Beah usually suffers from extreme migraines but notices that the pain dulls as he begins to focus on the violence and lifestyle associated with being a boy soldier. He and his fellow soldiers become addicted to marijuana and a substance they refer to as “brown brown”—a dangerous concoction...
Beah usually suffers from extreme migraines but notices that the pain dulls as he begins to focus on the violence and lifestyle associated with being a boy soldier. He and his fellow soldiers become addicted to marijuana and a substance they refer to as “brown brown”—a dangerous concoction of cocaine and gunpowder. They spend their days watching war movies such as Rambo, First Blood, and Commando, which also ignite their shared love of violence.
The drugs put the soldiers in a dream-like state, where they become numb to the atrocities they are committing and in fact become increasingly galvanized by the allure of weapons and violence, as their weapons come to give them a sense of control in a world of chaos and confusion. This proclivity for violence is further inspired by the boys’ superiors, as they cheer on their commanding officer for executing a captured prisoner who refused to cooperate with his demands.
When drugs run scarce, the soldiers raid rebel camps and civilian villages in a bid to attain supplies and further recruits. During one particular raid, the soldiers conceive of a “game”—a challenge that involves who can kill the prisoners first by cutting their throat with a bayonet. Beah imagines the rebel as being connected to the deaths of his family and is therefore compelled to kill his prisoner the fastest. Beah's achievement is celebrated by the other soldiers, and he is promoted to the position of junior lieutenant.
The year is now 1996, and Beah is fifteen. Having spent two years fighting with the army, he is now completely devoid of emotion and solely focused on killing. Alongside the other soldiers in the squad, Beah, Alhaji, and Kanei travel to the town of Bauya for ammunition. In Bauya they come across their friend Jumah and Lieutenant Jabati.
The next morning, events take an unexpected turn when a truck enters the village and four men in UNICEF shirts emerge. The boys are told to line up, and Lieutenant Jabati tells fifteen of them, including Beah, to relinquish their weapons and return to civilian life. Beah hides his weapons, a bayonet, and grenade, in his clothing, and the boys are loaded into the truck alongside the Military Police (MPs). Beah feels completely betrayed by Lieutenant Jabati, having believed that he had proven himself a worthy soldier to the lieutenant.
The truck arrives in Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown, where they are taken to a fenced-off compound and assigned beds and new clothes. As symptoms of drug withdrawal start to emerge, the boys become restless, and a fight breaks out as the soldiers seek to establish which of them have fought for the state and which were part of the RUF. It is here that Beah utilizes his weapons, threatening to throw his hand-grenade at the other group of boys unless they admit their allegiance. It is revealed that all of the boys are part of the Sierra Leone Military, and they become companions.
The boys become increasingly restless having established their joint allegiance, and this worsens when they notice a group of boys standing outside on the veranda. It is established that these soldiers fought for the rebels, causing a massive fight to break out as the boys seek to destroy each other with bayonets. The Military Police arrive and eventually break up the fight, but not before six boys are killed, including two of the military and four of the RUF.
The remaining boys, including Beah, are taken to a rehabilitation center on the outskirts of Freetown, Benin Home. Beah’s thoughts shift to more quotidian matters, such as the movies they will watch that evening, as he begins to experience drug withdrawal symptoms.
Beah struggles to adjust to the rehabilitation home, infuriated by the role-reversal, as “civilians” now control him. The boys continue to suffer drug withdrawal and attempt to remedy this by stealing medicine from the infirmary. They direct their violence toward UNICEF staff and each other.
When the boys become violent toward the UNICEF staff, the staff respond with patience and civility. The neutrality with which the staff treat them frustrates the boys, as they had been used to commanding a combination of fear and respect from those around them. In protest, Beah smashes a window in the classroom with his fist and has to go to the hospital. Although Beah acts aggressively toward the nurse who treats him, she again responds with kindness.
Beah wakes up in the hospital and begins having flashbacks, remembering how he led a small strike force of boy soldiers. They emulated moves from their favorite war movies, as they pillaged villages for supplies, leaving many civilians for dead. The achievement led Lieutenant Jabati to nickname Beah “Green Snake,” as though he did not look dangerous, he was ultimately deadly.
Outside of the warzone, the boys become increasingly sober and begin to reflect on their actions during the war. Although they have classes for a few hours a day, they remain distracted and sell their school supplies for money. With the money, Beah and his friends take a trip to Freetown and are astounded by their experience of the city. As they tell others of their adventures in Freetown, a number of boys take unauthorized trips there, prompting the UNICEF staff to organize regular trips to the city, albeit ones that are directly connected to education.
The UNICEF staff insist that the boys’ violent actions are not their fault, but instead a result of the culture of warfare. Although the boys grow tired of this apparent platitude, they also begin to reflect more deeply on the atrocities they committed during wartime. Beah recalls burying rebel prisoners alive, as he forced them to dig their own graves. A condition akin to post-traumatic stress begins to emerge, as Beah hears the prisoners’ groans around him and contemplates how he himself is lucky to have avoided such a fate.
A compound nurse named Esther is particularly kind to Beah, leading the other boys to insist that she “likes” him. In a role-reversal, Esther insists that Beah must earn her trust if they are to become friends. Beah appreciates Esther’s kindness, especially as she buys him a Walkman and rap tapes, which she keeps in her office to prevent the other boys from stealing them from Beah.
Beah’s memories of war haunt him once more, but he is able to open up to Esther about the experiences that resulted in him becoming so motivated by violence. During a particularly brutal fight, Beah was shot in the feet repeatedly, but thanks to the care of the sergeant doctor, he survived the incident relatively unscathed. The incident did, however, guarantee his devotion to the military, and he later repaid the rebels by shooting them in the feet, and then the head, when he became tired of their moans of agony.
Esther listens attentively, but Beah is angered when she responds with the familiar platitude of “None of what happened was your fault.” He feels that the phrase underestimates and devalues his experience. That night, Beah tries to recollect memories of his childhood, but he can only envisage the first time he slit a man’s throat. His migraines return that night, and he is unable to sleep, as he is plagued by nightmares of his years as a boy soldier.