Beah: Absolutely. This is also the nature of just war or any kind of violent situation. Sometimes, it's the most meaningless thing that saves your life if it's not your time to die. And for many years, I wish I had gone there because the pain was so unbearable that I wish I was there. And then it would have just ended my own existence. And I didn't have to worry about it. And I blame my friend for stopping me to do that. But at the same time, probably that's what saved my life because if I had been there, I wouldn't have survived.
[00:59:51] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:59:51] Ishmael Beah: And there are so many stories you hear from Vietnam, from World War I, World War II, of moments like that. Soldiers are lined up going somewhere and somebody says that "I really need to go to the bathroom. I really need to piss around the corner," and they stand, and then that's when everybody gets gunned down.
[01:00:04] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:00:05] Ishmael Beah: There's this famous German writer, Günter Grass who wrote an article some time ago. I think it was in the New Yorker about how he was in the German army. And then his unit was pinned down, so many of the Russians were firing at everybody and they were in a bike store and the commander said, "Well if everybody gets on these bikes, we can just ride across and get a position over there." But his father never taught him how to ride a bike. And he thought to himself, "Man, I'm going to die because my father never taught me how to ride a bike."
[01:00:31] Jordan Harbinger: Oh man.
[01:00:31] Ishmael Beah: And so the commander said to him, "Well, you wait here. We'll get on the bikes. And we get on the side where we take the pyramid, so you can come." They all got on the bike and they all got killed. The only reason why he survived, because he didn't know how to ride a bike. Like how do you even—? So they always, these movements in war that's kind of happened that you were like, all right, you don't like it. But at the same time, it's the thing that saved your life. So sometimes I'm always thinking to myself, what if I don't know how to do something and somebody is not happy. Maybe it is the reason behind it. There's also going to be a reason to be lazy about many things, but you know, there's a fine line.
[01:00:59] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[01:01:00] Ishmael Beah: Anyway.
[01:01:01] Jordan Harbinger: It is interesting how fate sort of determines those things. That there's a couple of stories. One of the guests on the show recently, his father was a resistance fighter in World War II. And for some reason, he got stuck on a fence crawling under a fence and it took him another 30 seconds or something to get his clothes away from the barbed wire that had caught his clothing. And at that point, he was the last one in the truck that was taking them to go on their resistance mission against the Nazis had started going. And he goes, "If I run down the road after that truck, everyone's going to see me and it's going to attract attention. It's going to endanger everyone." So he stayed behind and went back in and looked. And as soon as that truck turned the corner, they rip through it with machine guns and killed every single person inside because somebody had either ratted them out or they were spotted, I guess, on their way out escaping from the Jewish ghetto in, I think it was Warsaw or something along those lines.
[01:01:54] And another, a friend of mine who was in Vietnam, he was not well-liked by his squad or his platoon. They always picked on him and he was in some sort of tank driving column situation. And they said, "You can't ride on the tank, you know, screw you, Marty. You've got to walk in the ditch." So they made him walk in this muddy, wet ditch that had water kind of up to his ankles. And he said, "My boots were full of water and everyone was laughing at me." And then the tank had hit a mine or something like that blew up, killed every single person on the tank. And it blew over his head because he was in a ditch. And so he has bad hearing, but he's the only one who survived out of all those guys.
[01:02:32] Ishmael Beah: Yeah.
[01:02:32] Jordan Harbinger: So it's scary to think how close we are, sometimes even in non-war situations to not seeing tomorrow. It really is terrifying if you think about it and you'd let it get to your head.
[01:02:43] Ishmael Beah: Yeah. If you let it get to you, absolutely. Like when I live in New York City, even after coming out from what I experienced, I always thought to myself, it's a miracle every day that you don't get run over by taxi cabs.
[01:02:53] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. That's true, especially in New York.
[01:02:55] Ishmael Beah: Literally, you're like, how did I even make it through the day, you know? Because any moment anything—
[01:03:01] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Man, you could be in New York, anywhere for that matter, you can be texting and you fall in an open freaking manhole or something like that. And that's the end of you, man.
[01:03:09] Ishmael Beah: Absolutely.
[01:03:10] Jordan Harbinger: You see those videos on Reddit of like a kid puts a firecracker into a little sewer grid and like the whole block blows it up. You know, it's just insane.
[01:03:17] Ishmael Beah: Yeah, absolutely.
[01:03:19] Jordan Harbinger: So how do they train you guys for battle? Because you aren't going through boot camp. You're not a professional soldier. How old were you at this point? Like 11?
[01:03:29] Ishmael Beah: At this one, I started when I was 13.
[01:03:32] Jordan Harbinger: 13. Okay.
[01:03:33] Ishmael Beah: So I was 13.
