“A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” is a memoir published in 2007 by former child soldier Ishmael Beah. The memoir is an account of his time in the Sierra Leone Armed Forces during the civil war in the country in the 1990’s. The book was applauded by critics for it’s accuracy and visceral depiction of the horrors of being a child soldier. In 2006 it was nominated for a Quill Award in the Best Debut Author category.
In the memoir, Beah tells the story of his childhood. As a boy, he was away from his village when it was unexpectedly attacked by rebels from the Revolutionary United Front or RUF. With no clue of what happened to his family, Beah and his brother evade capture by the RUF by traveling from village to village and staying on alert at all times.
Eventually, the boys are separated and Beah is captured by soldiers from the military and taken to a camp with other orphans. When rebels surround the camp, the military forces all of the young boys in the camp to join in the fight. Beah becomes a child soldier at the age of 12 and was put on a never ending cycle of training to kill and taking drugs to aid his fighting. Beah carries out many horrific attacks on rebels and even civilian villages during his time as a solider until the age of 15 when he is rescued by UNICEF and brought to a rehabilitation center.
Beah begins to realize how traumatized he is by the things he has seen and done and must suffer the effects of withdrawal from the drugs he was being forced to take. Beah does so well at the rehab center that he is invited to travel to the UN in New York City to speak about the war and his time as a child soldier.
The book opens with a preface from Ishmael in New York City in the year 1998. At this time he is in high school and he tells the reader that his friends believe that there is more to his life story then he lets on. He says that this will be that story.
Chapter one begins with Ishmael as a ten-year-old boy. It is two years before the civil war reaches his small village and he remembers that war was an entirely unimaginable thing to his young mind. Even the older villagers have trouble understanding what the refugees coming through town have been through. It is too terrible and too unimaginable a concept to equate in their minds.
Ishmael and his brother Junior and his friends Talloi and Mohamed have formed a rap group amongst themselves two years before. They learned of rap music on a trip with their fathers who work for an American company. Ishmael was hypnotized by the music and struck by the fact that it was black men making it. The slang and fashion in rap culture shaped how he dresses and acts.
In early 1993, the boys travel to the village of Mattru Jong to perform in a talent show. They stay at a friend’s house and are surprised when, early the next day he returns home from school and informs them that the rebels have invaded Ishmael’s village of Mogbwemo. The friend tells them that his village will surely be next. Refugees begin coming into town from Mogbwemo but no one can report on the safety of Ishmael’s family. Deciding to return to their village to find their families themselves, Ishmael and his friends find that it has been almost entirely destroyed and bodies laying in the streets. Ishmael and his friends return to Mattru Jong unsuccessful in finding their families and begin to spend their time waiting for word to reach them.
In the next chapter we are taken again to 1998 where Ishmael is having a nightmare about his days as a soldier in Sierra Leone. He carried an AK-47 and attacked a village for their supplies and ammunition. Ishmael and his fellow soldiers opened fire on the villagers, many of whom were young men his own age and then congratulated each other with high fives and ate the villagers food. Ishmael tries to calm himself and longs for the return of daylight so that he can go back to living his new life in New York.
After the attack on his home village, Ishmael and his friend waited for weeks for news of their families. A man arrived from nearby Sumbuya and informs them that it is the site of the most recent attack. The rebels have used a hot bayonet to carve the initials of the Revolutionary United Front into the man’s body. He tells the townspeople that the rebels will be coming to Mattru Jong next and since they claim to fight for the people, they will be expecting a nice welcome. Soon, the rebels do attack and Ishmael and his friends flee the village.
The boys walk for days in complete silence, passing through ransacked villages and body-littered streets. Eventually they get so hungry that they are forced to return to Mattru Jong for food. They discover that their friend’s house has been destroyed but that the tiny bag of money that Ishmael had to leave behind is still hidden under the bed.
