A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2,666 words.)