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In A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah uses recurring symbols to represent oppression and freedom. For example, fire and smoke are often literally and figuratively associated with the oppression that Beah experienced during raids and war. Fire and smoke represent destruction, and Beah comments on this at several points in his memoir: the initial raid on a neighboring village, raided villages encountered on the journey, and the suprise attacks in the north near his uncle's home. Similarly, Beah uses the image of the flag to represent freedom. When he is removed from the war by UNICEF, he sees the flag in the capitol city. This move to the rehabilitation facility was Beah's first step to freedom.
Earlier in the story, a rebel messenger comes to Mattru Jong to tell the people that the rebels will be coming to the village. They expect to be welcomed without reservations, as they claim to be fighting for everyone. The messenger has the initials RUF (which refers to the Revolutionary United Front) carved on his body; this mutilation is purported to have been done with a hot bayonet. Most disturbingly, the messenger's fingers have all been chopped off, with the exception of his thumbs. The rebels rationalize this act of torture and mutilation as "one love."
Previous to the civil war, "people raised a thumb to say “One love” to each other, an expression popularized by the love and influence of reggae music." However, the stark evidence of mutilation now becomes a symbol of oppression. Any child soldier with the initials RUF carved on him will face certain death if he ever attempts to escape. Maverick soldiers with the initials can be shot on sight by other militants. Thus, the ritual mutilation symbolizes the oppression child rebel soldiers are subjected to. Additionally, rebel soldiers are often conscripted from the ranks of civilian communities. Once conscripted, they may be forced (under the banner of the RUF) to kill and torture at will.
In villages they attack, rebel soldiers are also fond of spray-painting the initials RUF on the walls of houses. Again, the initials RUF represent oppression: innocent villagers are murdered mercilessly, and the ones who are kept alive have to submit to the violent rule of their oppressors.
In the novel, UNICEF (The United Nations Children's Fund) and Benin Home are symbols of freedom. It is representatives from UNICEF who come to claim the boy soldiers and to save them from lives of oppression. Many of the boys are taken to Benin Home, a rehabilitation center, where they receive nutritious food, attend scheduled medical-checkups, and participate in one-on-one counseling sessions. UNICEF works cooperatively with the UN (United Nations) and organizations like the Catholic CAW (Children Associated with the War) to rehabilitate the child soldiers and to reintroduce them into civilian lives.
In the story, Ishmael spends eight months at Benin Home before he is allowed to be reinstated into normal society. Benin Home works to deprogram the child soldiers and to free them from the oppressive ideologies of their soldier pasts. In this sense, it is a definite symbol of freedom and redemption.
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