In order to get to safety in the rebel patrolled village, Ishmael and his friends must cross a field covered in dead bodies. During the tense crossing, something falls out of one of the boy’s pockets and alerts the guards in a tower nearby. Ishmael has already reached the other side by this time but must watch as his friend’s and brother pretend to be dead bodies in the field so that the guards will not see them.
Though the boys now have money, they know that all of the nearby village are stashing their food to prepare for the rebel attacks and will not sell to them. They decide to steal some food from a young child that they see eating corn. Ishmael writes that he did not feel remorse because of his desperation. Eventually not knowing what else to do, the boys return to Mattru Jong even though they know it is dangerous. They are captured by rebels and forced to join a large gathering of villagers. The rebels torture and taunt an old man and Ishmael is shocked by this because before the attack no one in the village would think of disrespecting an elder that way.
The rebels separate Ishmael and his brother from the others and tell them that their initiation will be a fight to the death. However, as the fight is to begin, gunfire breaks out nearby distracting the rebels and giving the boys a chance to escape. Ishmael and his friends walk in silence to another village. The nearby villages fear Ishmael and his friends because they are a group of young boys who could be rebels. They are soon captured by a group of volunteer guards for a village and brought to the village council. The council finds a cassette tape of rap music in Ishmael’s pocket and the foreignness of the music only makes the council more suspicious of them. However, a young boy from Mattru Jong happens to be taking refuge in the village and tells the council that he remembers Ishmael and his friends from the talent show.
The council offers to let the boys stay in the village once he knows that they are not rebels but they decide to move on as they know the rebels are most likely right behind them. The boys are told that one of their aunts is in a nearby village of Kamator and travel there. They arrive and spend three months in the village helping with the planting season before the rebels arrive and destroy the town. Ishmael and Junior are separated in the attack and Ishmael reveals that he never saw his brother again.
Ishmael hides with a nice family for two weeks before he decides to set out on his own. He begins walking toward the sea and walks for five days without seeing another other living people or any intact villages. Ishmael wanders into a tall forest and eats fruit he does not recognize from a tree, not knowing if it is poisonous. He remembers how his grandfather had an unrivaled knowledge of herbal medicines and Ishmael wishes that he had listened to him more and learned to survive in the woods. Ishmael’s loneliness overwhelms him but he appreciates the sounds of the animals around him. He begins to fear sleeping and his dreams.
After a month of living in the forest, Ishmael is forced out by a pack of aggressive boar and returns to the path. By chance, he runs into a group of boys some of whom happen to be from his school. However, after spending a month on his own he is uncertain how to act around other people and becomes uncomfortable and worries that so large a group of boys will invite trouble. But his loneliness is so much that he accepts the risk and stays with them anyway.
They boys travel together for a few days and scare the villages that they approach. They are attacked several times but once the villagers realize that they are merely refugees they are more understanding. Ishmael’s group eventually reaches the ocean and, assuming that the war has not yet reached the coast, expect to settle in a village. However, they find the villages oddly abandoned. In one village, the group is ambushed and tied up before being brought before the chief. The villagers, instead of killing them, steal their shoes and chase them from the village.
Ishmael and his group are forced to walk barefoot in 120 degrees temperatures in the sand. At the end of the first day the boys collapse into a found hut and the man inside feeds them and tends to their injured feet. They ask the man his name but he tells them it is better if they don’t know. Soon, the boys are again tied up and taken before the village chief by the villagers. However, the cassette of rap music saves Ishmael again as the chief hears it and makes Ishmael perform the music. He then realizes that they are just boys and lets them leave in peace.
As they continue to travel each of the boys shares they story of how they came to be there with Ishmael. Each boy lived in a village that was attacked by rebels and all have horrific stories of slaughter and torture to relate. After hearing the stories, Ishmael realizes why it is that they all so often walk in silence. The group continues to move at night and look for food during the day. They begin sleeping in shifts so that someone is always on guard. As they are walking a crow falls dead at their feet and they consider this a bad omen. But they are hungry enough that they are compelled to eat the bird. The group tell each other stories as they walk and Ishmael remembers his name-giving ceremony.
