From Sierra Leone to New York City
How a child soldier grew up fighting, and then learned how to be a boy
Review by Shelly Sanders
A LONG WAY GONE
By Ishmael Beah
229 pp. Douglas & McIntyre, $14.00
My son is almost twelve and, apart from preferring books to television, he’s a normal kid who likes Lego, funny videos on You Tube, and moving up the belted ladder at karate. He’s a red belt, and asked me the other day if he could join the weapons class soon. Without hesitation, I said no, that weapons were not for kids, that he would never need to learn how to use them. Not in Canada. He promptly reminded me about child soldiers in other parts of the world. He’d learned about them through Free the Children, an advocacy group helping third-world children.
My son was right. There are hundreds of thousands of child soldiers in Africa, the Middle East, and even parts of Europe. Human Rights Watch says that some are as young as eight years old, and girls are not immune to this situation. It’s hard to imagine children shooting other children, but in his raw memoir—A Long Way Gone—Ishmael Beah paints such vivid images with his words that this brutal other world becomes real and heart-breaking. For me, it was even more difficult reading this story, for when it begins, Beah is just twelve years old, the age my son will be in less than a month.
Beah lets the reader know immediately that he is a survivor, starting off in New York City, where he lives and attended school after fleeing Sierra Leone. But this assurance of his own eventual safety does not lessen the horror as he takes readers on his years-long journey from his home in Mogbwemo to freedom in Guinea. “A bullet hit a tree directly above my head and fell on the ground next to me,” he writes, about a time he managed to escape rebel fighters. “I halted and held my breath. From where I lay, I saw the red bullets flying through the forest and into the night. I could hear my heart beat, and I had started breathing heavily, so I covered my nose to control it.”
The sense of loss Beah feels is constant throughout the book, as he wonders about his parents and his brothers, where they are and if they are even alive. At times, Beah wonders why he is the only member of his family to survive, and it is easy to see how lost he was, how easy it would have been to give up. “How many more times do we have to come to terms with death before we find safety?” says Saidu, a boy travelling with Beah. “Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death. Even though I am still alive, I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies. Very soon I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you.”
For three years, Beah fought to stay alive, eventually joining the army to fight against the rebels. He became numb to blood and death, saw his situation as a means of survival. He became wild, almost feral, living amongst others like himself. All of this changed when he was fifteen and turned over to UNICEF to be rehabilitated back into a boy. But it was hard to shake off the angry man he had become. “He pulled the knife out, and we continued kicking the boy until he stopped moving,” writes Beah, of the fight that broke out among the boys pulled away from the violence. “I wasn’t sure whether he was unconscious or dead. I didn’t care. No one screamed or cried during the fight. After all, we had been doing such things for years and were still on drugs.”
It took almost a year for Beah to be ready for the outside world again. He was sixteen and lived with an uncle he’d never met before in Freetown. When violence broke out again, he fled to Guinea and then to New York, and in 2007, the year this book was published, Beah was named UNICEF’s first Advocate for Children Affected by War.
Surely it has become clear to Beah why he survived, for he has brought a face to the many unknown armed children around the world.
For me, this book reinforces my view that children should not have weapons. My son will not be successful in changing my mind. He will, however, be given this book to read.
—Shelly Sanders’ first book—Rachel’s Secret—will be published by Second Story Press in the spring, 2012. It’s about a 1903 pogrom in Russia that led to the exodus of Jews to China, the United States, and Canada.