Jan/Feb 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

Ití's Not Your Fault

Review by Uche Peter Umez

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.
Ishmael Beah.
Sarah Crichton Books. 2007. 229 pp..

I have never imagined the depth of brutality in Sierra Leone of the 90s, although I had watched Blood Diamond. I did enjoy that movie. I didn't feel disturbed by the sight of gore or by the gun-toting teenagers pumping bullets into unarmed natives—maybe because it was Hollywood. But when I read A Long Way Gone, I was stricken, completely sickened. The disquieting memoirs of a child soldier in war-torn Sierra Leone.

Ishmael Beah was just 12 years old when he left Mogbwemo, dressed gaudily in long-sleeved shirt, baggy jeans and crapes (sneakers); that would be the last time he set eyes on his father, mother, and younger brother. The same day his life assumed a nightmarish trajectory.

Between 1993 and 1997, the RUF led by Fonday Sankoh terrorised the national governments of APC and NPRC respectively, inducing innumerable atrocities. In A Long Way Gone, you encounter the marked abuses of power that typify contemporary African politics; the degeneration of man; how stability can readily disintegrate into bloodlust and anomie.

The story chronicled how, in the company of his older brother, Junior, and friend, Talloi, Ishmael went to Mattru Jong to participate in a talent show; his many encounters with the rebels and brushes with death; his separation from his brother and friends during a brutal attack; his quest to see his family again; his "hunger days" in the forests; his brief snatches of joy when he reunited with Alhaji and six other teenagers; his capture and torture by villagers who feared the "seven kids"; his release and expected reunion with his family, though truncated by the invasion of Kamator by the rebels where his parents sought refuge, and his eventual recruitment by the military in Yele.

Here, he was offered an opportunity to avenge his family's death. Incited by bloody memories and marijuana, (brown brown), by the movies Rambo and Commando, and armed with AK-47, RPG, and Gs, Ishmael became the perfect ambusher and raider of rebels" settlement and base, living on a rule of "to kill or be killed." In fact, he grew from the gentle boy into a lethal junior lieutenant nicknamed the "Green Snake." Killing had "become as easy as drinking water."

In 1996, when he clocked fifteen, fortune came his way. The UNICEF and CAW rescued him from the military and started rehabilitation. Life in rehab proved tortuous because he"d grown used to relying on his gun—his "provider and protector." In rehab, the children carried on their enmity, fighting during meals, destroying property, attacking one another, some of them losing their lives in one single fray—because Ishmael and the other children identified themselves into soldiers and rebels.

Fortunately, his friendship with Esther, a nurse, at the Benin Home helped him through his traumatic adjustment as a civilian (making him to believe it wasn't his fault), through "repatriation", where he was reunited with a family—his uncle who lived with his wife and "children" in New England Ville off Freetown. Soon life appeared normal. The memoirs climaxed when Ishmael was selected as a spokesperson for children affected by war in Sierra Leone at the UN, alongside children from various parts of the world.

He returned home to a short-lived happiness. The AFRC or "Sobels" soon seized the national government on May 1997, unleashing another round of mayhem and bloodbath. After months of dodging gunfire, his uncle dead, Ishmael managed to escape through Guinea on to US where Laura Simms adopted him as a son.

One unsettling currency in this brilliant account is the ubiquity of blood—graphically depicted. From the woman carrying flip-flops on her head who announced, "Too much blood has been spilled," the Volkswagen driver who vomited blood, the woman with blood coming out of her ears, the father "covered with his son's blood," the woman carrying her baby on her back with "blood running down her dress," to the part where "fresh blood leaked from the bullet holes in the bodies," the air that ""smells of blood," and to the memoirist himself, whose "crapes are covered with blood." And so on.

Simple, unaffected diction, a narrative so tight, and you might as well have imagined sitting at the feet of an experienced storyteller. A Long Way Gone is a funereal reminder of the tragedy of misrule and political misadventure, particularly in Africa and certain third world countries.

Ishmael Beah has been accused of misrepresenting facts, though. In his memoir, he prided himself on his "photographic memory" (which leaves you feeling "um" and "hmm"). The issue of the timeline of events sparked off ill feelings and pitched his US publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, against a group of Australian journalists. The Weekend Australian, a newspaper, stated that the rebel attacks did occur not until in 1995 as opposed to 1993 as claimed by the author.

The newspaper also alleged that Ishmael Beah was 15 and not 13 when he was conscripted into the army and probably must have served only a few months as a child soldier—and not for the three years as published in his book. Muctaru Wurie, another journalist, interestingly, a Sierra Leonean, seemed to have corroborated the Australians" perspective. He published a disturbing critique gleaned from interviews and various sources in Sierra Eye, an on-line magazine. Muctaru concluded that A Long Way Gone was "a long way from truth."

Fact-checking is essentially important in non-fiction. However, all of this does not undercut the brilliance of Beah's narrative or the gruesomeness of his life in a war-devastated country and the reader should not forget to ponder what the young author set out to do: give voice to the million innocents too numbed to speak.

Doubtless, A Long Way Gone confronts us with the irredeemable loss of childhood. Beyond that Ishmael Beah has shown us a compelling montage of survival, of hope, and of redemption. It is a story of the power of regeneration.


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