One of the boys, Saidu falls ill and the group takes him to a nearby village to seek aid. When they get there they are surprised to find that the village is lively and people are acting normally. The people of the village feed them and give them a place to sleep. A woman finds the group and gives them all news of their families. From her, Ishmael learns that Junior has been in that very village recently. He is excited by this and wishes to continue traveling so that he may catch up with his brother. Overnight, Saidu dies and the boys honor his death and bury his body themselves. When they set out on the road the next day they are renewed in hope for finding their families.
Ishmael and his group have been told that some of their families are living in one specific village nearby. However when they get there the village is under attack. A banana farmer named Gasemu whom Ishmael knows meets them outside the village and they hide and wait for the gunshots to subside. When it falls silent, Ishmael rushes into the village and finds it destroyed. Gasemu shows Ishmael the hut where his family had been staying and Ishmael is relieved to find that there are no bodies in it. More rebels appear and the boys flee into the forest. When they finally stop running, they all realize that Gasemu has been shot. He dies shortly after.
The boys are eventually captured by soldiers and taken to a village occupied by the military called Yele. The village is filled with orphans. They are put to work washing dishes, chopping vegetables and carrying water in the town. Ishmael is relieved to be somewhere safe but begins to suffer from severe headaches and nightmares.
A few weeks later, rebels surround the village and the military tell the men and boys that they must join them or leave the village. If the boys leave the village they will be instantly killed by the rebels so, feeling that they have no choice, Ishmael and his friends agree to join the military. More than 30 boys between the ages of seven and sixteen join that day. They are moved into tents by the soldiers barracks and given guns as well as new clothes and shoes. Ishmael’s rap cassette tape is taken and burned. Ishmael is angered and scared and, as his friends feel the same they offer him no companionship.
Soon the boys begin training. They shoot AK-47s and use banana trees as dummies. They discover that the only hope for revenge and justice for their families is to kill the rebels. The boys are given a “white tablet” that they are told boosts their energy before being sent into the forest to fight for the first time. During this fight, Ishmael kills a man for the first time and two of the boys from his group are shot. Ishmael and a corporal strip the dead bodies of their possessions and Ishmael realizes that he feels nothing toward the dead rebels.
That night Ishmael’s drugs wear off and he has a nightmare. He wakes up terrified and begins shooting his gun inside the tent. The corporal and a lieutenant run in and tend to him, giving him more pills. Ishmael begins to rely on the drugs and additionally smokes marijuana and a mixture of cocaine and gun powder. This combination causes sleeplessness and he stays up most nights watching violent movies. When the camp runs out of supplies, the soldiers raid the rebel camps and then begin to raid nearby villages, forcing more young boys to join the military. The lieutenant justifies this by saying that they are fighting for the people and the rebels are fighting just to be violent. When he acts violently, Ishmael and the other men cheer.
One day the corporal picks a few rebel prisoners out and decides to have a contest. He chooses a few young soldiers, including Ishmael for a throat slitting competition. Ishmael wins by using his bayonet to slice a prisoners throat. He is given the title of junior lieutenant.
Ishmael spends years with the soldiers and comes to see them as his family. In January of 1996, shortly after Ishmael turns fifteen years old, UNICEF men show up to take the boy soldiers away. The boys are lined up and the men choose the youngest ones to be released from duty. They are told that they will be put in school and given new lives. The lieutenant tells the boys that they have served their country and their people well but gives no other explanation.
The boys are taken to a compound in Sierra Leone’s capital and given food and beds. They are astonished by the change and don’t know how to act. The boys begin fighting with other boy soldiers and a group of RUF soldiers that are brought in. MP’s have to break up the battle by force but by that time six people have been shot. Ishmael and the other boys are taken to a rehabilitation center called Benin Home and Ishmael begins to become ill from the drug withdrawal. The boys behave poorly at first in the rehab center. Fighting, looting and breaking into the medical supplies in search of drugs are common. Eventually, though the staff begins to win the boys over and the boys begin to calm down.
