May 24, 2007

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A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, 229 pages)
Reviewed by Lucas Lund news@hippopress.com

This book will horrify you, but as Sebastian Junger writes on the jacket, “We ignore his story at our peril.”

Sierra Leone became independent in 1961, having been a British colony since 1792. The first prime minister died in 1964, and a series of national coups destabilized the government. In 1992 the conflict became international when Charles Taylor, a Liberian war lord who seized the Liberian presidency in 1997, sent rebels, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), to invade Sierra Leone as part of another coup coordinated by an army corporal. The RUF seized control of the diamond mines and most of the countryside.

Ishmael’s memoir begins in January of 1993, when he was 12. He and his brother and their friends had walked 16 miles from their village of Mogbwemo, in southern Sierra Leone, to the larger town, Mattru Jong, so that their rap group could perform. The day after they arrive, stragglers from their village stagger into town. The RUF had invaded their village and massacred most of the people.

The frightened boys begin to make their way back to Mogwemo to search for their families, but halfway there find that they are too late, and begin to run from the RUF. Eventually separated from his brother, Ishmael spends more than a year running from the RUF, from the Sierra Leone army, and from villagers not yet involved but who had learned enough about the boy soldiers of the RUF to attack any boy who approached.

Eventually Ishmael, age 13, is pressed into service by a desperate army troop. He becomes a brown-brown (cocaine mixed with gunpowder) addicted guerilla for two years. The United Nations begins to remove boy soldiers from the conflict, and Ishmael begins rehabilitation when he is 15. In November of 1996, he travels to New York, one of two children from Sierra Leone to address the UN Economic and Social Counsel. When he returns to Sierra Leone, the RUF invades Freetown. Ishmael escapes to Guinea, and finally, with the help of the woman who eventually adopted him, back to New York. UN forces do not manage to stop the fighting in Sierra Leone until 2002.

Most of A Long Way Gone describes Ishmael’s life before and after he is forced to fight. He takes only 25 pages to describe the horrors and habits of his life as a guerilla. This brevity and the relative lack of interior dialogue or emotion throughout the book are as telling as the narrative. It is astounding that Ishmael survived at all, let alone that he is able to remember, sane enough to recount his experiences, and intelligent enough to do so in a foreign tongue, English. The sparse prose gives the sense that he wrote this memoir as much to mark his passage out of hell, in case he should again have to wander there, as he did to enlighten us.

I sincerely hope that memoirs of those suffering in war, told so nearly in real time (or actually so in the case of blogs from Afghanistan and Iraq) will help peace. Indeed, we ignore this work at our peril. A