[01:03:34] Jordan Harbinger: So you're a kid. How did they train you to fight? They don't have time to run you through 10 weeks of—
[01:03:39] Ishmael Beah: No.
[01:03:39] Jordan Harbinger: —physical conditioning. What are they doing?
[01:03:41] Ishmael Beah: Well, this is the thing about war. That is very interesting, particularly at civil war. It's not like professional soldiers, they go to, you know, military batch or whatever they train for years. You know, they march every morning. No, you have been trained in the middle of war. So clearly, you know, you're going to be going there very shortly. Right? So there's that reality that you see already.
[01:04:02] So you learn on the job. So basically you're given the basics, which is that these guys who are wearing this thing over their head or wear this type of shirt or not us if you see one of them, you shoot them, rule number one. Secondly, these are some basic commands. If we do this, you crawl, we do this, you go, you dah, dah, dah, all this stuff, right? The thing about civil war or guerrilla warfare is their own predictability, anything goes. There's no rules of engagement. So, whatever walks is what you do. That's why it's so difficult and dangerous. That's why most people don't want to fight it because it's unpredictable.
[01:04:39] You will come in a place thinking that if you're walking in the bush with your platoon, there'll be a number somewhere. Maybe everybody will be up in a tree waiting for you. You will not know. You know, there are all kinds of techniques that people come up with. And these are things that you just come up with as you go along, as you learn to understand your environment. But the most basic part is just how to shoot a weapon effectively. And this is not difficult to do.
[01:05:04] People always think that weapons are not that complicated to operate. Now, obviously, if you're in a war where you're fighting every day, then you get good and make sure that you're not wasting that many bullets. Right? But to actually assemble a weapon and shoot it, it's not the most complicated thing in the world. People fear it because they don't know what it is, but it's something that you can do fairly effectively. And so, particularly, if you have weapons, like the AK-47, those very light. Weapons that little kids at the age of 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 can handle very well, you have a problem. You have a problem.
[01:05:41] Jordan Harbinger: This is probably a dumb question, but how do you even know who the enemy is? Right? You don't have uniforms.
[01:05:46] Ishmael Beah: Yep.
[01:05:47] Jordan Harbinger: So is it just the five guys that you're with are the people you know are maybe not going to kill you and everybody else is fair game?
[01:05:53] Ishmael Beah: Yep. That's basically it. You got it.
[01:05:55] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[01:05:56] Ishmael Beah: Like basically, it's instinctual. Like, for example, okay during the daytime, you can distinguish, right? For example, the squad that I was with, usually when we go by five, we'll find some type of green cloth that we tied on our heads. Right?
[01:06:07] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[01:06:07] Ishmael Beah: So if you see somebody had a green bandana on their head, you know, they're on your side. And also if you come to attack, usually have a formation or some loose, you have an idea where people are. So during the day, you can see. Somebody who doesn't have that, they're the enemy. But then take nighttime, for example, you hear a fight and firing, you think you're going to ask, "Hey, is that my friend over there? Is that John in the bushes?" No, you shoot. And then tomorrow morning you check if it was John or not. If you see him too bad. That's basically the nature of it at the time and that's it.
[01:06:40] So basically, this is also why they love recruiting kids because kids then form cliques because children like to form friendships in cliques, and that happens even in the battlefield. So they had what they call small boy units, which basically means I will be like 10, 15, 20, 25, 50 group of kids who then get to know each other and they fight for each other to keep each other alive, but then they will do whatever the commander tells them.
[01:07:06] So they become very dangerous, you know, because they know each other, they know where each other are. They fought for a bit. So they kind of know where everybody else is going. And this range from kids from age nine all the way. And by the way, girls too, in my book, I did write about girls because I decided that I wasn't a girl, so I didn't know what it felt like to fight as the girl with the added element of, you know, being sexually abused, being the wife of a commander and all of those things. So I left that story so that a girl could write about it. So that's why I deliberately decided to write about it. But there were girls who went through the same recruitment, the same hardship, in addition to all the things that happened to them and they fought. So it was children of every age and every gender.
[01:07:51] Jordan Harbinger: This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Ishmael Beah. We'll be right back.
[01:07:56] This episode is sponsored in part by Purple Mattress. Many gimmicks promise a great night's sleep, but if you're sleeping on a terrible mattress, your sleep is going to be terrible. That's why I recommend sleeping on a Purple Mattress. Only Purple Mattresses have that fancy gel flex grid that adapts and flexes around pressure points and doesn't retain heat. Basically, it's a mattress that will spoon you at night, just right no matter how you sleep. We like Purple's bestseller, the Purple Hybrid 3. I can say it truly contours your body. They got a very unique technology, support right where you need it. I also highly recommend checking out a showroom near you. We went we tried all the different models out. You can literally just, you know, jump on a few different beds or try your Purple Mattress risk-free with free shipping and returns.
