Friday, January 18, 2008


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

My high school friends in New York City 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 book is Ishmael Beah's response to variations of that conversation. Sometimes it is impossible to grasp the things that really do go on in our world. Ishmael was forced into the Sierra Leonean army when he was 12 years old, after his family had all been killed and his village burned. He hid in the jungles and foraged for food for several months, but eventually he had to choose between joining the army or being killed by rebels. Sounds like the tactics of both groups were pretty similar: take a bunch of traumatized kids, get them hooked on drugs (marijuana, cocaine, and a sniffable mixture of cocaine and gunpowder known as brown brown) , and brainwash them into becoming killing machines.

Ishmael was one of the lucky ones. He was rescued by an NGO that sent him to a rehabilitation center for boys who had been in the war. Over time, his body went through withdrawal from the drugs, and he found a few people he trusted enough to talk with about his horrific experiences in the Sierra Leonean bush. I really cannot even begin to describe what this child went through, the wounds (both physical and psychic) that he survived and the suffering he inflicted on others when he was too far from himself to know any better. It really is necessary to read the story in Ishmael's voice. His writing is spare and succinct, yet oddly beautiful and compelling. He writes of his lost childhood and family with very little self-pity. Of course he has regrets and sadness about the past, and feels his losses keenly. He is tormented still by the memories of killing people and seeing his friends killed. He also seems to realize, though, how fortunate he was to escape when so many did not.

The book ends with Ishmael escaping to the United States to attend the United Nations International School in New York. His journey was perilous, as violence had broken out yet again in his country and he was in very real danger of being forced back into the army. Eventually, Ishmael went to Oberlin College, where he was a classmate with two of my family members. I hope at some point he writes about his experiences in adjusting to life in the United States and the comparatively safe world of the college campus. I wonder if he thought everyone around him was incredibly clueless.

Ishmael Beah shares a hopeful story of redemption and rehabilitation. However, when his book ends one cannot help but feel so sad for all those kids who died in the jungle, or who ended up returning to the army because they had no other options (if any family members survive at all, they sometimes will not welcome the child soldiers back into the fold because of they are afraid of them). There is still so much work to be done in healing our world. Two of the organizations involved in Ishmael's rescue and rehab were UNICEF and Children Associated with War (CAW). I plan to get on their websites this weekend and try to find out how people here can help with helping as many kids as possible rebuild their lives. I know Uganda also uses child soldiers, and no doubt there are other places where these atrocities are going on. Surely it does not have to be this way.

Reverent Reader


At 1/24/08, 7:12 PM , Blogger Laura said...

Thank you for this thorough review. I think I need to read this.

At 1/25/08, 10:28 AM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Laura -
Thanks for writing. "A Long Way Gone" is difficult to read from an emotional standpoint, but I believe it is an important book. If you like to read and discuss books, I hope you will be back!

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