At this point, their trauma begins to fully unveil itself. Ishmael realizes that he can barely remember anything from his childhood before he was a soldier. After the violent outbursts the boys are reminded that it is not their fault and all broken things are replaced without fuss. The boys attend a few hours of school each day and become frustrated by how far behind they are. Ishmael recalls one battle in which he and another soldier slaughtered an entire village. Ishmael was given the nickname “Green Snake” afterward for his success because he was so adept at hiding in the bushes and being sneaky. Ishmael’s nurse, Esther, buys him some rap cassettes and a Walkman and this causes him to open up about his past to her.
Soon, some observers from UNICEF and the UN arrive to view the center and the boys decide to put on a talent show for them. Ishmael performs a rap and recites a monologue from Shakespeare. The doctors are so impressed by his performance that they ask him to become the spokesperson for the center. Ishmael says that he feel that children are strong enough to be rehabilitated from wars horrors if they are given patience and time.
Ishmael’s case worker finds an uncle that he has never met named Tommy. Uncle Tommy visits the center and promises to take Ishmael in and take care of him. Ishmael is won over by his sincerity and feeling. Ishmael says goodbye to his friends in the center and Tommy takes Ishmael to his family and begins telling him more about his father. Ishmael has a difficult time adjusting to a peaceful, happy life and finds himself withdrawing a lot. Ishmael meets a girl in the new village and the two date for a short time before she begins to push him to talk about his past. Ishmael ends the relationship and later, ends others the same way, seeming content to be alone.
Ishmael’s case worker visits him and tells him that there is a group of children from the home who are going to visit the UN in New York City and tell their stories. She wants Ishmael to apply to be in the group. Ishmael applies and soon he is invited to visit the United States and given a passport and a visa. When Ishmael reaches New York he finds it cold but fascinating. He is shocked by how different the city is from what he has heard in his rap music.
At the UN he meets other boys who are there to tell their stories and realizes that he is not the only young man whose childhood was stolen by the war. One of the organizers, Laura Simms, bonds with Ishmael as she invites the children to tell their stories. Soon, Ishmael is sent back to his home at Uncle Tommy’s and begins the school year. The news of his past as a soldier has reached the other students in the school and they refuse to sit near him or talk to him, fearing that he will hurt them.
In May of 1997, gunfire breaks out in the capital and Ishmael fears that the civil war is returning and doubts that he will make it through again. By that night, the government has been overthrown by a collaboration of the RUF and the military and begin controlling the city. Ishmael fears that he has escaped the war and the war has returned for him. Uncle Tommy soon falls ill and, as there are no hospitals available with the rebel control of the city, he soon dies. Ishmael realizes that he must escape the city before he is made a soldier again. He calls Laura Simms and asks her if he can live with her in New York. She agrees and Ishmael flees the country illegally and goes to the Sierra Leone embassy in Guinea. There he is given shelter as a war refugee and soon given passage to New York.
Ishmael Beah – the author of the book and main character. Ishmael was a child solider for the Serra Leone Armed Services for several years. Ishmael’s story is one of individual change and survival. Prior to the war, he enjoys a happy, cheerful adolescence in his town. Amid the war, he turns into a slaughtering machine equipped for terrible demonstrations of brutality. It is revealed that Ishmael’s nickname among the soldiers was ‘Green Snake’ and that he took much pride in being called this. This is, of course, included as a comparison to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and how Ishmael now realizes that he had inadvertently become something close to evil in the forest during the war.
After the UNICEF saves the child soldiers from the edges of war, Ishmael is hesitant at first to open up about his experiences and begin to heal but eventually he is restored. Through the affection and empathy of his medical caretaker and more distant family, Ishmael figures out how to deal with his resentment and to excuse himself for the war that wasn’t his problem. He figures out how to acknowledge the assistance of others and to utilize his story to teach the world about the abominations of how war influences children.
