Sierra Leone, Book 1
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
As I think back on my time in Berlin, I recognize the first few weeks were some of the most academically challenging of my life. It wasn’t so much a linguistic challenge, but rather the fact that I had a very difficult time shaking the city’s history as I walked up and down the streets. There is a blessing to knowing history in the fact that no matter where you go and what you do, you have perspective. In Germany, however, this historical perspective overwhelmed me at first – to the point that I could think of nothing else. Finding myself at Bebelplatz, I looked around the empty square aghast with people seemingly going about their normal, everyday business. Nearly 80 years prior, Nazis had thrown the works of Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Heinrich Mann, Heinrich Heine, and Karl Marx into fires. An estimated 40,000 young people had congregated there in the night; watching the flames lapping up the millions of words and ideas written in those books and hearing the inflaming speech of the infamous Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda.
Another fact that I couldn’t seem to shake was the knowledge that in April 1945, the Battle for Berlin took place. During this particular battle, tens of thousands of children fought on the streets, willing to sacrifice their lives to ensure that Allied occupation of the city did not occur. As a young teenager, I had read Susan Bartoletti Campbell’s award winning book “Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow” which made a profound and lasting impact on me. Although the book focuses exclusively on the stories of children caught up in the Nazi regime (as either supporters or dissenters), it begins with a quote from Adolf Hitler himself, spoken in Nuremberg in 1933: "I begin with the young. We older ones are used up . . . But my magnificent youngsters! Look at these men and boys! What material! With them, I can create a new world." By 1939, Hitler Youth organizations were mandatory for all young Germans over the age of 10 years with millions upon millions enrolled.
It was with this knowledge that I read the famed “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider”, written by Ishmael Beah, for my first book on the Western African nation of Sierra Leone. The cover of this book is probably well known to many of you bookstore-goers: a thin, young African boy wearing a dinghy red shirt and lime green cheap flip flops with holes in them - weighed down by weapons – walking through a thick and luscious green landscape. It is a very powerful image and one that particularly resonates with westerners – despite the fact that western children were used in warfare such a short time ago. The short narrative (only a little more than 200 pages) is equally powerful as the author discusses his experience transitioning from a village boy to displaced refugee to a child soldier, as well as the difficult process of his rehabilitation back into society.
Before anything, I think it is important to give some background into the country of Sierra Leone. The country is in West Africa and is located on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, nestled between the countries of Guinea and Liberia. Originally a source for slaves shipped to the Americas, a group of British abolitionists helped establish the area as a colony of freed African slaves under the protection of the Crown in 1808. Its capital, Freetown, became a British naval base for antislavery patrols. Finally obtaining freedom in 1961, Sierra Leone slowly descended into a state of chaos. Although the conflict is difficult to characterize because of its complexity (as well as the fact that the conflict was exacerbated due to the country’s rich natural resources – including diamonds), it is easiest to describe the conflict as follows: In the early 1990s a group of men called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) began to revolt against the All People’s Congress, the one political party which had held political power since the 1960s. As most warfare in Africa is this way, they utilized guerilla tactics – maneuvering mostly in the rural areas where it is difficult for the government to control and utilizing civilians as either human shields or potential collaborators – subsequently putting the civilians in the line of fire. As Beah explains, “They [the rebels] didn’t want people to abandon the town, because they needed to use civilians as a shield against the military. One of the main aims of the rebels when they took over a town was to force the civilians to stay with them especially women and children.” (page 24)
It is in one of these rural villages that the story of young Ishmael Beah begins: When visiting another village, he discovers that his family’s village was attacked by the RUF rebels. This is only the beginning of a wild goose chase for survival – as he joins forces with other young boys and flees from village to village, attempting to find their families and having to constantly flee from the AK-47s of the rebels. “I had passed through burnt villages where dead bodies of men, women, and children of all ages were scattered like leaves on the ground after a storm. Their eyes still showed fear, as if death hadn’t freed them from the madness that continued to unfold.” (page 49) This is a difficult part to read and takes up nearly half of his book. However, it is important, as it serves as a strong reminder of the innocence and the helplessness of these young children forced to survive on their own.
The story takes twist after turn. At one particularly emotional climax, Beah discovers that his family is alive and in a nearby town, only to finally arrive in the town and discover that it has been razed to the ground by the rebels: “The floors were filled with heaps of ashes; no solid form of a body was inside.” (page 95)
From here, we can see his descent into becoming a child soldier. Heartbroken, he finds himself in a government-controlled village called Yele, which he is told is safe. However, after only a brief time there, the government forces begin to utilize the men and the young boys in the villages in order to increase their manpower in fighting RUF on the front lines. Beah remembers the call to attention of the government lieutenant: “Some of you are here because they have killed your parents or families, others because this is a safe place to be... Well, it is not that safe anymore. That is why we need strong men and boys to help us fight these guys, so that we can keep this village safe. This is your time to revenge the deaths of your families and to make sure more children do not lose their families.” (page 106)
Beah describes the horrors of becoming a child soldier. Although he was only thirteen at the time, he was joined by others – some as young as seven years of age. He shows how warfare quite literally took over his life. He passed his time watching Rambo movies (getting ideas which he would later use against other RUF soldiers – including other child soldiers) and “smoking marijuana and sniffing brown brown, cocaine mixed with gunpowder, which was always spread out on the table, and of course taking more of the white capsules, as I had become addicted to them. “ (page 121) Beah was promoted to a junior lieutenant due to his excellent service, as increasingly more of the government raids turned against civilian villages, instead of RUF, in order to capture recruits or supplies.
The story of Ishmael Beah, including his rehabilitation through UNICEF at the end of the book, is extremely enlightening, and I highly recommend it. Although I appreciated the insights it provided into the topic of child soldiers, I was most impacted by its personal insights into the topic of warfare in Africa, which perhaps affects its everyday people more than warfare in other regions – due to its guerilla nature, use of human shields, and constant citizen recruits (which even includes children.) His story of victim and then perpetrator is certainly both compelling and disconcerting.
Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!