Back in Sierra Leone, Beah’s childhood friend, Mohamed, who had also ended up at Benin House, has also now moved in to live with Beah’s uncle. The boys are excited as they are about to start going to school, but at the school the other students are wary of them, knowing that they were child soldiers.
Beah and Mohamed return to a “normal” life as students. Though the other students’ reaction to them makes clear that having been child soldiers will always stay with them, will always carry some kind of social stigma. It also shows how little the other students understand or can imagine the war.
On the morning of May 25, 1997, Beah hears gunshots in Freetown. The government is ousted in a coup by a group of army officers. The new government releases prisoners (many of them captured rebels) from the central prison, and gives them guns as they exit. There is massive looting, and many released prisoners seek vengeance on the lawyers and judges who put them in prison. A man named Johnny Paul Koroma comes on the radio, announcing himself as the new president of Sierra Leone, having overthrown the democratically elected Yejan Kabbah. The army and the rebels have joined forces, and now institute martial law. Total chaos grips the country.
In an almost unimaginable shift, just as it seems Beah is in the clear, Sierra Leone goes to pieces entirely. It turns out that despite the years of war, the rebels and army came to understand that their purposes weren’t so different after all, which is fitting, given the apparent barbarism both sides display in Beah’s narrative. The war wasn’t ever really a war of ideal so much as it was a war for power: and by joining forces those two sides get the power they want.
The new government, called Sobels, shuts down schools and even blows up bank vaults to get money. Beah says there is nothing to do but sit around, as it is too dangerous to leave their house. To get food for their family, Beah and Mohamed sneak to a black market.
Although Beah has survived far worse, he knows better than to risk his life going out and about unless he absolutely has to. Food happens to be one of those necessities. In a way, Beah and Mohamed’s time as child soldiers better prepares them to face this sort of situation.
As they are leaving the market, armed men from the government arrive to shut it down. The men fire warning shots, and then shoot a woman who fails to put down the food she is carrying as they ordered her to. Beah and Mohamed try to sneak away, but get stuck in a crowd of people protesting against this new government. The armed men begin firing on the crowd with bullets and tear gas. The boys run for a gutter as a helicopter fires on protesters with its machine gun. Beah and Mohamed run and hide in a gutter for six hours. When the sun sets, they head back to the house, to find Beah’s uncle in tears. He hugs them and tells them never to go back into the city, but they respond that they will have to when the family again runs out of supplies.
Predictably, Beah finds himself again in harm’s way. It’s only by their wits and understanding of just how violent the Sobels can be that the boys avert disaster. Just as the villages of Beah’s youth could not imagine the war ever hitting them, here the entire city seems blindsided by the sudden arrival of the war. Beah’s uncle wants to protect these new children of his from the war, but in war the novel shows again how little parents can do to protect their children.
Over the next five months, gunmen proceed with the same kind of arbitrary violence that was the mark of the civil war, and the civilians adjust, knowing that they have to go out to get food. A family who lives a few doors down are dragged from they home by armed government, shot, and left in the street.
While Beah is adept at this kind of life, he takes no pleasure in it. His new life has been ripped from him.
Beah’s uncle gets sick, but there is no way to get him to a doctor in the violence of the city, and no doctors willing to come, and he dies. Understanding there is little left for him in Sierra Leone, Beah manages to call Laura Simms to ask her if he can move to New York. She says yes. But to get to her he will first have to get out of Sierra Leone and reach Conakry, a city in the neighboring country of Guinea.
Just as his new life is in ruins, so too is his new family. Beah decides there is nothing more for him in Sierra Leone, that it is not only safest for him to move away, but that he no longer wants to live in the country. Beah has made connections that allow him this possibility. He knows many others haven’t.
A week after his uncle passes away, on October 31, 1997, Beah leaves Freetown, telling only Mohamed about his plan. Beah leaves before dawn and sneaks past checkpoints to an old bus station. Beah and a number of other refugees take a dangerous series of buses, and are stopped repeatedly by officials and others who demand exorbitant bribes to let them pass. But Beah makes it to Guinea, and takes a bus to Conakry, where there are even more bribes and over fifteen checkpoints. People who can’t pay are kicked off the bus. Although Beah can’t pay the final fare to Conakry, he sneaks on the bus.
The exploitation of refugees is disgusting, but familiar enough to Beah, who uses his usual quick thinking to make it out of a difficult situation. His anticipation of freedom, however, is relatively joyless, as he has lost so much, and had to sacrifice so much. Beah has given up on his country as a home: there is no safety or comfort in it anymore.
In Conakry, Beah isn’t sure what to do next. He has no one to stay with, so he heads to the Sierra Leone embassy where he knows he can at least stay at night. Everyone there is sleeping on the floor, and Beah watches a mother telling a story to her children, and is reminded of a story he was once told by his grandfather. The story is about a hunter who goes to kill a monkey, but the monkey presents him with a dilemma. If he shoots the monkey, his mother will die, if he doesn’t, his father will die. Beah’s answer, even when he was seven, was that he would shoot the monkey, so no hunter would ever be in the same predicament.
There is no system in place for refugees to escape, and so Beah has to suffer the indignity of sleeping on the cramped floor. The story Beah recalls is something of an allegory for the dilemma of whether or not to intervene in a civil war as bloody and feudal as the one in Sierra Leone. Beah proposes it’s better to intervene and risk further death than allow the possibility of the cycle of violence continuing. A Long Way Gone is ultimately an act of witness, in which Beah uses his own story to make human, and therefore more monstrous, what was happening in Sierra Leone. And in being so it is a demand for action from the world to intervene, both in Sierra Leone and elsewhere.