I am sure most of us have heard of child soldiers. For many of us, it’s hard to imagine the horrors that these children have gone through. Ishmael Beah provides a window into the life of a child soldier with his book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, published in 2008 by Farah, Straus and Giroux.
As a young boy, Beah lives with his brother, Junior in Sierra Leone. Their parents are separated and the young boys stay with their father, who refuses to pay for their education. The boys turn to rap music, forming their own group at a young age.
Beah is ten when he first hears about the war stories from refugees passing in their town. At the time, it all seems distant and the stories appear grossly exaggerated. When the rebels later attack his village, Beah and his friends have travelled to Mattru Jong, a town several miles away, to participate in a talent competition. In the chaos that ensues Beah and Junior are not able to locate their families.
After the attack, Beah and his friends manage to stay together. They walk many miles, hungry and thirsty, eventually finding refuge in Kamator village. There, however, Beah and his friends find they are not welcome. Beah intensely describes the boys’ reactions to the war and to being without their families.
When the rebels attack Kamator, Beah is separated from his brother and friends. The young boy escapes. Physically and emotionally exhausted, all he knows is that he’s a long way gone from home. May times he doesn’t know where he is headed to, at one time he gets lost in a big forest, with only wild animals for company. He later meets up with another group of boys, who become his friends, and he travels with them from village to village. In many places they go to, they are turned away for they are unable to prove they are not a threat. In one village, their tattered shoes are taken away from them, and they have to walk barefoot in the sand with temperatures above 120 degrees. By the time they find a place to rest, their feet are burnt with pieces of flesh hanging from them (feet). And yet the worst is yet to come.
Later Beah and his friend are taken in by government soldiers. They undergo crude military training, where they are taught to:
“Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family and those responsible for everything that has happened to you…”
As they are handed their weapons – some boys too young to even lift them – the lieutenant tells them,
“This gun is you source of power in these times. It will protect you and provide you all you need, if you know how to use it well.”
And use it Beah does, further emboldened by drugs like cocaine, marijuana and brown-brown (a mixture of cocaine and gun powder). Between the cocktail drugs, exhaustion and his new training as a killer, Beah ceases to be human- he hardly sleeps, no longer feels or thinks. He just does what he is ordered to do – kill people. The rule is to kill or be killed. He comes to enjoy it at some level:
“….. The idea of death didn’t cross my mind at all and killing had become as easy as drinking water…….”
After a couple of years, he is rescued by UNICEF and put into rehabilitation. The process is not easy; most of the boys have nightmares and fights among them are common. But gradually, they are molded into human beings again. Beah is taken in by an uncle in Freetown but soon tragedy strikes again, and eventually the young boy seeks refuge in Guinea.
Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is a remarkable account. The writing is so vivid that sometimes one can’t help but wonder how a person can experience such horrors and still come out sane. But Beah shows it is possible.