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[01:11:08] Jordan Harbinger: By the way, you can now rate the show if you're listening on Spotify. It's a relatively new feature. This is a big help. I'm convinced it makes the show more visible on Spotify. Just go to jordanharbinger.com/spotify. Or probably easier, search for us in your Spotify app, click the dots on the upper right-hand side and make it happen.
[01:11:25] Now for the rest of my conversation with Ishmael Beah.
[01:11:29] Tell me about the first time that you saw combat. I almost say voluntarily, but that's not really what I mean. Tell me about the first time you saw combat, where you were involved in the combat as opposed to running from the conflict.
[01:11:42] Ishmael Beah: I mean, before I was trained to be an active soldier, I'd already seen so much violence that I was already quite traumatized.
[01:11:49] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:11:49] Ishmael Beah: But the first day that we went to war, I think, it was the most terrifying thing that ever happened to me. Just on the way there, knowing what we were going to do, but it hasn't yet happened, right? Thinking, having this feeling that I was descending into some kind of darkness into some place that was going to chip away from who I had been, that I will no longer get back truly that precise, I felt that as well, going.
[01:12:16] And then there was an ambush and then we started exchanging fire and people who looked like us were shooting at us. And there was a kid, that when we're training, had looked up to me, he was next to me and there was an explosion and his body flew and basically, his whole entire back frame fell on the stump, and he was killed. There was blood all over my face and everything, and I just lost it. I realized at that moment, listen, if I don't shoot, I'm going to end up, like everybody else was being killed next to me. So I needed to shoot and I started shooting, shooting to kill.
[01:12:50] When I was writing, I wanted to be really clear about that. I wanted to write this book because I don't want people to look at war and underestimate the violence of it. You know, I could have written this book where I came out as like, "Oh, this good kid who was in a war and refuse to shoot and just say no and he'd went there where there's war." But I was in that kid. I wish I was, I was not. And most kids who went to war are not, most people who went in war are not. They will not tell you that because it's hard to admit that.
[01:13:18] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:13:19] Ishmael Beah: But for me, I wanted to write, because I wanted people to understand that I was once a kid who loved hip hop, Run-DMC, LL Cool J, learned Shakespeare, wanted to be an economist. And then I became a soldier. And I started doing things that I didn't think I will ever be able to be in a position to do, but I did them. And I want people to see and understand that. That it's possible, but it's also possible to come up the other end as well. So I really wanted to paint that picture without kind of being like, oh, I could have written a book that glorified me. Yeah, I was this victim who just went around and people ran all over me. You know, I wasn't going to do that because that will not be the truth.
[01:13:56] Jordan Harbinger: You mentioned that you didn't really take any prisoners, right? You kill every combatant that you come across. There's no like, "I'll lock these guys.
[01:14:04] Ishmael Beah: No, civil wars don't have Abu Ghraib prison or things like that, where you bring that guy, put him here, interrogate him. You don't have that. First of all, when you move to towns and villages, you burn them down completely. So where are you going to take anybody? And you don't have the burden. It's not that you also have Russians, you're like, hey, okay, if we have this prisoner, you got to feed them, like Russians. There's not even enough for the people who are in your unit. So why you got to carry somebody around?
[01:14:26] So these are the things people don't understand about the nature of when war gets to that level. There are no prisoners when they are not needed. The only time you kept prisoners was so that when you recruited people, they can learn how to kill somebody, practicing on them. That's it, besides that there were no prisoners needed. What are you going to do with them?
[01:14:43] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, wow.
[01:14:43] Ishmael Beah: Take them to the next prison cell? Where?
[01:14:46] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[01:14:46] Ishmael Beah: The whole place has completely fallen apart.
[01:14:49] Jordan Harbinger: What about civilians?
[01:14:51] Ishmael Beah: Well, I mean, you're only a civilian until you are no longer wanted. You know, that was basically the nature of a civil war as well, but also civilians were determined in the way that as a soldier, you determine who is a civilian when they leave or die. Also, if you're a civilian-based on where you are, they can make you the enemy of this or that group. If you're behind enemy lines, if you're in a village that is taken by another group, notwithstanding the fact that you could not escape there, nobody wanted to have that explanation.
[01:15:17] It's the same way I was telling you earlier about the RUF when they write their markets on you. Nobody's ever going to say to you, oh, they forced it on you. As soon as they see you, they will just shoot you. You are a RUF. You see what I mean? It was much later after the one that people started trying to do things like that, but in the midst of the war, you can't make that distinction. Again, I'll bring it, it's the same thing when people come from fighting in the Middle East and they say, "Oh yeah, I saw somebody who had a turban on and they were coming towards me. And I freaked out." You don't have time to say, "Well, that could be my friend Abdul or that could be—" You don't because that's the nature of war. You make one mistake. It costs so many people's lives. So to avoid that, sometimes he just did the most violent, possible to avoid that mistake that could cost your life or other people in your unit's lives.
