When rebel guerrillas swarm into his village in Sierra Leone, Beah flees, never to see his mother, father, and brothers again. When the village in which he takes refuge comes under attack, he is persuaded to join the soldiers who are defending it. During the next two years, Beah becomes adept at wielding an AK-47 and a bayonet, a drugged and callous killer of anything that stirs. He recalls in tense detail bloody skirmishes from which few others emerge alive.
Eventually, officials from UNESCO extricate him from combat and place him in a rehabilitation center in the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown. Housed with dozens of other boy soldiers, Beah begins to overcome migraines and nightmares and readjust to civilian routines. However, when Freetown disintegrates into chaotic violence, he undertakes a perilous solitary journey to the safety of neighboring Guinea.
Eight years later, Beah, now 25, lives in New York City. A graduate of Oberlin College, he writes his memoir in simple, vivid prose. The gentle man who remembers is a very different person from the boy who calmly slit a rebel prisoner’s throat. Yet he offers little comment on the gap between the two. Most of the literary energy in A Long Way Gone is expended on evoking the ordeal of a rap-enraptured African kid caught up in the ferocious tumult that devastated his country and deprived him of his youth. He does not attempt to explain the rampant savagery or analyze his transformations, other than to depict what it was like to be young and gifted and trapped in hell.
In the film Blood Diamond, another boy in the West African nation of Sierra Leone is abducted by marauding rebels and conscripted into their ranks. When his father finally finds him, the boy has become so conditioned to slaughter that he would sooner kill than kiss the man who begot and yearns to rescue him. After prolonged immersion in the horrors of war, it is surely hard for anyone to be disarmed. But a child soldier who manages to emerge intact from killing sprees will suffer damage deeper and more lasting than the bullet wounds for which Beah is treated in Freetown. His memoir begins in New York, with high-school friends asking about the world he left behind. “You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?” asks one in awe. A Long Way Gone is Beah’s answer, his account of harrowing experiences that most American teenagers could not imagine. The deepest wounds are left unexamined.
The cover of the book states that Ishmael Beah was only one of 300,000 child soldiers throughout the world. There are of course many more adults who have chosen to take up arms in more than 50 conflicts currently raging. But there ought to be a special, scalding place in Hades for those who coerce or cajole children into becoming killers.