"There were all kinds of stories told about the war that made it sound as if it was happening in a faraway and different land." So begins the memoirs of Ishmael Beah.
Born in Sierra Leone in 1980, Beah is the same age as me, but has been through things in his lifetime that I cannot even bear to imagine. I picked this book up over a year ago, probably fairly close to the time I saw Blood Diamond in the theater and my heart was wrenched by the idea that in this time, there are still child soldiers trained to fight in this world.
From the very beginning of the book, I felt a connection to Beah, his voice was strong and steady and drew me in immediately to his story. The book begins when he is 12 years old, and leaves home with his older brother and friend to participate in a talent show in a neighboring town. The had no idea that it would be the last time they saw their homes, and that they would soon be running from unspeakable violence with only the clothes on their backs and each other.
There are no characters in this story that make it all the way through. In Beah's life during those times people came and went, and the only constant is himself. He tells his story through his own eyes and through the things he remembers being said to him, voices of people in a nation that was under attach by it's own people trying to make sense out of the violence and heartache that fills their world.
Just before Beah and his companions are forced to start running for their lives, he talks about being in Mattru Jong as the townspeople start to desert the town to hide in the surrounding bush in fear of the rebels they know are coming.
"That night for the first time in my life I realized that it is the physical presence of people and their spirits that gives a town life. With the absence of so many people, the town became scary, thenight darker, and the silence unbearable agitating... The moon wasn't in the sky; the air was stiff, as if nature itself was afraid of what was happening."
As they run, Beah and his brother meet up with some other boys. Even as children, they faced harships trying to find food and shelter. People were terrified of a group of boys their age, because they were unsure if they were running from the violence, or perpetrating it as members of the rebel forces.
The turn that most surprised me is that Beah was taken and trained to be a soldier, at only 13 years old, not by the rebels attacking the government and the people, but by the soldiers who were supposedly defending the country. In all reality, there was not much difference. Soldiers and rebels alike killed many civilians, burned villages and were addicted to drugs. Despite the fact that they are being trained in the same kind of ruthless violence, they are trained to hate the other side. Beah remembers being told by his lieutenant...
"They [rebels] have lost everything that makes them human. They do not deserve to live. That is why we must kill every single on eof them. Think of it as destroying a great evil. It is the highest service you can perform for your country."
When he was 15 years old, UNICEF suddenly showed up, and Beah and several other boys were sent to be rehabilitated. Listening to him describe his feelings for these people who came to help him is heartbreaking in itself:
"Our faces followed teh lietenant as he walked to his house. Why had the lieutentant decided to give us up to these civilians? We thought that we were part of the war until the end. The squad had been our family. Now we were being taken away... I was beginning to get angry, anxious. I hadn't parted with my gun since the day I became a soldier."
Immediately upon being brought to the first center, a bloody fight breaks out between children rescued from the rebels, and children rescued from the government army. The violence is all they have, the hatred they have for each other is so ingrained that the change of setting doesn't matter.
Later during the healing process, Beah describes how he could not remember his life before the war:
"I would try desperately to think about my childhood, but I couldn't. The war memories had formed a barrier that I had to break in order to think about any moment in my life before the war."
This book is horrific and beautiful at once. At the same time we root for Beah, knowing he will find a new life, we think of the children he fought beside, and what their fates might be. I'm 28 years old, and up until a couple of years ago, I had no idea that this kind of thing was still going on. No idea that there are people my age who were put into these awful situations, that there are children less than 10 years older than my son who are handed AK-47s and taught how to slit a throat with a bayonette.
It's not for the faint of heart, but if you choose to take on this story, there is certainly something to be learned about the state of the world and teh human spirit. I've included several links below that relate to the story and to organizations dedicated to stopping the tragedy of children being trained to kill.
A Long Way Gone Official Website
Amnesty International: Child Soldiers
UN: Children & Armed Conflict