When Words Become Bullets: A Long Way Gone (Book Review)

First published April 21, 2008 in IslamOnline.net’s Art & Culture section.

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

Like the gunshots in Ishmael Beah's story, each word "will cling to the beat" of your heart.

Like the gunshots in Ishmael Beah's story, each word "will cling to the beat" of your heart.

Author: Ishmael Beah

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

Pages: 218

For those who have not witnessed it, there’s something embarrassingly attractive  about violence and war.

Ishmael Beah opens his memoirs with the following exchange between him and his classmates in a New York high school.

“Why did you leave Sierra Leone?”

“Because there is a war.”

“Did you witness some of the fighting?”

“Everyone in the country did.”
“You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”

“Yes, all the time.”

Cool.”

People running around with guns and shooting each other is anything but cool, is an unspoken moral of the story Beah relates.

In the beginning of the story, Beah is a 12 year old boy who sets off  with his brother and a friend to a neighboring village to take part in a talent show as beginning rappers and hip-hop dancers. They left their homes without telling their families, as they believed they would be returning the next day. They never returned.

As a child soldier in the drawn-out conflict (what a terribly sanitized term) in Sierra Leone, Beah patiently and without histrionics, tells us his experience roaming the countryside with other boys searching for their families and for safety.

In a country like Sierra Leone, where children become weapons of war, children are feared.

Someone had started a rumor about the “seven boys,” us. Many times during our journey we were surrounded by muscular men with machetes who almost killed us before they realized that we were just children running away from the war…. At crowded villages where we sometimes stopped to spend the night, the men stayed up to keep an eye on us. When we went to the river to wash our faces, mothers would grab their children and run home (57).

Beah and his friends escape death and capture many times. Sometimes they are saved by their rap cassettes and hip-hop dancing talent, which seem to prove to some villagers that they are not rebel soldiers, but are simply young boys interested in music and dancing.

War becomes inescapable. Refugees from villages that were attacked move from village to village, refusing to stay in any place for long, because they knew that eventually, the war would reach every corner of the country.

The people escaping the war by moving from place to place are wretched:
One man carried his dead son. He thought the boy was still alive. The father was covered with his son’s blood, and as he ran he kept saying, “I will get you to the hospital, my boy, and everything will be fine.” Perhaps it was necessary that he cling to false hopes, since they kept him running away from harm (13).

Another woman runs into the village with a baby on her back. There is blood running down her clothes making a trail behind her. Her baby girl has been shot, and the bullet did not penetrate through the baby to her mother. Beah and his friends move on, as “it was clear in the eyes of the baby that all had been lost.”

Throughout the book, Beah imagines his own death. He watches people dying and wonders how it feels. The dead come back to haunt his dreams and dominate his thoughts. He describes his head as feeling “heavy with the images that it contained.”

Child Soldiers

Hundreds of thousands of children, some as young as 7 years old, and all under the age of 18, serve in government forces or armed rebel groups, worldwide.

Source: Human Rights Watch

Each brush with death brings them closer to an unthinkable realm where happiness is no longer relevant. After surviving another attack on a village in which they had sought refuge, one of his friends, who later dies, asks, “How many more times do we have to come to terms with death before we find safety?” (70).

The boy’s description of their ordeal is stark:

Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death. Even though I am still alive, I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies. Very soon I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you. It will be quieter than I am (70).

As we read the story, knowing that Beah was eventually conscripted by government forces and forced into fighting for them, with every encounter Beah has with armed men, we hold our breath.

Earlier in the book, Beah reminds us that his humanity remained intact despite his ordeal: “Whenever I get a chance to observe the moon now, I still see those same images I saw when I was six, and it pleases me to know that that part of my childhood is still embedded in me.”

When Beah is forced to take up arms in order to protect the army-controlled village in which he has taken refuge, he undergoes military training along with dozens of boys, some as young as 7.

In the training, he and the other boys are worked up into a murderous frenzy and into terrifyingly effective killing machines through drugs (including brown brown, a mix of cocaine and gunpowder), war movies, and the necessary demonization of the enemy. They are constantly kept busy, and “there was no time to be alone or to think (124).” This is how the conscience is silenced.

Even after Beah is saved from the fighting and placed in a rehabilitation center for child soldiers, it takes him a long time before he is able to feel any happiness, believing that it is too fragile an emotion to trust in.

Despite his ordeal, Beah emerges as a mature voice who understands the cycle of violence:

I joined the army to avenge the deaths of my family and to survive, but I’ve come to learn that if I am going to take revenge, in that process I will kill another person whose family will want revenge then revenge and revenge and revenge will never come to an end (199)…

Although 110 countries have signed an optional UN protocol prohibiting the use of children in armed conflicts, there are no recorded statistics that prove anything was done to enforce this protocol, or translate it into something concrete that would make a difference in the lives of those children.

Instead, technology is helping children become more militant. According to Human Rights Watch,

Technological advances in weaponry and the proliferation of small arms have contributed to the increased use of child soldiers. Lightweight automatic weapons are simple to operate, often easily accessible, and can be used by children as easily as adults.

Unlike the hundreds of thousands of children who continue to live their lives as  soldiers in conflicts all over the world, Beah was able to escape with his humanity intact.

His humanity is saved by the kindness and patience of relief workers, as well as the memories of the happiness he had known as a child, which he describes as being a “joy that had stayed alive inside me even through times when being alive itself became a burden (20).”

If there was such a thing as a mental flak-jacket, I would highly recommend it for anyone who plans to read A Long Way Gone. Each sentence crackles like a red-hot bullet, tearing into our safe and imagined illusion of humanity and civilization, ripping it to shreds.

Like the gunshots in Beah’s story, each word “will cling to the beat” of your heart.

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