[01:16:03] Jordan Harbinger: You talked about killing prisoners with a bayonet. And then you say like two sentences later, "I hoped later I would have time to talk about Shakespeare." This is like a crazy juxtaposition, right? At the time, did you in real-time sort of realize how split in half your personality was or did that only come out later?
[01:16:22] Ishmael Beah: That only came out later. When you're in war, you don't have time to process all of that.
[01:16:25] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:16:26] Ishmael Beah: The reason why you're jumping from one emotion to another is because you don't want to sit in one. It's too uncomfortable.
[01:16:32] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:16:32] Ishmael Beah: This actually can kill you. It can weaken you from being in that world, you know? So you switch back and forth. But for me, in retrospect, what I thought about this was that most of the kids who are in the war and it is some of the adults, our commanders, were people who wanted something to happen to their lives. I mean, why would we have a unit of people who know Shakespeare? It means that they went to school before, right? So there were not just people who are civilized. They didn't go to school, but something happened. And we all found ourselves in this moment. It was also a way to normalize a little bit, this madness that we were in. Because when we are talking about Shakespeare, it sounded like we were all in our secondary school classes. We're talking to a professor, we talk about it and we'll banter a little bit.
[01:17:14] We even played soccer. When we played soccer, it was all of that to normalize a moment, a little bit. Even when we watched Rambo films, we are already fighting. I was more violent than the Rambo films. So we watched him to kind of make what we were doing light for us. And watched Rambo, we'd be like, "Ah, Rambo." It was during the war that I actually noticed that Rambo film, I was like, "What kind of people are this?" There's no way one guy can run around for like 15 minutes shooting with one magazine. It's like, well, these guys, they don't know what they're talking about. I remember all of the commanders laughing and saying that. These people who made this film have never been in a war because this guy just running around and shooting that long and he didn't change the magazine yet. You have to change at some point. He changes too late, but anyway. But imagine I was in that environment, watching that day and be like, "Sylvester Stallone is going over there."
[01:18:05] Jordan Harbinger: It's crazy to me. The majority of your training was watching Rambo movies and then actual real-life practice. That's so insane.
[01:18:13] Ishmael Beah: Of course.
[01:18:13] Jordan Harbinger: It's just unbelievable.
[01:18:14] Ishmael Beah: Because also for children, you want to make it like, it's almost like a child's play for them as well. So you want them to see that element of play, even though it's more deadly. So people who recruit you are very clever. That's what people don't realize. They think about this war and think they do this crazy mad people. Yes, they are. But they're also very clever. They're very charismatic. They know exactly what, where to tune you, what your psychological breakdowns are, what you need to hear that moment, what you need to be more angry because of what you've lost, what they can deprive you of so that it can give you something and then you can hold this to them. They know these things.
[01:18:49] This is what happens in any other military as well. It's just not as naked as that. In other life, you have a company you want your employees to, you know, you have to have a sense of leadership. When you walk in there, everybody seems like they're doing their job, but this is more pared down into a carnal level. These things are just part of how — and these guys are very smart and people don't realize that.
[01:19:16] Jordan Harbinger: You wrote that there was so much blood everywhere on the ground, in the rivers and creeks and streams that there was even blood in the tap water, and you had to run the water until it looked like water. And then you could wash up. I assume you meant that literally. Like, are you brushing your teeth and washing your face and cooking with water that's literally running with human blood?
[01:19:36] Ishmael Beah: No, no, no.
[01:19:37] Jordan Harbinger: No.
[01:19:37] Ishmael Beah: What I was saying is that at some point in certain rivers because of how there are certain parts of the country in Sierra Leone where there's a lot of rivers and you have to cross them to get to the other side. And sometimes people have gone down in front of it. And if you arrive there right after it's happened, there's a lot of blood on the surface of the water. So if you want it to get to the water, I said, you have to move the blood a little bit, so you can get to the water to wash your hands.
[01:20:00] Now, when I came out of the war, when I was in a rehabilitation center because I was still reliving for the first time, I was no longer in war and I was not moving constantly. So when I would go to open the tap to take a shower, I'll literally feel like I'm seeing blood coming out of the tap. This is more the trauma that was happening or PTSD.
[01:20:18] Jordan Harbinger: Got it.
[01:20:18] Ishmael Beah: The time that I was going through with PTSD, that word hadn't been coined yet. So you are just like some crazy guy who has seen things coming out of the water, who had these headaches.
[01:20:28] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:20:29] Ishmael Beah: You know, as much later everybody said, "Oh, it's PTSD." You're like, "Ah, okay, yeah, that's what we had you know."
[01:20:35] Jordan Harbinger: That makes more sense. Because I was envisioning like a faucet with blood running out of it and I thought that almost just doesn't make any sense.
