A Long Way Gone

by Ishmael Beah

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 781

A Long Way Gone records the harrowing experiences of Ishmael Beah as he journeys with his brother and friends through his homeland of Sierra Leone during the civil war that took place in that African nation from 1991 through 2002. Beah becomes an unwilling boy soldier in that conflict after being separated from his parents and hometown of Mogbwemo in southern Sierra Leone.

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The author’s journey begins innocently enough. Twelve-year-old Beah, his older brother Junior, and a friend leave Mogbwemo on foot and head for Mattru Jong, sixteen miles away, to participate in a talent show. The boys intend to perform rap music in the show, and they embark on their journey wearing baggy pants and carrying backpacks filled with notebooks of rap lyrics and rap cassettes. This innocent journey, however, commences against the backdrop of a violent civil war that has already exploded in Sierra Leone. President Joseph Saidu Momoh has been ousted in a military coup, and his replacement, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), is, according to Beah, corrupt. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) has been sacking villages in an attempt to create chaos and prove that the NPRC is ineffective. On their journey to Mattru Jong, Beah and his party see refugees on the road, leaving villages attacked by the RUF and telling stories of harrowing violence and human suffering.

While Beah and his brother and friend are in Mattru Jong, they learn that rebels have attacked Mogbwemo. They realize that it is unsafe to return home and that they are likely to be separated from their families for a long time. When rebels move toward Mattru Jong, the boys flee and begin wandering toward the seacoast in search of some safe haven, but they encounter instead the brutal violence and gruesome debris of civil war—ransacked villages, an imam burned alive, a traveling companion shot and killed. Exposed to such violence, Beah begins to experience nightmares, headaches, and other symptoms of psychological stress. He wonders whether his journey will ever end and whether he will ever be reunited with his parents. While Beah is in the village of Kamator, he becomes separated from Junior during a rebel attack. Ishmael never sees his brother again.

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After departing Kamator, Beah journeys along the southern coast of Sierra Leone and settles for a time in Yele, which appears to be relatively safe. One day, government soldiers arrive in town. Their commander warns Yele’s residents of impending RUF attacks and displays the bodies of villagers brutally killed by rebels. At that point, Ishmael, age thirteen, is conscripted into the NRPC army, given an AK-47 attack rifle, and trained to kill rebels. In his first skirmish, Beah kills several rebels, including a boy wearing a Tupac Shakur T-shirt.

During his time as a boy soldier, Beah loses his childhood and his humanity. Numbed by the use of cocaine and other narcotics, he becomes a killing machine, and he ceases to see the choices he makes in moral terms. At one point, Beah and three other boy soldiers are ordered to execute captured rebels by slitting the men’s throats with bayonets. The boy whose prisoner dies first will be awarded a promotion in rank. Feeling nothing for his captive, Beah coolly slits the man’s throat and watches him bleed to death. He wins the promotion.

Beah remains a soldier through age fifteen. In January, 1996, he is removed from the army by a UNICEF representative and sent to a rehabilitation center, where he is given schooling and treatment to prepare him for a return to normal life. His adjustment to a life without violence and drugs is difficult. The boy soldiers at the rehabilitation center are addicted to both drugs and violence, and they are often violent and unruly. They experience nightmares and exhibit paranoia. Eventually, a nurse named Esther befriends Beah and coaxes him to discuss his traumatic experiences as well as his prewar life. Her gentleness and her interest in Beah’s music form the basis of a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Beah learns that he possesses the resiliency to outlive his past and commence a new, normal life.

Beah’s stay at the rehabilitation center ends when his uncle adopts him and brings him to Freetown. There, he hears of an opportunity to go to New York and speak at the United Nations on the issue of child soldiers. He does so; shortly after Beah returns to Sierra Leone, his uncle dies, and the nation’s government is overthrown. To avoid the resulting violence, Beah flees from Sierra Leone and travels to Guinea. In 1998, at age eighteen, he emigrates to New York to continue his education.

