Tragic. This word seems inadequate to capture the immense suffering that Ishmael Beah and other Sierra Leonians go through during political upheavals in the country. At the tender age of twelve, Beah is separated with his close-knit family, witnesses the torching of homes, obliteration of people’s lives and livelihoods and the gruesome murder of human beings. He also comes to multiple close encounters with death as he flees the war and is eventually recruited as a boy soldier. Brainwashed and vengeful, the teen ends up killing and maiming multiple people before he is finally rehabilitated. In A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Beah narrates his experience under the 1991-2001 civil war that left over 50,000 dead.
With vivid descriptions and an elegant use of various figures of speech, Beah takes the reader through his life before the war, his dangerous escape from the rebel militia, his recruitment and service as a boy soldier, and his eventual rehabilitation by UNICEF. Serving interludes of normality every now and then in the impossible circumstances, the author skillfully takes the reader through the horrors of his close encounters with the grim reaper and his stolen haunted childhood. A flashback to happier gone days here, a traditional story told by one of his escaping companions there, some momentary childish playfulness, reprieve by a rare welcoming community, these are some of the events that pour some cold water on the raging fire that the difficulties Beah narrates seem to be, thereby letting the reader catch a breather before diving back into Beah’s rollercoaster of a life. Coming from a storytelling tradition, the author has demonstrably mastered the art.
The author’s first-hand account of the misery brought about by the war exemplifies the horrors and atrocities, providing the reader a vantage point like no other. Beah’s account embodies the atrocities of war instantiating what many readers might have never and may likely never encounter. Lack of trust among human beings, food and water scarcity, difficulty in and unwillingness to conduct business transactions, erosion of traditional moral values such as respect for elders, all these grip the nation’s people as the war rages.
While the author narrates numerous graphic encounters with the violence, it is apparent that there is much more that he leaves out. This makes for a shorter book than would have materialized but also ensures that the text stops before the reader has had too much. The use of suspense in the text keeps one glued, eager to know what happens next. Even as the book ends, Beah is on transit, trying to escape war, but he never explains whether and how and in how long he makes it to the US his desired destination.
Every leader and aspiring leader should read A Long Way Gone. Army and police officers as well as peace and conflict management experts would also greatly benefit from the text. I would recommend this book to any human being that cares about peace as well.