Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

What strikes me about stories like this is a) the depths of brutality that humans are capable of and b) the incredible resilience and capacity for rehabilitation and good that humans are also capable of. I had been putting this book off for so long I had almost forgotten it was on the shelf. But seeing as I've been on a memoir roll lately I figured it was time to take a deep breath and dive in; this one, I knew, would be a difficult read.

I was drawn into Ishmael's story by the fact that he doesn't dwell on the atrocities but focuses also on the normality of everyday non-war life. As a child he goes to school and reads books, learning by heart some passages of his favourite Shakespeare plays. He jokes around with his friends and puts together hip-hop routines for talent shows. He listens to Bob Marley tapes and goes for swims in the river in the hot afternoons. This could be the life of any twelve-year-old boy in any country. Life changes for Ishmael as soon as he hears of the destruction of his village while away in a nearby town with his friends. Without knowing whether their families are alive or dead, and afraid to go back home, the boys go in search of safety and news wandering the forest realizing the dangers of being discovered by either of the warring armies. This goes on for months with the boys barely surviving not only bullets but starvation as well. Capture, though, is inevitable. After a number of near misses with the rebels, the country's ruling army finally recruits them under the guise of 'protection'. With food and a safe place to sleep, it doesn't take long for the army to manipulate the boys into doing everything they are ordered to do. The copious distribution of 'little white capsules' for energy along with marijuana cigarettes to relax seals the children's fate. They are now 'soldiers'. Their regiment soon becomes their family and the boys are eager to please and impress the powers that be. At this point the author describes his feelings as a mixture of bafflement, fear, anger and resignation as he longs for his childhood before the war saying that now a wall has gone up preventing him from ever accessing that innocence again.

What becomes clear, reading this story, is how large a roll luck plays. The deaths of Ishmael's family and friends could just as easily have included him. The fact that his commanding officer chose him along with some of the other children to leave with the UN envoys come to rescue and repatriate the youngest fighters, as he was almost sixteen and a seasoned, reliable soldier by this time. And then he being chosen to represent his country at a UN conference on Children Associated with War (CAW) in New York City. Even the account of his early rehabilitation had me on pins and needles, everything just seemed so precarious all the time. I could only breathe normally again once I closed the book for the last time and realized how much I appreciate the freedom and peace I have all around me.

My heart goes out to all the children living with war and the workers committed to giving them back their lives.

At the age of twelve, Ishmael Beah fled attacking rebels in Sierra Leone and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he'd been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found he was capable of truly terrible acts. At sixteen, he was removed from fighting by UNICEF, and through the help of staff at his rehabilitation centre, he learned how to forgive himself, to regain his humanity, and finally, to heal.
This is an extraordinary and mesmerizing account, told with real literary force and heartbreaking honesty. (back cover)

8 comments:

Heidi’sbooks said...

What a powerful review. I think I took this book out of the library at one time, but never read it. Thank you for reminding me that I want to read it.

Heidi’sbooks said...

PS This kind of reminds me of Never Fall Down which I read in December.

Trish said...

It's worth a read. I'm not familiar with Never Fall Down; I'll have to look into that one.

Daisy said...

I haven't read this, but I've heard about it. Sounds like a heartbreaking story.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I've read a few memoirs like this and I'm always struck by the role that luck has to play. I'm so thankful that my luck so far has been much, much better.

Trish said...

Daisy - yes, heartbreaking indeed.

Sam - incredible, isn't it? Luck is such a random thing in the end.

Kailana said...

I have this on my TBR. I really must get around to it at some point...

Trish said...

It was a difficult one for me to pick up but well worth the read once I finally did.