A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

June 24, 2008 9:00 pm

Sierra Leone is located in West Africa between Guinea to the North and Liberia to the South. A former British colony, the country established independence in 1961.Alas despite the initial adoption of a parliamentary system and universal franchise, domestic peace remains elusive. For decades the country endured attempted military coups and a prolonged civil war between government military forces and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Ostensibly the RUF’s aim was to overthrow a series of corrupt governments. In fact, they thrived on ruthlessly terrorizing unsuspecting communities. Their approachto perpetuating the civil war was to forcibly recruit young boys. The country’s military adopted the same tactic, although not in as brutal fashion as did the rebels. But once involved, kids on either side of the conflict were subject to the worst sort of brainwashing and rendered numb to what they were doing with drugs. Although the plight of child soldiers is increasingly documented, the personal stories of the young boys and girls forced to endure and perpetuate atrocities are seldom heard, especially in the form of a memoir. They are children, after all, and if they survive, are no doubt horribly traumatized. All of them have been ruthlessly denied the sort of education we take for granted. Few likely have literary ambitions. Ishmael Beah is a remarkable exception.

In A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, he tells the extraordinarily poignant story of his life as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone’s military. Beah is indeed a gifted storyteller. He writes with an elegant simplicity that is extremely effective and often disconcerting. In straightforward prose he describes to the reader a world of unimaginable brutality in which he was forcibly plunged. One moment he and a group of his young friends are walking to a dance contest and the next moment they are witnessing rebel soldiers commit the worst sort of atrocities on innocent villagers. From that moment forward this group of young boys is forced to live on the run from the RUF. They walk endlessly, often through dense forest, with no money or food. They eat what fruit they can find on trees and whatever food they might find in the many villages they pass through on their weary travels. Their shared ordeal solidifies close bonds. Yet, the lives they lead as internal refugees are intensely lonely and cause them untold mental anguish. It is a life of unbearable hardship for anyone, let alone a twelve year-oldboy. In one heartbreaking scene, Beah describes how one of his companions did not wake up one morning. His young body finally succumbed to mental and physical fatigue.

Eventually Ishmael and his friends are captured by the country’s military. They welcome the change, as they receive food and drink and for a short time live in a relatively secure community. The reprieve, however, is temporary. The military is preparing the boys for a life of war and allows the boys rest serves to revive their strength. But eventually they are given cocaine and ceaselessly reminded that it was the rebels who killed members of their families, terrorized their communities and forced them to live in hiding. They are like a cancer intent on destroying the country. They must be destroyed by whatever means necessary.

The military’s strategy proves horribly effective. Here too, with elegantly simple prose Beah describes how he became a soldier every bit as ruthless as the rebels he was fighting. He conveys how he made rebel soldiers dig their own graves before burying them alive. After being shot in the foot, Beah describes how his squad captured rebel soldiers. He shot them all in the feet. They were left to endure the excruciating pain for one full day before Beah killed them with bullets to their heads. Beah’s uncompromising style confronts the reader with a dilemma. Sympathy for his tragic plight is gradually transformed into anger as we witness the sudden erosion of his humanity.

Beah also effectively conveys the stark contrasts that characterize life in Sierra Leone. He and his friends witness and perpetuate unimaginably brutal atrocities. Yet they also experience the kindness and courage of strangers. An old man who himself is poor provides the boys with a temporary sanctuary. A nurse patiently cares for Beah during the painful process of his physical and mental rehabilitation. An uncle adopts Beah into his own family after learning of all he endured. Amidst all the pain and destruction, Beah describes the beauty of Sierra Leone’s landscape and the vital tradition of oral storytelling. As for Beah, his severely compromised humanity was, in the end, restored with the help of a community determined not to lose a generation of children to war. This is why the memoir, despite all of the pointless pain and suffering it documents, ultimately conveys a sense of hope.

Don MacLean : donaldm@magma.ca

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