[01:20:41] Ishmael Beah: No, no, no.
[01:20:41] Jordan Harbinger: What do I know? I don't, you know—
[01:20:43] Ishmael Beah: No.
[01:20:43] Jordan Harbinger: That is a little bit of a relief because I would just imagine that you haven't used that water and it was just like one horror on top of another.
[01:20:48] Okay. So you get selected by the United Nations to go and speak about this and you travel from Sierra Leone to New York City. Now, were you at all familiar with New York, or is it just like, yeah, I saw this on MTV once or, you know, in rap videos and that's it?
[01:21:03] Ishmael Beah: No, that's it. I mean, I've seen it on Yo! MTV Raps and some of the videos that I've seen were basically, you know, rappers driving fast and shootouts.
[01:21:11] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:21:11] Ishmael Beah: I actually wasn't looking forward to going to New York because I thought to myself, man, I just came out of a war. I don't want to go anywhere where this is going to be something I have to do again.
[01:21:20] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Yeah. I don't want to go to Queens. It's worst than Sierra Leone.
[01:21:23] Ishmael Beah: Dude, I was like, I was like, I don't want to go where I have to like run again and fight, but it was very interesting because I come out of this war where I didn't think I will survive. And then all of a sudden, actually the way I was selected is actually a very interesting story because I was asked along with several other young people to go to a building down by the government working area in the capital city here in Freetown to interview, to be selected to go to New York for this conference. That was about the impact of armed conflict on children, that the wife of Nelson Mandela, then Graça Machel had done a study and she has come to Sierra Leone and interviewed some of us. And this was the presentation of that study and testimonies, but they needed to find people to go.
[01:22:05] So I was asked to go by my counselor, who was counseling me at that time. "Go and see, I think you'd be a good fit," because I was very quiet. I never said much about what had happened to me to anybody, but he thought whenever I spoke, he said, "Whenever you speak, you say something in a way that I think people will benefit. So I think you should go." So when I went for the interview, there were other people, there were actually sons and daughters of the then-ministers who are in power, who had not experienced war, because at the time the war hadn't reached the capital city. So they were being interviewed to come to talk about things they did not know about, which is some of the reasons that had led to the war, that kind of giving the opportunity to people who don't—
[01:22:43] So I was so upset that I threw some benches and left. I never actually went to the interview. I told them if I said, "This is the reason why there was a war here and you guys are still doing the same thing. That will cause another war here you don't even know what that is." And I left and then I was selected as one of the people to go. So I never actually went through it, but I guess the sort of anger they were like, "We better let that guy go over there because he probably would say something,"
[01:23:07] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. He's got a really authentic voice. That's what they probably said. It's got a really authentic voice.
[01:23:13] Ishmael Beah: Let's just make sure he's not crazy. You know, he just came out of that war.
[01:23:17] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:23:18] Ishmael Beah: And it was the first time in my life. I had a passport. When war comes to your life, you lose everything. So I didn't have any paperwork. I knew when I was born because I'd gone into school. So they took me and the government made sure I got a passport through the UN. And I remember going to the American embassy to interview for visa and the guy asking me, "So the only way we can give you a visa if you can give us two documents to show that you intend to return to Sierra Leone after you go to New York to this conference." And I said, "Well, what are those documents?" He said, "One, a bank statement that shows you have some money in the bank. And two, a document that shows ownership of property." And I just started laughing at the American embassy and everybody was looking at me, "Why are you laughing?" And I was like, "This guy is out of touch with reality. Seriously, there's a war going on in this country. And at the time I'm only like 16 years old. I've come from a war." Then I told him, "Let's assume, I had a bank statement. Do you think that when there was a war then there was a gunshot, I was waiting outside and I was like, you know, let me print my bank statements before I leave?"
[01:24:15] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:24:15] Ishmael Beah: Or let me get my document. I was like, you know, are you serious, man?
[01:24:21] Jordan Harbinger: Like you're running out of your burning house and you're like, "Ah, I need my ATM card."
[01:24:26] Ishmael Beah: Yeah, I need my ATM card, my bank details. You know, I'm like really? And the only reason why I got the visa because I had the UN back in because the guy was kind of frozen looking at me like, "What is wrong with this kid?" And I'm like, "Listen, man, there's no proof I can tell you. The fact that I don't know where I'm going, I've never even thought I'll go to New York. I've never even been on a plane in my life. So, I mean, I have no intent on staying down until you brought it up. Now, I'm thinking about it, you know?
[01:24:52] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, you mean, I never thought about the idea that I could just never get on the flight.
[01:24:56] Ishmael Beah: Then just come back, you know? And I thought that was funny. People who work for the government, particularly in immigration, they have no sense of humor whatsoever.
