“A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” by Ishmael Beah is a heart-wrenching, auto-biographical account of a young boy’s struggle to survive the violence of Sierra Leone’s Civil War in the 1990s.
The story begins with young Ishmael and his brother and friends heading off to another village together to perform rap songs, which is one of their favorite pastimes together. Their youthful exuberance is forgotten as war breaks out, and they return home amid grisly and bloody violence, unable to find their families.
The boys set out together, searching for their families, struggling to feed and shelter themselves. They face unbelievable obstacles during this time, but most poignant is the unease and suspicion adults in other villages feel toward them. Where in peace time, the children would have been taken in, cared for and fed, instead the children are seen as the enemy in a war-torn world where even young boys are joining in perpetrating the violence ravaging the country.
After much personal loss, Ishmael is captured, handed a gun and pressed into service. It’s common for his superiors to ply Ishmael and other young soldiers like him with cocaine and other drugs while encouraging them to commit acts of unspeakable violence. Normally a good-natured boy, Ishmael is surprised by his own actions during this time.
A new stage in his life begins when he is chosen by a commander to leave the war with a UNICEF representative. Ishmael is taken to a safe home for boys just like him, where he spends months working through the violence he has experienced and his drug addictions. He is only 15 years old at this time. Though his parents are gone, his father’s brother is located, and he graciously takes Ishmael into his own family, which is a mixture of other nieces and nephews as well.
While living with his uncle, safe and in a stable family situation, Ishmael is chosen by UNICEF to represent the children of Sierra Leone at a U.N. meeting in New York City. His uncle, a loving and caring man, jokes with him about this opportunity, and doesn’t believe Ishmael really is traveling to the United States until he calls home from New York City to check in with his family.
Ishmael returns home to his uncle’s family to continue his studies, and just as it seems there has been a happy ending for Ishmael, the civil war, which had been isolated to the country’s more rural areas up to this point, breaks out in the city where he is living. Food becomes scarce, survival is once again a struggle, and Ishmael fears he will be recognized by his former fellow soldiers and pressed into service again.
He flees to the United States to live with a mentor, whom he met during his visit there, and finishes high school and college. Currently, he is a member of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division Advisory Committee and speaks before many groups regarding children affected by the war.
This is a well-written story of human strength and endurance, made even more incredible by the fact that the main character is a child. It is difficult to read at times because it causes the reader to be emotionally invested in the lives of the children depicted. Ishmael lives through years of adversity and comes out able to put his experience to good use in helping others, and that is inspiring.