Book Review: A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah

Ishamel Beah’s remarkable memoir A Long Way Gone: Of suffering and survival in the Sierra Leonean civil war

TVR Books | Chadwick V.R. Williams | March 2011

The Boy Soldier

The following review accompanies a report of Ishmael Beah's visit to Vienna, found here.

A memoir of a child soldier in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah, will take you on a journey through suffering and survival, an endless struggle against the seemingly impossible, a miraculous delivery.

In telling his story, Beah challenges the West’s glorified view of war and violence through the eyes of what was an innocent child. Through this lens, the reader can begin to both experience and understand the horrific acts of war and its lasting toll on humanity, ripping away the naiveté in the hearts and minds of young and old.

Beah’s story begins during the peak of the civil war, which quickly spread throughout Sierra Leone, overtaking villages and tribes, converting the society to a bloodbath. Beah was captured at the age of 13, recruited by the Sierra Leonean Government army and forced into combat against the "rebels" – the Revolutionary United Front that began the unsuccessful 11-year war in 1991. During a period of almost three years, Beah was forced to smoke marijuana and take "brown brown," a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder. Through this, the Government Army desensitized its stolen youth, brainwashing them and turning them into master killers.

You could say that Beah faced death on multiple levels. He lost his entire immediate family who were slain in the war, he witnesses the killing of some of his closest friends, and at only the age of 13 loses his innocence. He is plagued with a reoccurring nightmare of facing his own death, and then faces it for real on too many occasions. He wrote about the fine line between reality and the dream world, about how the line disappears and they become one. He often spent weeks on end with little or no sleep, attacking and advancing from village to village.

For most of us, we can escape our nightmares by waking up. Or rather, we cling to the dream world to avoid a harsh reality. For Beah, horror, fear, and danger followed him into both conscious and unconscious thought, leaving him in a world where day and night were same.

Amidst all the killing and violence, Beah thinks about who he is, who he really is, his cultural identity and the lost traditions from his village.  In describing his survival story, Beah weaves in his memories of childhood, of the value of storytelling, the important role of the elders, and the sense of community he had grown up with.  Through these memories, though many no longer accessible until much later after his rehabilitation, he embraces his sense of self; his deeply imbedded identity giving him and the reader a sense of hope.

Throughout the story, Beah’s underlying message is very clear: he witnesses the destruction of not only his village, but the traditions and values within the Sierra Leonean village community. It is precisely these observations that emphasize the contrast in functionality of village life both before and during the war.

Beah watched the war literally turn what was once a loving and nurturing community upside down. Adults or elders, the most respected in African society, began to fear their own children, unsure of their involvement as soldiers. On countless occasions, Beah witnessed children killing and mutilating adults, and setting villages on fire. The older generation was no longer respected, and made to feel inferior, while the traditional values in the community were made obsolete. Instead, there was a culture of war, replaced by values of camaraderie between soldiers, of violence and effectiveness of killing.

Eventually, Beah is rescued by UNICEF and placed in a rehabilitation camp in Freetown, where he goes through yet another traumatizing experience of withdrawal from drugs and violence.  After sometime, he gradually crawls his way back into civilian life. He flees Sierra Leone to New York City where he meets his future foster mother, Laura Simms and finishes his last two years of high school at the UN International School. It is here that he faces a new challenge, being tormented by his peers’ and shadowed by society’s fear, as well as their curiosity to know more about his violent past.

Through this experience, Beah attempts to shed light on the vast differences in global perspectives of war. He is misunderstood by his school mates and society, and recognizes the over-glorification of war in the civilized world through movies, entertainment and fashion.

In the end, touching both nerve and heart, Beah leaves the reader with a sense of hope, as well as a deep feeling of responsibility as global citizens.  And at the same time, he has transformed a horrific experience to inspire us to take action against the use of children in war.


A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

by Ishmael Beah

Harper Perennial, London 2007

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