BOOK: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

AUTHOR: Ishmael Beah

GENRE: Memoir

ISBN-10: 0374531269

ISBN-13:  978-0374531263


PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux   



I was so excited when I first came across this book. Why? Memoirs, biographies and autobiographies are my favorite sub-genres among non-fiction books. Memoirs adrenalize me as I never tire from reading tales which involve real life experiences. It helps me have a view of life from someone else’s perspective. I fancy published works which are true stories. Always a nice feeling when I start reading a book, keeping in mind that the events in the book are real. My excitement however dies as I flip one page to the next. Not because the book is boring, ( it’s too absorbing) but due to the events in the life of the author as written in the book. His is a sorrowful story, a sadly written tale by an innocent boy who witnessed all forms of atrocities during the civil war that for years, tore Sierra Leone apart.
Ishmael Beah is a renowned author and human rights activist who was born in Sierra Leone. He tells his story as a teenager during the civil unrest in his country in “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier”

“The first time that I was touched by war I was twelve. It was in January of 1993.” He begins. The author, a twelve year old boy then, his elder brother Junior and their friend Talloi had gone to participate in a Talent show in Mattru Jong, a nearby town. It was a long walk and they arrived there a few hours later. The three of them plus another friend, Mohamed, who hadn’t accompanied them then were in a rap and dance group. They then stopped and met with old friends; Gibrilla, Kaloko and Khalilou. On that evening, the six of them made plans for the Talent show which was to take place the following day. The author, his brother and Talloi had to wait for their friends to come back from school at two p.m the next day, so they could go for the show. This however, did not happen as Gibrilla Kaloko and Khalilou came back earlier than expected. On being asked why they had been back home much earlier than usual, Gibrilla explained that the teachers had told them that the rebels had attacked Mogbwemo, the author’s home. School was canceled until further notice. The rebels had attacked the mining areas in the afternoon and people had been seen running in different directions when they heard gunshots. That was the beginning of the war. The teachers at school had implied that Mattru Jong, the town they were in, would be hit next by the rebels. The six friends decided to leave the town and head to the wharf. There, people were arriving from all over the mining area

Ishmael’s life involved running for days and fleeing away from one village to another every time rebels attacked. He was always on the move, losing friends from gun shots and some being hacked to death with machetes by the rebels. He came across several dead bodies on his way. The author and his friends separated when rebels hit Kamator, where for three months, he was living with Gibrilla’s uncle. It was the last time Ishmael Beah saw his brother Junior. Tears nearly trickled down my cheeks when I read that part. How painful it must have been for the author to never see his brother again.

In one occasion, he and his new friends were captured by soldiers who took them to a village called Yele. Yele was different. It was not deserted like other villages and was full of life. People watched movies, sang and played games. The soldiers in the nearby Garrison interacted well with the civilians. Life there was normal again. There was no sign of war as everyone co-existed peacefully.

Their joy was however short-lived as the rebels attacked them. The soldiers with a few civilians helping, fought the rebels. Ishmael and his friends also joined in the fight. They were trained how to use AK47s and other weapons. They were taught how to put the magazine into the guns, to fire them, dismantle and oil them. They were told to do this to revenge the deaths of their family members. The author tells how uncomfortable he was at first. He eventually overcame it and would bravely shoot and kill the rebels. His life had changed. The innocent fearful boy was no more. He together with other boys were now ready to face his enemies. They passed the evenings watching War movies with the help of a generator. When they ran out of gasoline and ammunition, they raided nearby rebel camps. Ishmael is now used to this life; Fighting, using drugs like Marijuana and cocaine and killing. That was his norm. The rule was to kill or be killed.

Things changed in the last weeks of January 1996. A UNICEF truck came to their village and the author, his friend Alhaji together with thirteen other boys were picked by the lieutenant to accompany the men who had come with the UNICEF truck. They leave for Freetown, the Capital of Sierra Leone where they are taken to a rehabilitation center. This is a different environment altogether. There are clean sheets, beds to accommodate all of them and plenty of food. The rescued boys however, are not cooperative, they are at times rude to those serving them and behave in an Unruly manner.

Ishmael later went to live with his uncle in the city. He was then chosen to speak at a U.N conference in New York where together with other children from other parts of the world, talked of their experiences in war. On going back to Sierra Leone, the author finds another war in his country. He manages to escape to Guinea where Laura Simms helps him get to America.

Themes Covered In The Book

The major theme in the book is war. Other themes I noted include:

  • Mistrust
  • Mass Killings
  • Hunger and Starvation
  • Human Rights Violations
  • Use of drugs by children
  • Displacement of families
  • Loss and poverty
  • Physical and psychological torture
  • Refugees
  • The United Nations also plays a major role in rescuing children affected by war

For three years, Ishmael Beah’s normal life had been disrupted. His life took a twist, he did not live like other teenagers, he no longer went to school and no longer played like other kids his age. His life was more of running away. Running from home, not knowing where to go, escaping the war and eventually turning to be a child soldier. At a tender age, he was shown how guns worked, and killed people who he considered his adversaries.

The book shows us how war affects a populace. War is never a good thing.  It’s unpleasant to man. Families lose their loved ones, friends stop trusting each other, children starve from hunger, blood is spilled everywhere as a people who were once united, hack each other to death. The worst thing is the memories that are left with those who escape from the war. It’s such a tormenting experience. Ishmael Beah witnessed people being slaughtered like animals in his own country. He lost people who mattered to him; his close friends, family and relatives. He lived not knowing his future but thanks to UNICEF, he got rescued.

It’s a breath-taking read. It’s emotionally draining too. This is with the many times people are killed, the case  of the Imam who was burnt to death for example. I couldn’t imagine how much pain he went through before his heart stopped. The author did a tremendous job for through his book, we see how war brings down an economy. If you enjoy reading memoirs like I do, don’t hesitate to look for this book.