[01:25:05] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:25:06] Ishmael Beah: Or they have none.
[01:25:08] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. You're like, no, man, it's cool. I'm going to be a rapper. I got a plan and everything.
[01:25:12] Ishmael Beah: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I got a plan. There's a record company waiting for me.
[01:25:15] No, but anyway, so we finally got the visas and everything. Then they got us these suitcases like big rolling suitcases and I just come from this war. So at the time, I only had four pairs of clothing, you know, two long pants and shirts that went with it and two short pants. So I could have probably worn everything and sat on the plane with all of them. And I was still looked like nothing was going on.
[01:25:37] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[01:25:38] Ishmael Beah: So they got us this big suitcase. And I remember going to the airport, this empty suitcase with those few things I had in it and just having them check it in and then looking at me kind of like, "Okay, why is he checking in an almost empty bag?" I was like, "Yeah, maybe I'm going to get some things for them and bring them." Anyway, we got on this plane.
[01:25:54] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:25:54] Ishmael Beah: With a chaperone who was coming with, who also, I don't know why he was our chaperone because it was also his first time going on a plane, a trip. So I'm like, "Well, who is chaperoning who? Why are we going with this guy who doesn't know anything like that?" So we got on this plane myself and another kid who was also a former soldier. It was a KLM flight from Freetown then to Amsterdam, to Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, and then from there to JFK. We sit on this plane and the plane starts to take off. And it's cold on the plane. Like I'm saying, this is the first time in my life that I felt cold so much. My teeth were chattering and it was because the AC was on, you know, the thing on the top.
[01:26:31] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, the AC,
[01:26:32] Ishmael Beah: I didn't know at the time that these things, you could turn it all, you could regulate it. So I'm literally sitting there thinking to myself, I got to jump off this plane. Literally, I was thinking I was, I got to jump off before we actually leave the airspace of Sierra Leone because I knew even if I broke my leg, I will be guaranteed warm weather. So I'm going to jump off. And I started thinking, I wish let's wait and see. And then the flight attendant gave us a blanket. She realized what was going on the whole thing. It's like, we're going to another planet. I never imagined I would be good. And we came to New York. It was in the winter.
[01:27:02] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my God.
[01:27:03] Ishmael Beah: And nobody told us.
[01:27:04] Jordan Harbinger: That must have been a wake-up call, man.
[01:27:06] Ishmael Beah: Nobody told us.
[01:27:07] Jordan Harbinger: New York in the winter.
[01:27:08] Ishmael Beah: And also our chaperone didn't know where we were going. So none of us had any jackets. So we got out of the plane at JFK and were standing by the door and there are these white things falling out of the sky. And I'm thinking to myself what happened? That's strange. I've never seen that before. And my friend said, "No, you've seen this Christmas film. It must be Christmas. Because you know this Christmas theme that I've seen before, things like that fall out of the sky." "Ah, so maybe it's Christmas. But how come it's not Christmas from we're coming from?" Anyway, we step outside. It was so cold. I felt my face was going to fall off. I said I want to go back. So contrary to what people say that when immigrants come, they want to stay. I wanted to go back. I was like, I'm going back to warm weather. This is inhumane. Nobody can live in this environment. I want to go back. I can't live here. You know, I fought in a war. I survived. I'm going to die here in this cold where I can barely walk. I was like, no way, man. And so that was basically it, man.
[01:27:59] Jordan Harbinger: Oh man, this is quite the story. And there's more in the book as well about, you know, you returned to Sierra Leone had to essentially escape again. I mean, I'll go over some of it in the show closed, but it's just absolutely insane. The idea of having to escape your home country again, after this civil war really was, it really is just such a harrowing tale. And I don't want to keep you too much longer, but look, you've since returned to Sierra Leone, right? It's a safer place now. Is that where you are now?
[01:28:28] Ishmael Beah: Yes, I'm actually speaking to you from Freetown, which is the capital city right now. I've moved back here with my family. I have three kids now. So I mean, clearly you can see that I went through it. I've survived.
[01:28:41] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. You have better Internet than I do.
[01:28:46] Now, you've got three kids of your own. Is there a part of you that's at all worried that something like this could happen again to them as well?
[01:28:54] Ishmael Beah: No, I think because I've lived in it and I can see where such things are going to happen. I try to raise them in environments where they will not have to go through that because you know, for me, as their father, I think there's one person in their family line that I've experienced. And that's enough. I don't think they need to, you know? Now they go and live in places where they are not certain things that they are used to. For example, before we moved here, we were living in Malibu. So these are my kids.
[01:29:22] Jordan Harbinger: Malibu.
[01:29:23] Ishmael Beah: Yeah.
[01:29:23] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[01:29:24] Ishmael Beah: We moved from Malibu to Freetown. I don't think you see that travel pattern very often.
