These are the stories that need to be told, reminders of how conflicts around the world have human-sized tolls. Ishmael Beah is a veteran of such a conflict – a child soldier drafted into a horror beyond imagination.
Many books describe the impact of war and genocide in the nations of Africa – Shake Hands with the Devil by Roméo Dallaire, An Ordinary Man by Paul Russesabigina, This Voice in My Heart by Gilbert Tuhabonye — all depict the brutality of the Hutu slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi in the early 1990s. But the gristly detail of the inhumanity described by Ishmael Beah in his memoir A Long Way Gone was, for some reason, more disturbing than I expected.
Ishmael was just a child when civil war broke out in the country side of his native Sierra Leone. After the rebels took over his hometown, he was separated from his family for years, and roamed through forests and small villages with two separate groups of young boys until he was recruited to be a child soldier for the government army. His time as a child soldier has gotten most of the press attention, but it is his descriptions of what the rebel armies did to civilians that makes this book so disturbing to read. Like the Lost Boys of Sudan, Beah and his friends were displaced because of the brutality of tribe against tribe warfare – they roamed the countryside looking for a ‘safe’ place in a world where nowhere was safe for long. They watched as villages were burned down, as women and girls were raped, as men were randomly shot in the face.
One of the most poignant and disturbing chapters described how, after many months of separation, Beah learns that his parents and brothers had survived the slaughter in his home village and were living near where he had been staying. As he walked to their new village, he saw the rebels take over and burn it down. Beah watched in horror as the place where he imagined he’d have a happy reunion with his family was reduced to ashes. He missed — literally by minutes — the reunion with his family, and his own certain death.
When Beah was recruited into the government army, he was taught to kill without emotion – assisted in part by the unlimited supply of cocaine and other drugs which inured him to the violence around him. He was eventually ‘rescued’ by an international aid group and spent many months healing from the trauma of the loss of his mother, his father, his brothers — and his innocence. He became a spokesman for fighting against the use of child soldiers, and eventually moved to America.
Unfortunately, Beah’s memoir stops a chapter too soon – it describes his reunification with his extended family, his escape to neighboring Guinea by bribing border guards – and then stops abruptly without explaining how he went from being penniless in Guinea, to being a successful, best selling writer in America. Perhaps he is saving that for the sequel.
NB: Although I have not yet read it, Beah’s recently published novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, has received fabulous reviews. Add that one to your list as well…..