Ishmael Beah chronicled his experiences in Sierra Leone's grisly decade-long civil war in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. At the age of thirteen, the orphaned Beah was given a choice: either fight with the government forces, or leave the military base and risk certain death. He chose to fight and spent two years killing rebel forces before being rescued by United Nations personnel. "Beah's autobiography is almost unique, as far as I can determine," asserted William Boyd in the New York Times Book Review, as "perhaps the first time that a child soldier has been able to give literary voice to one of the most distressing phenomena of the late 20th century: the rise of the pubescent (or even prepubescent) warrior-killer."
The first dozen years that followed Beah's birth in 1980 were placidly uneventful. He grew up in Mogbwemo and spent time at the homes of both of his parents, who had divorced, and also with his grandparents. In school he earned high marks, but sometimes he got into fights with other boys. Even though he could recite William Shakespeare in class, he learned the meter and language of American rap music in his spare time. In January of 1993, at the age of twelve, he traveled to a nearby town to participate in a rap contest with his brother and a friend. The competition was canceled when fighting suddenly broke out in that part of Sierra Leone between a rebel group called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and government forces.
The RUF's ultimate goal was control of the country's diamond mines, but it also took control of villages by horrific means. Local officials were beheaded and their heads displayed on spikes, and other opponents were maimed by the amputation of lips, limbs, or, in an RUF trademark disfigurement, by cutting off all the fingers except the thumb.
Cautiously making their way back through the outskirts of Mogbwemo, Beah and his brother learned that their parents had been taken into RUF custody. With nowhere to turn, the boys hid in Sierra Leone's jungles for months, sometimes with other youngsters, and scavenged for food. The true scope of the war was soon apparent. "I ran away," he wrote in an excerpt from his book that appeared in the New York Times Magazine, "along paths and roads that were littered with dead bodies, some mutilated in ways so horrible that looking at them left a permanent scar on my memory." Finally, the band of mostly barefoot youth made their way to a military base of the Sierra Leone Army, which initially took them in but then informed them they must either leave or join the fight. Most chose to stay, knowing that outside of the base they were likely to either be killed or forced to join the RUF.
Watched Friends Die
Beah was given some basic training with the AK-47 automatic assault weapon he was issued. In describing his first true combat incident that soon followed, he recounted that initially he was too paralyzed with fear to shoot. Then he heard the cries of his friend Josiah, aged eleven, and saw him lying on a tree stump, his spine crushed by an RUF rocket-propelled grenade. "There was blood everywhere," Beah wrote. "I crawled to Josiah and looked into his eyes. There were tears in them, and his lips were shaking, but he couldn't speak. As I watched him, the water in his eyes was replaced with blood that quickly turned his brown eyes red. He reached for my shoulder as if to pull himself up. But midway, he stopped moving." Immediately after that, Beah saw that his other closest friend, thirteen-year-old Musa, was also gravely injured, and only then did he start firing his AK-47.
A Long Way Gone details some of the bizarre daily life for Beah and his fellow soldiers, who were supplied marijuana, amphetamines, and a noxious mix of gunpowder and cocaine called "brown brown." In their spare time they watched war movies such as Rambo on a VCR powered by a generator. Many of the passages in his memoir that recount the actual battles he fought are vaguely worded, which some critics found jarring. Boyd noted that Beah served up "boilerplate prose" when describing horrific acts of mass violence, but then conceded "who can blame him? The blood-lust of a drug-crazed adolescent on the rampage with an assault rifle would challenge the descriptive powers of James Joyce." Uzodinma Iweala, a reviewer for the London Guardian, also expressed disappointment at the matter-of-fact tone in some of the narrative, but then found himself moved by one passage in which Beah wrote about meeting others who knew his story once he returned to civilian life. In A Long Way Gone Beah wrote, "Part of me wanted them to cry as much as they could before I met them, as I always felt uncomfortable when people cried because of what I had been through." Iweala reflected that "it is as if he is suggesting that we don't let the tendency to pity—often an unconscious and unwarranted proclamation of our own assumed superiority—prevent us from seeing him as what he is, an ordinary human being and a writer with strengths and weaknesses, deserving of our respect."
Beah spent two years fighting the RUF before United Nations Children's Fund field-workers rescued him and sent him to Benin Home, a child-soldier rehabilitation center in Freetown. Adjusting to life at Benin Home proved far more difficult than being drafted into military service at age thirteen. "It was infuriating to be told what to do by civilians," Beah wrote in his New York Times Magazine excerpt. "Their voices, even when they called us for breakfast, enraged me so much that I would punch the wall, my locker or anything nearby. A few days earlier, we could have decided whether they would live or die." He and his fellow decommissioned soldiers finally resorted to beating up one another to release their aggressions as they suffered through drug withdrawal. "Whenever I turned on the faucet, all I could see was blood gushing out. I would stare at it until it looked like water before drinking or taking a shower," he wrote. He also revealed that sometimes the younger boys in the group "sat weeping and telling us that nearby rocks were their dead families."
At a Glance …
Career: Author. Affiliated with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities.
Memberships: Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Division Advisory Committee.
Addresses: Agent—Ira Silverberg, Sterling Lord Literistic Inc., 65 Bleecker St., New York, NY 10012.
Became a Spokesperson for Benin Home
With the help of a compassionate nurse who gave him a Walkman, Bob Marley and Run-DMC cassettes, and a notebook and pen so that he could learn song lyrics, Beah finally began to trust again. "I visited Esther at the minihospital every day, to show her what I had written," he wrote in his excerpt. "I would sing her the parts of songs I had memorized. Memorizing lyrics left me little time to think about what happened in the war." Beah even wrote a short play about his experience that he performed at a Benin Home talent show staged for a visiting United Nations delegation, which led to an offer to become a spokesperson for Benin Home. Officials also located an uncle, whom he had never met, who took him in; other former soldiers sheltered at Benin Home were not so lucky. Some had no relatives left at all or were shunned by family because of their war experiences. In 1998 Beah was also fortunate to escape Sierra Leone altogether—its civil war did not end until 2002—with a visa to enter the United States, where a Brooklyn family took him in. He finished high school and went on to earn a degree from Oberlin College in 2004.
A Long Way Gone was published in 2007. Following a promotional tour, Beah continued to lecture and call attention to the plight of child soldiers, an estimated three hundred thousand of whom are still active, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. They are the youngest victims of war, he told Tennille M. Robinson in Black Enterprise, and their use by desperate armies is well known in the international community—but rarely shown by U.S. media outlets. American parents, he said, "don't want their kids to see those things. And that's rightly so, they should be protected. But at the same time, a kid who lives in Iraq sees that every day. It's not on the television for them, it is their reality. So I guess the issue is, if you don't want that for your child, perhaps you shouldn't let it happen to another kid somewhere [else]."
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
Black Enterprise, October 1, 2007, p. 164.
Guardian (London), May 26, 2007, p. 9.
New York Times Book Review, February 25, 2007, p. 12.
New York Times Magazine, January 14, 2007, p. 36.
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