[01:29:28] Jordan Harbinger: No.
[01:29:28] Ishmael Beah: We're probably the only people who bought that ticket. But what I'm trying to say is that I try to raise my kids because you know, I've done something on myself in privileged, but having them also aware that they have privilege, having them aware that it's not like that for the rest of the world, having them appreciate the privileges they have.
[01:29:47] And I think everybody's children should have privileges. They should be raised well, they should be able to thrive well, but just as an awareness that not everybody has that. And how do you, what do you do with that? So we try to raise them and travel with them in spaces that they can see and understand those things. And my eldest is seven and she's almost eight in February. And she's beginning to ask me questions about things. Like I remember when she was, for example, five years old, she was in school and they were doing a Greek play and she chose Athena, the goddess of war. And she asked me, "So what is the goddess of war?" and I'm like, "You shouldn't talk," I said, "Talk to your mother. She'll explain to you." Like, I'm not ready for this one.
[01:30:27] Jordan Harbinger: No, ask me this question in 10 years.
[01:30:30] Ishmael Beah: But at the same time, I'm slowly trying to explain to them what these things are so that it doesn't become that grand conversation we need to have. One day, this is a story by your father, I don't want that because it's part of who I am, whether you like it or not. So I want to explain it to them slowly and slowly. And most importantly, what I've observed from people that have been around from people that I know, you know, I was adopted in a Jewish family in New York and that Jewish family came from their own suffering from the Holocaust and all of that.
[01:31:00] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[01:31:00] Ishmael Beah: And through that experience, I really learned from them. And so if you're not careful how you can transfer trauma to the next generation of your offspring or people in your family, just by this mere fact of wanting to prevent that from happening to them so much, sometimes you can give it to them without even thinking. So then you begin to shift how they see the world because you've seen the world that way. So you don't give them space to see the world anew. So I've been very careful about that. I want my children to make their own mistakes, not fatal ones, but I don't want to give them my eyes of the world because of what I experienced. You understand?
[01:31:37] So for me, as a father, this is what is very crucial to me. So, which is why I moved back to them because I wanted to experience Sierra Leone now, not Sierra Leone I experienced so that when they talk about Sierre Leone, they'll be like, "Oh, is that place that I went to the beach, I went to Banana Island. I went to canoeing and I did this. I went swimming. I went fishing. I did that." So it's their story. You know do you understand?
[01:32:01] Jordan Harbinger: So yeah, I do. Man, really thank you so much. I'd love to come to visit you over there someday because I'd love to see Sierra Leone and meet you. You're just an incredible person. Your story is incredible. And I just want to thank you so much for doing the show and being so open. You know, you really didn't hold anything back and I appreciate that and so does everyone listening.
[01:32:18] Ishmael Beah: Thank you so much for your questions, and I'm going to hold you to that. You have to come and do the show from Freetown, Sierra Leone, Africa. Yeah and we got the studio right here.
[01:32:28] Jordan Harbinger: That's right.
[01:32:28] Ishmael Beah: You know, so let's do it.
[01:32:29] Jordan Harbinger: That's right. Yeah, man. I would love to and thank you to everyone who helped over there as well. You know, I know this is quite the setup, so thank you very much, dude. We went to the right to the end of the time and I really, really enjoyed this. So really thank you so much.
[01:32:44] Ishmael Beah: Thank you, Jordan. It's been a pleasure.
[01:32:48] Jordan Harbinger: You're about to hear a preview of The Jordan Harbinger Show with pickpocket king, Bob Arno.
[01:32:53] Bob Arno: Pickpockets don't talk. They lift and do everything in silence. I have spent 20, 30 years befriending or getting very, very close into how they work and some are very charming by the way. And that goes with the territory, that's a very good smile and like a ping-pong, very quickly, boom, boom, back and forth. There's nothing slow. The thief picks it but the pickpocket never holds. So he passes it on to a partner. So if the police catches him two seconds after, he's cleaned. There's nothing on him. There was none of this usual pickpocketing. The elegance was unbelievable. I have to look at it at least 10 times before I could see what the hell did I see.
[01:33:40] Jordan Harbinger: To learn pickpocket tricks of the trade and how to protect yourself against thieves, pickpockets, and scam artists, check out episode 530 of The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:33:51] Oh man, I could have gone on for a while with this guy. The kids were just left with no choice, but to turn into the very thing that they were running from. And that's really what this is all about, right? They were turned into killing machines, watching Rambo every night and strung out on drugs. There's stories in the book of guys, kids' wearing three or five watches on one wrist because they'll kill people and then take their valuables. And there'll be wearing five, six, seven watches. And it is just kind of like a disgusting trophy of war, but remember these are children.
