In 1991 a vicious civil war overtook Sierra Leone, the country in which he was living. The rebels invaded Beah’s hometown, Mogbwemo, located in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone, and he was forced to flee. Separated from his family, he spent months wandering south with a group of other boys. At the age of 13, he was forced to become a child soldier. According to Beah’s account, he fought for almost three years before being rescued by UNICEF. Beah fought for the government army against the rebels. In 1997, he fled Freetown by the help of the UNICEF due to the increasing violence and found his way to New York City, where he lived with Laura Simms, his foster mother. In New York City, Beah attended the United Nations International School. After high school, he enrolled at Oberlin College and graduated in 2004 with a degree in Political Science.
During his time in the Sierra Leonean government army, Beah says he doesn’t remember how many people he killed. He and other soldiers smoked marijuana and sniffed amphetamines and « brown-brown », a mix of cocaine and gunpowder. He blames the addictions and the brainwashing for his violence and cites them and the pressures of the army as reasons for his inability to escape on his own: « If you left, it was as good as being dead. »
During a February 14, 2007 appearance on The Daily Show with host Jon Stewart, Beah said that he believed that returning to civilized society was more difficult than the act of becoming a child soldier, saying that dehumanizing children is a relatively easy task. Rescued in 1996 by a coalition of UNICEF and NGOs, he found the transition difficult. He and his fellow child soldiers fought frequently. He credits one volunteer, Nurse Esther, with having the patience and compassion required to bring him through the difficult period. She recognized his interest in American rap music and reggae since he was a kid, gave him a Walkman and a Run DMC cassette, and employed music as his bridge to his past, prior to the violence. Slowly, he accepted her assurances that « it’s not your fault. »