A Long Way Gone Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Sierra Leone)

book coverby Ishmael Beah

Courtesy of a purchase from Banana Books in Long Beach, Washington

This was a hard book to read. I had to take a few breaks from it. It’s well-written and riveting, of course. (Part of why it was hard to put down, too.) At times the main character becomes so sad his bones ache.

Sierra Leone MapWhen Ishmael Beah was 12 years old, he left home with his brother Junior and some friends to go to a talent show in another town. They were amateur rappers and kept cassettes of Run DMC and other popular American groups in their pockets. They had no way of knowing that this talent show and those tapes were about to save their lives.

Young Ishmael had already been through some trauma–his parents had divorced and he was living with his father. But there was worse to come. Much, much worse.

tribes of Sierra Leone
Tribes of Sierra Leone: Ishmael and his friends know all the 18 languages spoken in their country

While the group of kids was walking to the next town, murder, rape and civil war were breaking out right behind them. Literally. They arrived to find that school and the talent show had been cancelled. Their hometown had been attacked and their parents and little brother, who lived with the mother, had fled. The town was on fire. They had nothing to go back to, but they tried anyway. After seeing the refugees on the road, however, they realized if they went back they would just die too. So they had to flee forward.

This beach is calm, but Ishmael came to one where the waves hit the sand so hard, they threw particles of sand high into the sky.

They ran from the civil war, but it followed them. After several encounters with hostile and suspicious villagers who tried to kill them before realizing they were just little boys, Ishmael and his brother got separated.

Ishmael kept running. The rap tapes in his pocket and his ability to moonwalk convinced many a murderous village headman that he was, in fact, a child. But finally the tapes were taken from him and burned as he was captured by government forces and made into a soldier. A child soldier. He was forced to torture and kill many rebels, some his age or younger. He was fed marijuana and cocaine daily and of course became addicted.

Ishmael's village
Ishmael’s village

“We were on our way to attack a small town that had ammunition and food. As soon as we left the coffee farm, we unexpectedly ran into another armed group at a soccer field adjoining the ruins of what had once been a village. We opened fire until the last living being in the other group fell to the ground. We walked toward the dead bodies, giving each other high fives. The group had also consisted of young boys like us, but we didn’t care about them. We took their ammunition, sat on their bodies, and started eating the cooked food they had been carrying. All around us, fresh blood leaked from the bullet holes in their bodies.”

FreetownEventually UNICEF got ahold of him and freed him from the army. He was deprogrammed and detoxified, a painful and lengthy process. Of course, he was still traumatized. I don’t know if I could get over something like that. But Ishmael was lucky. He had a living half-uncle who cared, and who took him in as a member of his family. This uncle was a kind man, who treated Ishmael as his own son.

the Tree in FreetownBut then the war came to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and his uncle got very sick…all the hospitals were closed and it became impossible to get medicine or even food. After his uncle died, Ishmael realized he had to get out of Sierra Leone. It wasn’t just the famine and the civil war. If he were recaptured by government soldiers and he refused to rejoin them, he would be killed. If the rebels got ahold of him and discovered he’d been a government soldier, he would be killed. I think he was 16 years old at this point.

village with round hutsWhy. WHY would adults, the descendants of slaves from all over Africa, make slaves of children? It is cruel and barbaric and evil and it makes no sense. But it happened, and is no doubt happening today. I hate this. I know you hate it too.

Well, Ishmael survived to write this memoir, of course. And he was eventually rescued by a woman in New York who adopted him. She had met him when he came to the U.S. to speak to the United Nations about the war and what it was doing to the country’s children. If I had a criticism about this book, it would be that it ends abruptly. You’re with Ishmael through some hair-raising horror, and with him on the bus to Guinea, the only safe country around Sierra Leone at that time (Charles Taylor was doing terrible things in Liberia) and you don’t know if he’s even gonna make it out, and then suddenly he gets to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, where the Sierra Leone ambassador lets SL refugees sleep in the Embassy if they have nowhere else to go, and you breathe a sigh of relief and–THE END.

Conakry in Guinea
Conakry, Guinea

There’s no mention of how, having entered Guinea illegally, which he mentions will turn out to be a big problem later, he makes it to the U.S. Or about his mother adopting him, beating the pants off American kids at paintball after having been a child soldier, about his troubles being a child again, or as he says, enjoying the little childhood he has left.

I guess my problem with the book is that I didn’t want it to end! So, not really a problem. (A first world problem?) There are a few scenes in the first chapters of the book about Ishmael having flashbacks and nightmares in New York, but at that point you haven’t lived through the bad stuff yet so I couldn’t really appreciate them.

Anyway, hats off to Ishmael Beah for surviving. I am so sorry that all this happened to you, kid. Maybe the reason Ishmael alone, out of all his family, lived, is because he was supposed to tell his story. Our job is to bear witness, and do what we can to help from far away. Even when it hurts to watch.

Five bowls of fish stew.

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