Book Review: “A Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah

This is a truly sad story of a boy soldier from Sierra Leone, a west African nation well known for their abundance in diamond. The boy, Ishmael Beah, lost his family (mother, father and brother) to the ruthless slaughter by the rebels (RUF) opposing an unstable government. He was then drafted to become a soldier at age of 12 and then rehabilitated at around 15 years old. Having been to New York and addressed the UN conference on the life of a boy soldier, he has seen what a child’s life should be and vowed not be become a soldier again. Later, he took the risk in fleeing the country as Freetown (Capital of Sierra Leone) fell into the rebels’ hand.

Ishmael was an exceptional boy, well versed in Shakespeare and American Rap music and has mastery of the English language and the use of metaphors. His story telling was impeccable. At times within the story, I wish he had not been vivid in capturing the horrific scene and his state of mind. Ishmael was also an extraordinary survivor, living in the constant, ruthless gun war without losing his life. His brush with death happened when his feet were struck with bullets. He was able to survive it due to the caring of his superior. His loyalty to the military, whether founded or not, was then firmly established. During his 3-year solider years, he and other boys were constant on drug (cocaine, marijuana, and booster), which made them fearless and ruthless. Most of story was told of the time how he kept running from the rebels inland to the coast and was within minutes of meeting his family. Unfortunately, he was spared the life but missed the opportunity to re-unite with his family when the rebels killed everyone in the village where his family took refuge. You can tell about his despair when he said he wished he had re-united with his family and be killed with them together.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what evil is. Is it born with or caused by circumstances? In this case, children with sufficient drug and adult brain-wash and armed with AK47 can be turned into an evil, ruthless, war machine. Ishmael was able to survive all these years because he was a lean and mean soldier. His skinny statute and his intelligence provided him a natural protection from the flying bullets. In the end, Ishmael went through months of drug withdrawal and several big fights before being rehabilitated. But the trauma and scar from all these killings will last him entire life time.

This story reminded me the “Blood Diamond” movie. Indeed, “Blood Diamond” took a lot of story lines from this book, I believe. It’s sad that Africa, after centuries of being exploited as the source of slaves, can turn around and exploit their own people for money and how the west or rest of the world continued to enslave the African people long after the slavery has been banned for over a century.

Ishmael’s description of the modern city sceneries (tall house) and amenities (“box” for elevator) and later his experience with New York’s cold weather and “East Village” shows how much of the mountain/village life shaped his entire world before and during the war. It’s when he was fortunate enough to be forced out of the military, thanks to the efforts of UN’s UNICEF and his superior’s sharp insight of this boy’s potential, he was able to see the world and the war from the outside as they are.

This is a great book written and narrated by the real people whose life has been permanently altered by the action of the greed and evil of the people in power. We should never forget how much of collateral damage we sustain when we go into a war.