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A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ismael Beah

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A world of devastation, where rivers of blood surge endlessly and dead bodies litter the streets of towns and villages. A world of loneliness, where nothing but woods can be seen from all sides and comfort can be taken only in the sounds of nature. A world of insanity, where, in the life of a boy soldier, killing is sport, an abundance of drugs cause sleepless nights and a coalescing of days, and not a trace of morality remains. A world of hope, where UNICEF workers forgive and care and family is found in the most unexpected places. This world seems inconceivable- unimaginable in even the wildest of dreams (or nightmares), however, for Sierra Leonean and boy soldier, Ishmael Beah, this world was reality. In his autobiography, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of Boy Soldier, Beah recounts his memories of living in Sierra Leone during a time of war, having to scavenge to survive, constantly moving from place to place, becoming a soldier at the age of thirteen for the government’s military force, eventually overcoming his painful memories with the help of UNICEF staff, and using his experiences as a way to draw attention to the issue of child soldiers in Africa.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier introduced me to the world of (and issues associated with) child soldiers and forever changed my perception about what true strength and courage are. Through Beah’s incisive writing and detailed recollections, A Long Way Gone has provided me with shocking insight about what it’s like to live in a war-torn country where children are caught in the middle, and shown me that, even after someone’s life has been marked by such severe atrocities, it is possible to carry on, heal and have something positive arise.

Although not my first exposure to children’s roles in the war between the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the government, and the civilians caught in the cross-fire, A Long Way Gone has undoubtedly been my realest. Throughout the book, Beah’s stories provide an astounding example of how the innocence typically associated with children loses all of its credibility in a time of conflict, detail the struggles of day-to-day survival as a homeless and wandering child, and enable the reader to understand how people so young are able to be brain washed into engaging in the most evil acts of violence. As an American, society in general has always impressed upon me the correlation between childhood, youth, and innocence. The earliest years of life are supposed to be some of the happiest, marked by sweets, trips to the park, the care of loving parents, and fantastical, imaginative child’s play. Beah’s book, though, has shown me that this is far from the case for the majority of children living in war-plagued African countries who are forced to see, feel, and even engage in the horrors of war every day. In one part of the book, Beah describes the carnage seen by him and his friend’s one of the many attacks on a village: “We saw a man run from the driver’s seat to the sidewalk, where he vomited blood. His arm was bleeding. When he stopped vomiting, he began to cry. […] When he opened the door opposite to the driver’s, a woman who was leaning against it fell to the ground. Blood was coming out of her ears. […] In the back of the van were three more dead bodies, two girls and a boy. I wanted to move away from what I was seeing, but couldn’t. My feet went numb and my entire body froze” (Beah 13). In another sections of the book, Beah describes how he and his friends, travelling as a small pack, were deemed dangerous, and underwent thorough interrogation by chiefs of each village to which they ventured before being permitted to leave in peace. One chief (at a point in the book before Beah is a child soldier) even referred to them as “little devils”, assuming that they were military minions, when in fact they were just kids trying to stay alive (Beah 66). In yet a different part of the book, Beah portrays life as a young soldier- being commanded to kill (and at a certain point enjoying the violence), living in a drug-induced haze, awaking from graphic nightmares, winning a “throat-slitting contest”, and engaging in even more horrendous acts of violence. Most people don’t have to encounter the bloody scenes observed by Beah, or have to deal with people who, at one time would have warmly welcomed you, turning against you out of fear and hasty judgment their entire lives, or have to be forced to become a brain-washed, drugged, and unthinkably violent killer at the tender age of thirteen. Beah, on the other hand, had to meet with these things when he was only a naïve child. These types of experiences that Ishmael Beah delineates in A Long Way Gone have opened my eyes to the fact that what children just like him had to (and continue to) face is sheer terror- worlds away from the idyllic, happy childhood that is part of American culture. The horrific scenes he has endured and the terrible things he has been forced to do highlight the contrast between what a childhood should be and what it actually is for children in war-torn African countries. Beah’s experiences have truly made more thankful for the safe, nurturing childhood I had and also for the life I currently have. Additionally, his stories have made me more aware of the seriousness of the conflict and caused me to realize that this situation is destroying so many young lives, and needs to be stopped.

Ishmael Beah, however, didn’t only show the horrors of his life. He also demonstrated that even after being faced with such atrocious life events, it is possible to heal, create something positive, and even find happiness. After serving in the government’s military program for a few years, Beah is taken in by a UNICEF program, where he and other boys like him are fed, sheltered, and schooled. While at the camp Beah receives therapy (begrudgingly at first) from a nurse named and Esther, and is, in the end, able to share and make peace with his painful memories. Later on, Beah serves a delegate in a United Nation’s conference for children from war torn countries, and even later on succeeds in completing a harrowing journey to the United States, where he is adopted by storyteller Laura Simms, whom he met at the conference. Beah’s youth was marked by death, destruction, and overall devastation. He had no family and no home, and had to make peace with what he’d done and the memories of his actions. Although it was difficult, he did. He rose up to the challenge and did all of these things and more. The strength and courage he displayed in the wake of a nightmarish childhood have caused me to reevaluate my definitions of those traits. Beah was able to withstand arguably the worst events imaginable. He was also able to take his experiences and turn them into something positive by attending the UN conference, by using his drive to get him to a safer place in America, and even by publishing A Long Way Gone. A Long Way Gone has proved to me that there will always be someone who has it worse and shown me that it is possible to go up against the most awful situations and circumstances and not just survive, but come out stronger.

A Long Way Gone is a raw, real autobiography like no other. Filled with pain, gore, healing, and happiness, this book has changed my ways of thinking and opened my eyes to the horrors of an appalling conflict occurring at this very moment. Just as Emily Dickison’s books acted as “frigates” that took her to far-away lands, A Long Way Gone has transported me to a new world in which I am able to see first-hand what it is like to be a child caught in the middle of a deadly clash, and forced me to change my perspective on what it really means to be strong and courageous. Ishmael Beah was forever changed by the horrific events that marred his childhood. I was forever changed by the stories of Ishmael Beah in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.



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