A Long Way Gone

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1725

While readers in the United States might occasionally read a news report that mentions child soldiers or encounter statistics about the fate of children in war zones, few can imagine how average people, and especially children, could take part in the atrocities. Ishmael Beah’s memoir, A Long Way Home: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, tells how an ordinary boy became a ruthless soldier and then overcame his terrible experiences. The memoir not only highlights the complexity of human nature under stress but also adds an important voice to political and policy discussions on the effects of war on children.

Beah acknowledges in the prologue (dated New York City, 1998) that readers will probably be emotionally distant from the subject matter. For part of a page, he provides details that set up a contrast with what will follow. The narrator describes speaking with high school friends who are curious about the war in his home country. They think it is “cool” that Beah “saw people running around with guns and shooting each other.” He promises to tell them about it sometime.

The prologue anchors the story as one told after the fact by a storyteller to friends. Although many of the details in the memoir are horrific, Beah helps the reader through it by maintaining the tone of a storyteller somewhat distanced from what has happened. Though many of Beah’s memories include tragedy, personal loss, and extreme violence, he lets the facts speak for themselves.

Beah begins the main narration in chapter 1 by explaining that, at the beginning of the war, he knew about it only through stories told by others fleeing the fighting. In this way, he opens the memoir by forming connections with the readers, who are likewise learning about the war through a story told by someone else: “There were all kinds of stories told about the war that made it sound as if it was happening in a faraway and different land.” While Beah observes that the refugees telling the stories have been strongly affected by what they have seen, his own experience with war, like that of American readers’, is formed through popular culture. He mentions books and movies such as Rambo: First Blood (1982). Those works of fiction produced in other countries at first seem more real than the war in his own country. As the fighting moves into his area, getting together with his friends and listening to rap music remain the twelve-year-old’s immediate concerns.

When their village is invaded by rebel soldiers, Beah and his brother Junior are visiting friends in town. Separated from their family and not knowing if any of them are alive, they and their friends wander from village to village trying to stay away from the soldiers. Most people are too afraid of teenage boys to help them. They encounter other homeless boys in their travels, but there is no system in place to help them. In fact, all semblance of normal society has fallen apart. It is not clear what the fighting factions stand for, and no governmental services remain. There are no police officers protecting anyone, no one to feed or shelter the war orphans, and no one to help children separated from their families to find them or to find food while they search.

After being separated from Junior and his friends, Beah spends time alone, lost in a forest, and eventually meets up with another group of boys, some of whom he knew before the war. After months of roaming, he meets someone from his former village who knows where his parents and brother Junior are. As they approach the village where the family is staying, gunshots break out. They hide in the jungle until the fighting ends, but by that time everyone in the village is dead.

While much of the memoir is narrated in a fairly neutral tone, the description of the village after the slaughter is one of the most detailed in the book, and Beah includes his intense emotions in the narration. “I screamed at the top of my lungs and began to cry as loudly as I could, punching and kicking with all my might into the weak walls that continued to burn. I had lost my sense of touch. My hands and feet punched and kicked the burning walls, but I couldn’t feel a thing.” His grief gives way to anger, and he hits the friend who brought him to the village.

Around the time Beah calms down, soldiers return to the village. From where he is hiding, he can hear them casually discussing their attack on three villages, killing everyone in the one where Beah’s family was staying. Their conversation shows no compassion for the people they killed and no remorse for their actions. They laugh as they talk and sit playing cards in the middle of the carnage. The horror of soldiers who have lost all sense of humanity is clear.

By the time Beah and his friends become soldiers, their lack of options is clear. They have lost their families and their homes; they have no source of food or shelter; the few people who are willing to help them risk their lives to do so. When the boys are taken to a village where they are given food and a place to sleep, they feel safe for the first time in a long time. However, when their safety is threatened by the rebels, whom the soldiers blame for killing their families, their willingness to join the fight comes as no surprise to the reader. When the boys are called up for their first military encounter, they have spent the day in typical childhood activitiesplaying soccer and swimming.