[01:34:22] So later on, after Ishmael loses his parents within a few weeks or months, he goes on to describe going on these raids and looking for food and looking for weapons. He talked about that during the show, but of course, he's also killing civilians, and now these are someone else's parents, right? So now he's just as bad in a way as the people who killed his parents. And it's just an unbelievably cruel irony.
[01:34:44] Later on, of course, the United Nations, "Why don't we do something?" Right? The United Nations tried to do something. UNICEF goes in, grabs a bunch of these kids, and puts them in school but, of course, they just mixed kids from all over the place. So there's different sides, in different militias, in government-allied kids, in rebel allied kids and fights break out and they're killing each other in this UN school, stabbing each other in the cafeteria. I mean, it's just absolutely a total mess with no easy solution.
[01:35:10] And after the show, again, like I said, I could have gone on for hours, but after he leaves Sierra Leone to go talk to the UN, he later returns. And when he returns to Sierra Leone, there's a bloody, bloody coup. So the rebel movement finally makes its way into the capital cities in the main cities. And they're robbing bank vaults and they're robbing people. And they're blowing open buildings with RPGs and blowing open anything with money with rocket-propelled grenades. They're setting prisoners and prisons free. They're arming these prisoners. So the prisoners then are going around killing people. They're going, killing the police. They're killing the judges and the families of the judges that put them in prison. So it's chaos in the street with the literal death squads, executing entire families along with children for, quote-unquote, "crimes" like listening to pirate radio stations with actual world news, as opposed to the government propaganda station, which became the only thing you were allowed to listen to during this crazy insurgency. They were dumping bodies in the gutter.
[01:36:08] I mean, it truly sounds like hell, like actual hell on earth. So Ishmael, obviously, made it, right? He escapes again, this part of the story is just bonkers. I really should've just made him stay late and kept him from his family dinner and made him tell the rest of the story. It's just unbelievable. He decides he has to escape again. He's living with an uncle, right? He has no parents. The uncle, caretaker passes away. There's no one left there. He's looking out the window and seeing this chaos and he's just waiting to get murdered at this point. So he sneaks out and it has to avoid these checkpoints by crawling through gutters with rats and dead rotten bodies in them.
[01:36:45] He goes to an old bus station. He gets into a blacked-out bus with everything painted black, even the tie, the rims of the tires are spray painted black, driving through what sounds like jungle back roads to escape, insanely, dangerous. You know, everyone's got to be quiet, even inside the bus. They're going very slowly through almost no roads. It's illegal. Of course, at this point to leave the city because the rebels want to essentially keep people trapped there so that the entire country doesn't just fall apart and end up entirely deserted. They get stopped at the border by officials and these officials, instead of trying to get people out of the country, they're robbing everybody who's trying to leave Sierra Leone. So imagine having to pay to escape your home country, which is now ravaged by civil war. It just sounds like the country itself had essentially become a prison we're staying in it is a death sentence itself.
[01:37:37] Unbelievable, just incredibly harrowing. Thank you so much to Ishmael for being so open about something so horrible and bringing his story to us here today. Links to all things Ishmael will be on the website. Of course, he's got some great books. I encourage you to read. Please use our website links if you do buy the books from the guests on the show, it helps support the show. Transcripts are in the show notes. And there's a video of this interview going up on our YouTube channel, jordanharbinger.com/youtube. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram, or you can also hit me on LinkedIn. I love connecting with you wherever you find me.
[01:38:10] I'm teaching you how to connect with amazing people like Ishmael and manage relationships using systems, software, tiny habits. The same ones that I use every single day. That's our Six-Minute Networking course. The course is free. It's over at jordanharbinger.com/course. I'm teaching you how to dig that well before you get thirsty and build relationships before you need to rely on them. And like I said, most of the guests on the show subscribe and contribute to the course. So we'll be learning from amazing folks. You'll be in smart company where you belong.
[01:38:37] The show is created in association with PodcastOne. My team is Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Millie Ocampo, Ian Baird, Josh Ballard, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. And if you know someone who loves incredible stories, I think this is a good one to share with them. Hopefully, you find something great in every episode. The greatest compliment you can give us is to share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
[01:39:11] Hey, if you're a fan of true crime, check out Court Junkie. Court Junkie is a true-crime podcast hosted by Jillian Jalali. They cover court cases and criminal trials. Learn about a nurse at a Texas hospital who was charged with murdering his patients. We did an episode about that on this show as well if you recall. Prosecutors claim he's a serial killer, but he, of course, says he's innocent. Hear from a local reporter who gives his perspective on the case. And what happened to 13-year-old Dylan Redwine. Dylan's father Mark went on trial last year for his murder. Hear all the important testimony from both the prosecution and the defense. Host Jillian Jalali uses audio clips and interviews to focus on the fact of one true crime case per episode. And in the end, you, the listener get to decide, did the criminal justice system actually work and get it right? Subscribe to Court Junkie on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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