Ishmael Beah was 13 years old the first time he touched an AK-47. He was frightened, but the gun had been thrust at him by a soldier, and in Sierra Leone during the west African country’s brutal civil war you obeyed the authority standing before you if you wanted to survive.
“I held it in my trembling hand,” Beah writes in his harrowing, spellbinding memoir of those terrible days, which robbed him of family, home and childhood. “He then added the magazine, and I shook even more.”
But just like the more than 300,000 other child soldiers who perform their grisly duties worldwide, Beah quickly grew accustomed to carrying a weapon and, through a haze of drugs, brainwashing and numbingly repetitive violence, he became immune to killing and guilt. A year of horror had primed him for transformation. He had lost his family, wandered alone in the jungle, starved, wept and witnessed sights no one should have to see—a woman on fire, a baby shot, villagers burned alive in their houses, severed heads, pulsating brains leaking into the ground. From a carefree, mischievous boy who loved hip-hop, he turned into a conscience-bereft murderer who cared only about staying alive.
Beah’s story is a wrenching survivor’s tale, but there’s no self-pity or political digression to be found. Raw and honest, A Long Way Gone is an important account of the ravages of war, and it’s most disturbing as a reminder of how easy it would be for any of us to break, to become unrecognizable in such extreme circumstances.
Beah writes of his ordeal with startling candor and breathtaking simplicity, bringing a dreadful phenomenon—the arming of children—into uncomfortably sharp focus, so close that it’s no longer possible to look away. When trouble began for him, he was 12, happily on his way to a talent show in the town of Mattru Jong with his brother and friends, his head full of Sugarhill Gang lyrics. When they arrived, they found the villagers on edge, fearing an assault from Revolutionary United Front rebels and hearing rumors that their village had been attacked. Unable to return home, the boys decided to wait.
“When the rebels finally came, I was cooking,” Beah writes, after explaining that his mother had insisted on teaching him to prepare food for the time before he married—hopefully a short period, as she longed for grandchildren. “The rice was done and the okra soup was almost ready… .” Families scattered, and the rebels left death everywhere. Beah, his brother and their friends fled, and Beah’s memories of the chaos are hideous and indelible:
“Dead bodies of men, women, and children of all ages were scattered like leaves on the ground after a storm. Their eyes still showed fear, as if death hadn’t freed them from the madness that continued to unfold. I had seen heads cut off with machetes, smashed by cement bricks, and rivers filled with so much blood that the water ceased flowing.”
The boys roamed the countryside, quickly learning that traveling together was as dangerous as being captured by the RUF. “People were terrified of boys our ages. Some had heard rumors about young boys being forced by rebels to kill their families and burn their villages ... Some people tried to hurt us to protect themselves.”
In one instance the boys were captured by men with machetes, who tied them up and threatened to drown them, only to be saved when one man pulled a Naughty by Nature cassette from Beah’s pocket and concluded that these were innocent children, even if he wasn’t sure what rap music was.
Inadvertently separated from the others, Beah journeyed alone for awhile, wrestling with an unexpected result of uncertainty and constant flight—a ravenous fear of thinking. Eventually, he met up with some other boys, and they stumbled into a town full of overwhelmed soldiers, who fed them brown-brown (cocaine mixed with gunpowder), gave them marijuana, armed and brainwashed them into becoming a ragtag but ruthless death squad.
A Long Way Gone is relentlessly paced, an agonizing chase that enters a bleak heart of darkness once the boys are taken under the military’s wing. What happens is all the more unnerving for Beah’s stark, straightforward reporting. The officers repeatedly tell the boys the rebels they butcher are responsible for their families’ deaths. They keep up the drug supply and prompt the boys to watch endless Rambo movies. “Sometimes we were asked to leave for war in the middle of a movie. We would come back hours later after killing many people and continue the movie as if we had just returned from intermission.”
Beah’s story has a miraculous outcome: UNICEF plucked him from the regiment at 16 and sent him to a rehabilitation center to undergo a grueling re-entry into civilian life. He was invited to speak at the United Nations about the peril children face internationally and eventually fled to the United States for good. He graduated from Oberlin College in 2004 and now lives in New York City. Thousands of other children weren’t so lucky. Beah’s uncompromising voice is a potent elegy for their suffering, a powerful reminder of the innocent casualties of war.