Beah’s tent companions are so young that that they have trouble holding up their guns. The outing is an emotionally charged part of the memoir, reflecting the boys’ terror at meeting the armed enemy in the forest. Beah watches one of his tent mates die, and he loses other friends as well. His description of Josiah’s death is poignant in its detail, and its effect on the narrator is evident from the strength of the prose: “As I watched him, the water in his eyes was replaced by blood that quickly turned his brown eyes into red. He reached for my shoulder as if he wanted to hold it and pull himself up. But midway, he stopped moving. The gunshots faded in my head, and it was as if my heart had stopped and the whole world had come to a standstill.”

The following chapters narrate Beah’s acceptance of killing, helped by constant access to marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs. The boys’ lives as soldiers consist of watching war movies, taking the drugs that stave off fear and prevent them from thinking clearly about the horrors of what they are doing, and remorselessly slaughtering soldiers and civilians. Beah and his friends become like the soldiers who casually discussed their day’s work after killing Beah’s family and everyone else in the village.

Unlike most war memoirs, which are often written by military leaders or adult soldiers with some knowledge of the strategy and politics involved, Beah’s is a first-person account by a child with little understanding of the reasons for the war. In fact, Beah’s memoir describes a society in so much chaos that it is not clear that even the military leaders have a good understanding of what the war is about. Young boys are given guns and drugs and persuaded to fight because they want to avenge the deaths of their families and because they have no other way to get food. The boys hear rumors about political developments but have no real understanding of the war.

Once Beah is rescued from the fighting and taken to a center for rehabilitating the young soldiers, it becomes clear that the boys who fought for the opposite side have no better understanding of the reasons for the war and endured horrors just as extreme. In the end, the book gives no evidence that one side had greater moral authority than the other. At the rehabilitation center, the boys fight with those from the other side, destroy the buildings and furniture, beat up the workers, and steal food from the kitchen and drugs from the health center. The center’s administrators are patient and do not punish them; their repeated refrain is “this isn’t your fault.” As the drugs slowly work out of his system, Beah begins to trust the center’s nurse Esther and other workers. He begins to tell her what has happened to him and to return to more civil behavior.

After learning details about his life and family, the workers at the center find Beah’s uncle, Tommy, who lives in the same city, based only on his first name and occupation. Beah’s uncle and his family welcome him into their home. Despite the constant dangers of the war, Beah is able to attend school.

Beah is invited to interview to be one of two children from Sierra Leone to speak at the United Nations at a conference about children affected by war. Children from around the world attend the conference, and Beah recognizes how his story fits into the larger issue of how children are taken advantage of and suffer because of war.

Beah humorously describes his initial reaction to New York City. He says that his expectations came from rap music, but he resorts to Shakespeare to try to make sense of what he sees. When he learns that it is dark so early in the afternoon because it is winter, he thinks, “I knew the word ‘winter’ from Shakespeare’s texts and I thought I should look up its meaning again.” He never imagined that it could be so cold, and he has only summer clothes.

At the conference, Beah meets an American storyteller named Laura Simms. After he returns to Sierra Leone, his uncle dies, and the fighting in the city escalates. Beah asks Simms if he can stay with her if he can get to New York, and she later adopts him. After escaping the country, he finishes high school in the United States, where the prologue’s conversation with his friends takes place.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 160

Abbas, Fatin. “The New Face of War.” The Nation 284 (May 28, 2007): 38-44. Review essay discussing Beah’s A Long Way Gone, P. W. Singer’s Children at War, and Jimmie Briggs’s Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War.

Beah, Ishmael. “Interview with Ishmael Beah.” Kennedy School Review 7 (2007): 1-5. Beah discusses his book, his life since leaving Sierra Leone, and his efforts to enact international laws against the use of child soldiers.

Luscombe, Belinda. “Pop Culture Finds Lost Boys.” Time 169 (February 12, 2007): 62-64. Predicts rock-star status for Ishmael Beah based on his book, his engaging personality, and his eloquence as a public speaker.

Mengestu, Dinaw. “Children of War.” New Statesman 136 (June 18, 2007): 60-61. Discusses A Long Way Gone and two other books about boy soldiers—David Eggers’s What Is the What and Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy (2007).

Pham, John-Peter. The Sierra Leonean Tragedy: History and Global Dimensions. New York: Nova Science, 2006. Comprehensive history of the 1990’s civil war in Sierra Leone.

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