Ryan Chartrand

Ishmael Beah’s “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” gives a human face to the ravaging civil war that began in Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s. The story begins with Ishmael as a young boy of 12, whose days are spent playing with his friends and reveling in his fascination with American rap music.

Although young, Beah has seen hurt in his life. His writing reveals that the separation of his parents has affected him deeply, and even established him and his brothers as pariahs in their town. His early acquaintance with isolation proves to be a symbol for much more to come in his life.

Although rumors of an occupation by the rebel army (Revolutionary United Front) have circulated for months, Ishmael and his family try to live normally and not succumb to their fear. Whatever is left of his carefree nature is stolen completely, however, when his town is occupied by Sierra Leone rebel soldiers.

With no safe haven, he, along with his friends and brother, begins to travel from town to town in search of food and word of their missing families. Since almost every village they enter is completely empty and abandoned, they find themselves hungrier and more tired each day.

There are no meals or shelter to break up the daylong walks, and companionship is also extremely hard to come by. Because they are gathered in a large group, the people they come into contact with often mistake the boys for rebel soldiers, and few will have anything to do with them. Finally, it proves too hard to remain in a group, so the boys split up after a year of running together. At this point, we find Ishmael on his own, trying to survive against the powerful African terrain.

In search of some sort of security, Ishmael soon becomes a boy soldier in the rebel army. We see him committing some of the worst atrocities of war; mass killings and torture become commonplace to this boy who never imagined living such a violent life away from his family.

Given hard drugs to assist him in his killing duties, he becomes the same kind of murdering machine that he once feared. He lives day to day, minute to minute, focusing so much on survival that he doesn’t realize the kinds of acts he is committing or what kind of psychological damage is being done to him.

The turning point in Ishmael’s life comes when he is sent to a United Nations relief agency, which reunites him with some of his distant family members. At the age of 17, he eventually moves to America. He is then adopted by an American woman and goes on to attend and graduate from college.

Beah’s ability to recall the minute details that make up his life story allow for a riveting, if disturbing, read. The reader can feel his hardships viscerally; it seems impossible to be left unmoved by this book. What saves it from an overload of savagery and depression is the ever-present knowledge that Beah eventually escapes from his dire situations.

Since he is the author of the book, we are aware from the beginning that the story has a happy ending; we know that he is able to find some measure of success. However, the focus in the book isn’t so much on the ending as much as what events lead up to it.

Without resorting to self-pity, Beah gives us a view of childhood warfare that can’t be matched, even by the best of journalists. This unique perspective is perhaps the most valuable part of the book. It reflects the mission of Beah’s life, which is now spent as an international speaker, focusing on the travails of child soldiers around the world.

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