A Long Way Gone is the autobiography of a boy soldier, Ishmael Beah, who as a boy was afflicted by and then coerced to participate in the Sierra Leone Civil War as a boy soldier. Narratives of war often involve a loss of innocence, where dreams of glory are replaced by a realization of the horror of war, but a narrative of a child soldier is something else. It is the story of not only innocence lost, but innocence corrupted.
Before the war Beah is a boy with the concerns of boyhood. He is sad about his divorced parents, and gets through his days by listening to hip-hop and practicing dance moves. After his village is attacked, Beah loses his innocence, but remains a boy in the sense that his hope is that he will find his parents and the life that he had before the war, or even that his parents will get back together.
When his parents are killed by rebels, Beah is picked up by the Sierra Leone army. Rather than provide comfort and safety to the children, though, the army conscripts them, and uses their grief to turn them into ruthless killers. The lieutenant who leads Beah’s squad is straightforward in his manipulation, advising Beah and the other boys to “visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you.” The boys remain boys, and even in war, there is an element of child-like play. The boys compare themselves to Rambo, give themselves nicknames, and practice the moves of their favorite movie characters as they once did the dance moves of hip-hop artists. But now they are not just playing at war and killing; they are fighting a war and killing with abandon.
Once the boys are taken from the front to be rehabilitated, it becomes clear just how brainwashed they are. When the boys who fought for the government army come upon other boy who fought for the rebels, the rebel boys scream that the army killed their family. The boys fight, and several are killed, and it is apparent that the boys on both sides were brainwashed in exactly the same way. As orphaned children, the boys of the war were vulnerable and terrified, and both sides of the war used that vulnerability to twist the boys’ innocence to murderous rage.
Children in War ThemeTracker
Children in War Quotes in A Long Way Gone
My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven't told them the full story of my life.
"Why did you leave Sierra Leone?"
"Because there is a war."
"You mean, you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?"
"Yes, all the time."
I smile a little.
"You should tell us about it sometime."
There were all kinds of stories told about the war that made it sound as if it was happening in a faraway and different land.
Whenever I get the 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 part of my childhood is still imbedded in me.
I was afraid to fall asleep, but staying awake also brought back painful memories.
We were so hungry that it hurt to drink water and we felt cramps in our guts. It was as though something were eating the insides of our stomachs. Our lips became parched and our joints weakened and ached.
We decided to leave the village the next day and go somewhere safe, somewhere far away from where we were. We had no idea where we would go or even how to get to a safe place, but we were determined to find one.
Being in a group of six boys was not to our advantage… People were terrified of boys our age. Some had heard rumors about young boys being forced by rebels to kill their families and burn their villages.
This was one of the consequences of civil war. People stopped trusting each other, and every stranger became an enemy. Even people who knew you became extremely careful about how they related or spoke to you.
I felt as if somebody was after me. Often my shadow would scare me and cause me to run for miles. Everything felt awkwardly brutal. Even the air seemed to want to attack me and break my neck.
When I was very little, my father used to say, “If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.”
Our innocence had been replaced by fear and we had become monsters. There was nothing we could do about it. Sometimes we ran after people shouting that we were not what they thought, but this made them more scared.
One of the unsettling things about my journey, mentally, physically, and emotionally, was that I wasn’t sure when or where it was going to end.
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 complete die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you.
Even though our journey was difficult, every once in a while we were able to do something that was normal and made us happy for a brief moment.
I longed for the gentle, dark, and shiny old hands of my grandmother; my mother’s tight enclosed embrace, during the times I visited her, as if hiding and protecting me from something; my father’s laughter when we played soccer together and when he sometimes chased me in the evening with a bowl of cold water to get me to take a shower; my older brother’s arms around me when we walked to school and when he sometimes elbowed me to stop me from saying things I would regret; and my little brother, who looked exactly like me and would sometimes tell people that his name was Ishmael when he did something wrong.
Under those stars and sky I used to hear stories, but now it seemed as if it was the sky that was telling us a story as its stars fell, violently colliding with each other. The moon hid behind clouds to avoid seeing what was happening.
They have lost everything that makes them human. They do not deserve to live. That is why we must kill every single one of them. Think of it as destroying a great evil. It is the highest service you can perform for your country.
Vizualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you.
We fought all day in the rain. The forest was wet and the rain washed the blood off the leaves as if cleansing the surface of the forest, but the dead bodies remained under the bushes and the blood that poured out of the bodies stayed on top of the soaked soil, as if the soil had refused to absorb any more blood for that day.
At that time I didn’t think I was lucky, I thought I was brave and knew how to fight. Little did I know that surviving the war that I was in, or any other kind of war, was not a matter of feeling trained or brave.
None of what happened was your fault. You were just a little boy, and anytime you want to tell me anything, I am here to listen.
At the end of these long discussions our faces and eyes glittered with hope and the promise of happiness. It seemed we were transforming our suffering as we talked about ways to solve their causes and let them be known to the world.
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.