A Long Way Gone – memoirs of a boy soldier
New York City, 1998
My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.
– “Why did you leave Sierra Leone?”
– “Because there is a war.”
– “Did you witness some of the fighting?”
– “Everyone in the country did.”
– “You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”
– “Yes, all the time.”
I smile a little.
– “You should tell us about it sometime.”
– “Yes, sometime.”
This is how begins this vivid, heartbreaking testimony of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone.
Ishmeal Beah was born 1980 in the village in Sierra Leone and lived life common for boy of his age, was in loved in rap music, have his own “bend” who imitated famous rap performers, he recited monologues of Macbeth and Julius Caesar at the gatherings of elder people in the village (did I say common for boy of his age? I guess I should add “more/less common”), and knowing that there is a war “somewhere”. The only war he was familiar about was from the movies like “Rambo”.
Sadly he will find out very soon what the war is. On one common day war came into his life; when he was 11 Sierra Leone swept into chaotic civil war between Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the official (and corrupted) Action People Congress (APC). Of course there is no good war but while reading this testimony I was so confused with the extreme confusion (sounds stupid). Namely, as if there were numerous fractions that have fought against each other. Everyone who is not in your group is potential enemy (and the best/safest way to find out is to shoot before question is asked). Beah with his friends was running away from the RUF through the country and in every singe village people were so frightened by them and have leaved the village. They were trapped more than once and they had to explain that they are running away from the war so they can’t be soldiers!
Now the question is Why on earth the whole village is so afraid of one group of 7 boys? And indeed, question sounds quite reasonable but then, the main characteristic of the Sierra Leone civil war (as well as the civil war in neighboring Liberia) were precisely groups of boys (child) – soldiers. I was finding myself numerous times speechless toward the brutality they were capable to commit! I was often observing smiling face of Ishmael on the back cover in disbelief that he (and his friends) have took part in those events described in the book. It was really hard to believe.
In the same time it is very positive that we have a chance to read chronicle of the brutal life of child soldier because this is something that is happening in this moment as well and I’m not sure how much we are aware of that. There are more than 300.000 child soldiers around the world (according to UN) and huge majority is from the conflict region in sub-Saharan Africa (where Sierra Leone is) so this book is actually the voice of those 300.000+ children and is trying to break the wall of deafness of the western world.
You could ask yourself how come such an enormous brutality in the mind of one child (I was wondering the same) and this book is describing so perfectly process of brain washing. Of course children are quite easy material for manipulation.
Ishmael tried to avoid all this. As I said he was running away from the war with his friends, he was separated from his brother and later from the friends, he was living alone in the forest, sleeping on the tree but eventually government corps have found him and offered “sanctuary” in one village under their protection.
But as I said, mind of a kid is easy to be washed, especially mind that longing for its happy days from the past which will never be back and in the same time the main culpable have been presented to it. In order to help there is always sufficient amount of drugs, memory of their killed families, films with “Rambo” and his powerful fist of revenge. And of course on the other side are (imagine this!) vengeance seeking groups of children soldier! And that is the never ending circle.
Life in Rehabilitation Centre and the process itself was everything but not easy. He was drug addict, brain washed, full of hatred toward “civilians”, tormented by nightmares and of course sadness. But workers in the centre were constantly repeated mantra: “This isn’t your fault” and that was the hardest thing to adopt. Children in the camp were completely lost, they were taken from the forest, from the war and settled into the place were there is no need to be constantly careful, where there is no killings, shooting, and there is no drugs! We can see how slow but constant progress of the method is but sadly we’re seeing how little is necessary to destroy the whole process when the war reappears.
Ishmael lives in New York and is a member of Human Rights Watch and some other international organizations and considering this is the well known fact (as well as the topic of this book) I wrote liberally this review and therefore you might think there are some spoilers. I think whatever I wrote here will not spoil your impression (meaning, will not decrease shock while you reading quite graphic descriptions from Ishmael’s childhood).
And don’t object his writing style, it would be ridiculous (sometime I was forgetting what I’m holding and was analyzing construction but then I asked myself “What are you doing???”)
You can visit his site here: A Long Way Gone and check my Beats of No Nation review, novel written by Uzodinma Iweala with very similar topic.
This is the page of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.