Esther – Ishmael’s nurse at the Benin House rehabilitation center where he is brought after the war. She not only treats the boys wounds but slowly gets him to open up about his mental wounds and PTSD after giving him a cassette tape of rap music and a Walkman. This reminder of his childhood before the war turned everything upside down is the main catalyst for Ishmael’s recovery and return to innocence. Esther’s patience and love bring Ishmael back to who he had been before the war. Though he is a different person now he learns to trust Esther and reach out for help.
Uncle Tommy – Ishmael’s father’s brother who later adopts the boy and moves him in with his family. Tommy lives in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital and works as a carpenter. He is a kind, generous man who works to raise not only his children but the children of relatives who can no longer care for them.
Uncle Tommy arrives to pick up Ishmael as soon as he learns that the boy is in a rehab center and immediately bonds with him. He continues to visit for the next few weeks, telling Ishmael stories of his father and walking with him. Eventually Ishmael warms up to the man, though he has never met him before and agrees to live with him. Uncle Tommy treats Ishmael like a son and in doing so saves Ishmael from the fate of some of the other boys who are released from the center – becoming a soldier again.
The Lieutenant – the man in charge of the branch of the Sierra Leone Armed Services that Ishmael was a part of as a child. The Lieutenant is something of a father figure to the boys who are not old enough to realize what a toxic figure he is. He trains the boys to fight the rebels until UNICEF comes to take some of them away. Since Ishmael and the Lieutenant had bonded over their mutual love of Shakespeare and Ishmael looked up to the man in general, he feels angry and betrayed to be handed over to the men from UNICEF with no explanation.
Laura Simms – one of the organizers of the delegation of child soldiers at the UN that Ishmael attends. She and Ishmael bond and she invites the children back to her house after the conference. Laura is an outsider who truly cares about the fates of children in war-torn countries and this surprises and delights Ishmael. Laura patiently listens to the children’s stories and respects them, encouraging them to share the stories with the world. After Ishmael goes back home, he and Laura stay in touch and write each other often.
When Ishmael realizes that he must leave the country, Laura is the first person he contacts. Soon Ishmael is able to make it to the United States and Laura becomes his foster mother. Like Esther and Tommy, Laura’s compassion and love help Ishmael begin to heal from his memories of his time in the war.
Ishmael Beah Biography
Ishmael Beah was born in November of 1980 in Mogbwemo, Bonthe District in Sierra Leone. For the first years of his life, he lived a happy innocent childhood in his village until one day the rebels attacked and destroyed the town, forcing Beah to flee. Beah spent months wondering the roads of Sierra Leone with a group of boys his age until he was eventually captured by the military and brought to a camp with other refugees.
When the camp was surrounded by rebels, Beah was forced to become a child soldier in the military. Beah was brainwashed by a combination of drugs and fear and fought the rebels for three years before being rescued by the worldwide charity, UNICEF and brought to a rehab center. With the help of the people in the rehab center and an Uncle who later adopted him, Beah began to heal and open up to the people in the center about his past in the military and the things he did while a soldier. Beah attended the 1996 UN delegation for child soldiers.
After his uncle’s death and the return of the rebel forces to the capital of Sierra Leone, Beah fled the city and moved to New York City where he lived with a foster mother, Laura Simms whom he met while in New York the year before.
Beah attended the United Nations International School and then attended Oberlin College, graduating in 2004 with a degree in political science. In 2007, Beah chronicled his experience in the memoir, ‘A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier’ and the book was met with instant success. In 2009, Beah, then 29, traveled back to Sierra Leone for a segment on the shows ABC News and described the return as “bittersweet”.
Beah is currently at work on his second book which is to be a fictional story about the life a community returning to normalcy after a civil war.