By Juan Haines
The first time Ishmael Beah held an AK-47 rifle, it stood nearly as tall as he did. Later the teenager talked about a contest that involved slicing a man’s throat. This was Beah’s childhood after he was recruited by a government lieutenant to fight a rebel army in Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2007), recounts Beah’s traumatic path to adulthood. His graphic retelling is a provocative narrative of rebel uprisings due to government corruption, the disintegration of families — and of the restoration of lost childhoods.
The memoir is a fast-paced story of Beah’s life, from age 11 to 16. It slows only when detailing some of the most significant and traumatic events of his life, from raiding villages and looting stockpiles to callously shooting people point-blank.
The narration begins in a boyishness motivated by the desire to reunite with his family, while ducking compulsory violence-rooted ignorance.
His early childhood experiences were filled with suffering, torture and anguish.
From this passage an incarcerated reader could grasp Beah’s anxiety:
The most difficult part of being in the forest was the loneliness. It became unbearable each day. One thing about being lonesome is that you think too much, especially when there isn’t much else you can do. I didn’t like this and tried to stop myself from thinking, but nothing seemed to work. I decided to just ignore every thought that came to my head, because it brought too much sadness.
The years of fighting and killing transformed Beah:
I began to realize how uncomfortable I felt being around people…Our innocence had been replaced by fear and we had become monsters. There was nothing we could do about it.
It was much easier to be sad than to go back and forth between emotions, and this gave me the determination I needed to keep moving. I was never disappointed, since I always expected the worst to happen.
A Long Way Gone reminded me of What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2007) by Dave Eggers.
What is the What chronicles the plight-filled journey of a group of teenagers who escaped war-torn Sudan. Throughout the near-impossible trek, Deng’s courage, fear and hopelessness are tied together in an emotional roller-coaster.
Beah and Eggers, in the same way, give readers a distinctive perspective on death:
We had been fighting for over two years, and killing had become a daily activity. I felt no pity for anyone. My childhood had gone by without my knowing, and it seemed as if my heart had frozen.
…death to boys every day, and in a familiar way: quickly and decisively, without much warning or fanfare.
Beah is a talented writer who gives the world an extraordinary memoir. For the blessings gained from empathy, this passage holds great weight:
We can be rehabilitated, I would emphasize, and point to myself as an example. I would always tell people that I believe children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance.
What I have learned from my experience is that revenge is not good.