A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

Summer 2007 CSANews Issue 63  |  Posted date : Aug 07, 2007.Back to list

A Long Way Gone is a gritty, beautifully written book about the civil war in Sierra Leone, and the children who are forced to fight it.

Ishmael Beah comes from a culture of storytelling. And in clear accessible prose, he transports us along on his journey to the depths of hell.

At seven, Beah was a gentle and gifted boy who recited Shakespeare; at eight, he formed a rap and dance group. He lived in a town called Mogbwemo. His grandfather was a respected scholar of Arabic studies and his father worked for an American company. Americans working for that company lived in their own compound, and that is where Ishmael was exposed to the music videos and cassettes that he and his friends mimed.

Readers should read the book’s historical chronology before beginning the text. It will help to put the Sierra Leone situation in the early 1990s in context, and will give meaning to the acronyms used to identify the combatants.

In January 1993, when Ishmael was 12, his idyllic childhood came to a traumatizing end. While he and his friends were visiting a nearby town to perform in a talent show, Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels destroyed his village and butchered anyone who didn’t escape. The boys went back to look for their families, but found only dead bodies and chaos.

Separated from their parents, Beah and six other boys wandered the land, hiding from the rebels, starving, lonely and afraid. They could turn to no one for help. As one old man cautioned, “our country has lost its good heart. People don’t trust each other any more.”

Months later, Beah learned of the location to which his family had escaped, only to watch helplessly from a hilltop as the rebels killed everyone and torched the village where they were staying.

At 13, Beah writes, he was picked up by the government army and joined its forces. Disturbed by the loss of his family and fuelled by drugs, he was angry enough to be capable of any act of brutality. He writes that after a time, he felt nothing, even when he looked into the eyes of a man whose throat he was cutting.

In his words, “we had been fighting for over two years, and killing had become a daily activity. I felt no pity for anyone. My childhood had gone by without my knowing, and it seemed as if my heart was frozen.”

In January 1996, fate intervened once again for Ishmael. His lieutenant had been impressed by Ishmael's ability to quote Macbeth and recommended that he be chosen for a new UNICEF rehabilitation project in Freetown; Ishmael was 16 years old.

Beah portrays the U.N. officials as naive and courageous. Naive because they tried to make roommates of government soldiers and rebel boys; courageous because they persevered with these young killers through their drug-withdrawal stages.

For example, even though the boys beat Poppay (a custodian) so severely that he was taken unconscious to the hospital, he returned smiling: “it's not your fault that you did such a thing to me.” That was the daily mantra at the facility – “it's not your fault!”

Finally, five months into the treatment, Beah was invited to perform for visitors from UNICEF and The European Commission. He read a monologue from Julius Caesar and performed a short, hip hop play that he had written about the redemption of a child soldier.

In the eighth month, Beah was 'repatriated' with an uncle whom he had never met and was taken into the family as a son. They gave him unconditional love and helped him through the “survivor guilt” phase. The sad part is that some of the boy soldiers were not accepted by their relatives and were sent back to fight.

Because of his performance for the UNICEF officials, Ishmael was chosen to represent Sierra Leone at a UN conference in New York. At the UN assembly, Beah offered himself as proof that, “children can be rehabilitated.” He made the eloquent plea that although he had been “a long way gone,” he was back among humanity.

Beah later fled to New York when unrest again developed in Sierra Leone. He completed high school and college there and now lives in Brooklyn.

A Long Way Gone is a bestseller and has been described as, “one of the most important war stories of our generation.” Ishmael Beah has given a voice to the other 300,000 boy soldiers of Africa, who can’t speak for themselves.

Willa McLean is a freelance writer who lives in Kitchener