A couple weeks ago I listed my 2013 Reading Wish List which contained way too many books that I’d like to finish or start, many of which I owned already. They are a mix of fiction, creative non-fiction and non-fiction (from gender issues to social issues to theology and history). So far I’ve managed to knock off three books on my list (granted two were from the 1/2 read pile).
My sister loaned me A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah last summer along with several other books that are on my list. It is a memoir or what you might call creative non-fiction, but it is not light reading or for the faint of heart. It is a factual telling in narrative form of Ishmael’s life once war comes to his village. His story takes us from a typical day in the life of a 12 year old boy in his hometown to the destruction of all that he knows, including his own self. We follow him as he learns of his family’s fate, is separated from his brother, chased by rebels, feared by other local villages, and must steal to eat. Through his first hand account, we learn of the cruelty suffered at the hands of the rebels. Horrors that are usually referred to as ‘unspeakable.’ Branding, limbs being cut off, villagers being burned, firing squads, rape, torture, and forced servitude. Here his memory is detailed and we are drawn in, running with them through the forest, hiding behind bushes, waiting to see if the people in the next town will believe them and help them or try to harm them. The telling of his first 6 months or so on the run takes up more than half of the book. The rest of the book smacks us in the face with what the NY Times rightly calls an “oxymoron.” “The unbelievable violence and dread, the blood and death, seem – if this does not appear too awful an oxymoron – somehow guileless and innocent, random, unpremeditated.”
If you read the jacket cover before reading the book you will know that Ishmael will go on to become a soldier himself for the Sierra Leone Army and you will assume that the things you read about the rebels doing he will do. And yet, before you get there you will wonder how that is possible and if you have misread the jacket cover. This is perhaps what makes the book a compelling read, and a necessary read. You have invested in Ishamel. He is the victim. You want to fight for him. He is innocent.
But suddenly he is not. In such a short amount of time, Ishmael is the one holding the gun. Along with the gun he is given an odd assortment of drugs: marijuana and what is called “brown-brown,” a combination of cocaine and gunpowder. What has been done to him is used and manipulated, along with the drugs and his youth, to tear away the last of his innocence, dull his conscience, incite his hate, and gives him power to survive, something that he had not had up to this point. The Army, which one hoped might be a notch above the rebels, seems not all that different. Same war. Same tactics. Different colored headbands.
This part of the book moves much faster and is a bit more fact telling than story telling. Two years of killing … no massacring, is told in half the time it took to tell of the first 6 months on the run. As I read there were so many questions I had, moments of moral conflict that seem to never get addressed. Yet I imagine this mirrored what was happening to Ishmael. There was no time for questions to be asked or for moralizing. Not only would that have brought more trauma, there simply was not the time for it if you wanted to survive. To live. As you read you are both disgusted and yet it all makes sense in a world that makes no sense. You now ache for this young boy in new ways and wonder if there is any hope for him, or for the thousands like him, for a normal life.
The book has a happy ending. Ishmael is rescued by UNICEF, along with many other child soldiers. He is rehabilitated by several caring people, namely a nurse. He is united with an uncle and his family where he is loved and begins to heal. He eventually makes his way to America where he finishes high school and goes on to college. But even this happy ending comes at a price. He will once again find war at his front door and face the decision to pick up a gun again or to run. He will travel at great risk to a neighboring country where there is no guarantee that he will be able to get help or out of that country. All at the age of 16.
Again, we know he does (we even have an picture of him as a young man smiling having overcome much), but his story ends not with him graduating from college or even finding his way to America where he will be safe. The story ends with Ishmael in the “in-between.” Stuck between opportunity/possibility and a reality that most of us reading will never comprehend.
This seems a fitting ending as for every Ishmael there are hundreds, thousands more, that did not get out of Sierra Leone, who did not live, who did not find homes, who had families refuse to take them back in, or who returned to the battle because it was the only home they had or the only way to not die.
I highly recommend this book. While reading it is not always pleasant and you are left with very disturbing images, I think that it is too easy for us in conflict-free zones of the world to ignore or put away what is happening in other places. We can also easily assume there is nothing we can do. Sometimes that is true. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes we can’t do much but we can do something. But we can’t make those decisions about what can or cannot be done without being first aware.
Books like this also save us from the arrogance that our lack of understanding can bring. We have no right to critique that which we do not take the time to know, yet we often do. This doesn’t mean we have to fully understand or know everything or have experienced to offer insight but without taking the time to first learn and understand we often end up making unfair judgments.
Sierra Leone is known for being a corrupt country. This is changing, especially in the last few years. There are many good, honest, people working toward a better country. There is still much to overcome in the way of corruption and it is easy to assume a bad people vs. good people mentality. We might question why or how the government could give jobs to those in the Rebel Army. However, when we realize the decisions that many had to make to survive – not just make ends meet but literally live – we realize that few are innocent and many evil decisions were made by once good men. We can also understand how a culture where the mentality, as Ishmael points out, is “killed or be killed,” can lead to corruption. This does not excuse wrongdoing necessarily but it does bring more understanding and help us see that not only must the solutions be more than one-dimensional but that even we, given the right circumstances, are capable of such evils.
It is a man’s own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways. Buddha
The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn