A Long Way Gone

by Ishmael Beah

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Ishmael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone (2007) documents Beah’s time spent as a child soldier in Sierra Leone. The memoir begins in 1998 in New York City and flashes back to Beah’s life in his village, Mogbwemo. There, he, his brother Junior, and his friends Mohamed, and Talloi memorize hip-hop lyrics by the Sugar Hill Gang and dance to the beats of the music. While the boys are on their way to participate in a friend's talent show, the rebel army attacks their village, scattering the villagers in all directions. The boys cross the river and are out of immediate harm’s way, but the rebel army continually threatens to catch up with them. Beah and his friends eventually find their way into a village controlled by the government army, and in exchange for food and shelter, the boys must become child soldiers for the army. Killing becomes an everyday event.

Only after UNICEF steps in is Beah released from the army and put on the path to rehabilitation. He learns the gift of sharing his story with others as a way to heal. When the war comes knocking at his door a second time, he resolves to not become swallowed by the ghosts of the past and makes a dangerous trek across Sierra Leone to the safety of Guinea and eventually New York.

A Long Way Gone stands as a voice for the estimated 300,000 child soldiers who are still part of ongoing conflicts around the world today. Beah has spoken before the United Nations and the Council on Foreign Relations, and he continues to speak on panels hosted by NGOs that work on behalf of children’s rights. Beah is a member of the Children’s Rights Division Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch which is dedicated to protecting the rights of people around the world.

Beah has been praised by critics for speaking honestly about his experiences in the war. Throughout the memoir, Beah refrains from self-pity and is critical of the person he became during the war. In early 2008, reporters from The Australianchallenged Beah’s recall of events and claimed that his true family were not the people Beah names in the memoir. After sending reporters to Beah’s home village in Sierra Leone, the reporters were forced to recant their claims after learning the truth of Beah’s past. In a press release, Beah commented, “I was right about my family. I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong.” Thus, Beah emerges from the pages of his memoir as a reliable, sympathetic voice.


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A Long Way Gone is Ishmael Beah's memoir documenting his time spent as a child soldier in Sierra Leone and the rehabilitative process that came afterward. The memoir begins in New York City, 1998, with Beah's friends questioning his emigration from Sierra Leone. Beah promises to tell them about the war sometime. Thus he begins to share his life experiences during the civil war.

Beah flashes back to life in his village, Mogbwemo, where he, his brother Junior, and friends (Mohamed and Talloi) memorize hip-hop lyrics by the Suger Hill Gang and dance to the beats of the music. The stories of the war in Sierra Leone appear to the boys as distant tales happening in faraway lands. At only ten years old, Beah cannot comprehend the causes of misery on the faces of the refugees who begin to arrive in Mogbwemo. Two years later, Beah and his friends experience first hand the devastating effects of war. While the boys are on their way to participate in...

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a friend's talent show, the rebel army attacks their home village, scattering the villagers in all directions. The boys hear of the attack while on the road; instead of running away, they decide to risk their lives to travel back through the wake of strife to find their families. When they meet a woman on the road whose baby has been shot on her back, the trail of blood serves as a sign of horror to the boys, and they realize that they cannot go home. The war had become their reality, and "it was clear in the eyes of the baby that all had been lost."

After retreating, Beah and his brother and four friends (Talloi, Kaloko, Gibrilla, and Khalilou) cross the Jong River into the village of Mattru Jong. They are safe for a while, until the rebel army rushes the village from inland, forcing the people into the river. The boys plan an escape route through the swamp and gain dry land in a clearing. They run with the hopes of uncertain safety, jumping over dead bodies, grenades landing behind them. The rebels give up the chase, and the boys escape to begin an arduous journey as they flee together through war-torn and abandoned villages, struggling every day just to stay safe and alive. The six boys are often mistaken as rebel soldiers by villagers who are just as afraid as Beah and his friends as the boys are of them. The boys are often questioned, sometimes fed, but never trusted by the villagers who take them in for the night.  So the boys are sent on their way to continue their path through the forest leading nowhere.

The boys are finally taken in by sympathetic villagers in Kamator and are given jobs helping the villagers farm plots of land. They stay in Kamator for three months and adapt to village life. Then the rebels arrive unexpectedly, leaving the village in ruin, and Beah and Kaloko are separated from their friends. Certain that everyone has been killed and uncertain of the stability of their location, Beah decides to leave Kamator to search for a safer village. He abandons Kaloko, who will not leave the area for fear of the rebel army, and ventures out alone.

Beah wanders the forest for months, trying to avoid rebel soldiers and survive the dangers of the forest. At an intersection, he meets six boys whom he recognizes from his secondary school years and becomes part of their group. Together, the boys experience the wisdom of an old man, the loss of a friend, and the hope of finding their families. A man named Gasemu takes the boys to the village in which Beah’s family has been hiding, but upon arriving they see that the rebel army has made it to the village first. Beah searches the fire-ravaged hut in which his family was hiding and blames himself for not having made it to the village sooner.

On the paths of the forest once again, the group is stopped at gunpoint by military soldiers. Beah and his friends are taken to Yele, a village near the coast controlled by the military of Sierra Leone. The boys initially take comfort in the safety provided by the village leaders, but when the rebels find Yele, the leaders expect the boys’ help. So Beah is outfitted with an AK-47 and ammunition, taught to shoot, and expected to leave his childhood behind to fight in the government army.

During the war, Beah becomes another person. He is wracked by drug and alcohol abuse and kills without regard or regret. He earns the nickname “Green Snake,” an homage to his skill at finding the most sneaky, advantageous position for ambushing the enemy—his own people. Beah even resists when the UNICEF group arrives to bargain for the lives of the child soldiers in his group; he cannot understand why his lieutenant has abandoned him and given him away.

Beah and several other boys are taken to a rehabilitation hospital, Benin Home, in Kissy Town near the capitol city of Freetown, but the psychological damage caused by the war is carried with them. The boys brutally wound each other in riotous outbursts, and they often shun the nurses and doctors at the hospital. Beah eventually comes to like his assigned nurse, Esther, and through her guidance he embarks on the path to rehabilitation. One day, a group of visitors from the United Nations, UNICEF, and other organizations arrives at Benin Home and chooses Beah to represent the voices of child soldiers at a conference in New York City. Beah goes to New York with a guardian and another boy, embarrassed because they are clearly not dressed for the New York winter. Laura Simms, who later becomes Beah’s foster mother, gives him a coat to wear, and the two create a bond based on their love of storytelling.

In an effort to keep families together, the staff at Benin Home locates Beah’s uncle, who arrives each week to visit. When Beah is released, he becomes part of his uncle’s household along with other children his uncle and aunt have taken into their family. However, the war eventually travels north, and once again Beah finds himself confronting the ghosts of his past. Determined not to be taken into the army again as a child soldier, Beah takes all the money he has and runs away from his uncle’s home, hitching rides on buses until he reaches the border of Guinea. Beah spends the last of his money getting out of his native country and into his new life.