A Long Way Gone

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Children in War Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Children in War Theme Icon
The Horror of War Theme Icon
Companionship, Hope, and the Self Theme Icon
Guilt and Responsibility Theme Icon
Nature  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Long Way Gone, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Children in War Theme Icon

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

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Children in War Quotes in A Long Way Gone

Below you will find the important quotes in A Long Way Gone related to the theme of Children in War.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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."
"Yes, sometime."

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

In the introductory pages of Chapter 1, Ishmael is an American high school student, being asked about his experienced during the wars in Sierra Leone. Ishmael's classmates, who are almost all American-born, don't really understand what Ishmael has gone through--as far as they're concerned, Ishmael's experiences in Sierra Leone are exciting and entertaining, not scarring.

The passage could be considered a "framing device" for the story, because it reminds us that Ishmael is writing about his time in Sierra Leone for his own benefit, but also to educate and enlighten his readers, most of whom live in the Western world. Ishmael wants to do away with the narrow-minded view that war is a joke or a fiction--and so he'll write about his devastating experiences in the civil war, holding nothing back. There's also something especially horrifying about the fact that Beah is only in high school, and yet he's already a scarred war veteran.


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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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael's classmates in the previous quote don't really understand what he's gone through in Sierra Leone. And yet at one time, Ishmael was just as removed from the war as his American classmates are in the present. As a child, Ishmael's life was relatively easy: he was far away from the war in his part Sierra Leone, and his only sources of information about the war were refugees who came to town, fleeing from the crisis. In due time, Ishmael will become a refugee, too: fleeing Sierra Leone for the safety of the United States. In short, the story we're about to hear is about how the young, innocent Ishmael we see here (for whom the war is a fiction) becomes the hardened, more experienced Ishmael who curtly mentions his time in the war to his American high school classmates.

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Moon
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

Before the war, Beah learns to look up at the moon when he's feeling sad. The moon, at least for Ishmael, is a sign of happiness and peace: there's something comforting about the fact that no matter how bad things are on Earth, the moon will always be exactly the same. Years later (as he describes here), Ishmael will look at the moon with even greater fondness--after his horrible experiences in the civil wars of Sierra Leone, the moon will remind him to put his problems in perspective. Even more importantly, though, the moon reminds Ishmael that the trauma of war hasn't totally destroyed his innocence: there's still a part of him that can enjoy the simple sight of the moon rising in the night. His childhood was twisted and crushed by war, but a small part of it still remains "imbedded" in him.

Chapter 2 Quotes

I was afraid to fall asleep, but staying awake also brought back painful memories.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker)
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

As we learn more about Ishmael's experiences during the war, we become more sympathetic for his behavior--behavior which his classmates in New York, with their limited experience and understanding, might just find "weird." Beah has been traumatized by his experiences during the war: he's been forced to do barbaric things. As a result, Beah is constantly frightened, even when he's alone in his room. He doesn't want to sleep, because in his dreams he relives his more horrible experiences from Sierra Leone. There is, in short, no way out for Beah--expect, perhaps, to write about his suffering, gaining a distance from his own past.

Chapter 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Junior , Talloi , Khalilou , Gibrilla , Kaloko
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

As the war sweeps across the country, Beah and his companions are forced to do anything to survive. The stakes are incredibly high: they need to find food of some kind, or else they'll starve to death. Ishmael comes close to starving on several occasions. In this passage, for instance, he's so hungry that he can barely drink water--the feeling of water passing through his body makes his empty stomach hurt. The book is full of gruesome descriptions like the one in the passage--descriptions of human suffering that go far beyond anything a child should have to endure. Beah's purpose, in describing his pain so vividly, seems to be purgative: by writing about his past, he gains some control over his traumatic experiences.

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Junior , Talloi , Khalilou , Gibrilla , Kaloko
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

The boys have endured a great deal of danger and fear so far. Their families have been hurt, and their village has been largely destroyed, due to the war in Sierra Leone. In this passage, Beah and his peers have managed to escape from a group of dangerous rebels. While they've been hanging around the area where they were born and live, they decide that there's no point in staying there any longer.

The passage reinforces the fact that Beah's hometown is no longer a safe place. For a long time, Beah thought of the war as a faraway event, irrelevant to his own life. But now that the war has come to his own village, Beah has no choice but to keep moving--everything he had previously taken for granted has been lost.

Chapter 6 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Junior , Talloi , Khalilou , Gibrilla , Kaloko
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Beah and his companions are trying to find safety. They're not affiliated with any rebels--they just want to be somewhere out of danger. And yet because they're a fairly large group, villagers distrust them. The villagers have heard that the rebels train boys to shoot their own families, as well as strangers.

The passage foreshadows some of the actions that the soldiers of the civil war will force Beah and his peers to perform. For now, though, Beah regards it as bizarre that the villagers would think him capable of killing anybody--he's still just a kid, far removed from doing harm of any kind to other people. It's also worth noting that despite the risks, the boys still stay together--companionship and a sense of human connection is sometimes more important than erring on the side of safety.

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Junior , Talloi , Khalilou , Gibrilla , Kaloko
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Beah's book is about his own personal experiences in the war in Sierra Leone. And yet at times, Beah writes about the country as a whole, and how civil war tore it apart. One longterm consequence of the war was that people stopped trusting each other: once they saw how evil other human beings could act, they stopped being so faithful to their neighbors and friends. The people of Sierra Leone were desperate--they wanted to survive, and sometimes survival meant hurting or killing other people. After the war, it's suggested, the population of the country was deeply disillusioned with itself and with humanity in general: as a result, people became less generous, less friendly, and less trusting.

Chapter 8 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker)
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

As the situation in Sierra Leone deteriorates, Beah's situation becomes worse as well. Here, he's walking on his own, lonely and frightened. Beah moves through the forest, afraid to stop--it's as if he's being chased, though by whom Beah doesn't know. Beah is so frightened by what he's witnessed already that he's become perpetually paranoid. Even when there's no apparent danger around him, he assumes that he is in danger.

The passage reverses the spirit of the early chapters in that it shows nature as a place of danger, rather than a place of peace and rest. It's as if Sierra Leone itself has become an evil place, reflecting the vast political and social changes occurring within its borders.

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.”

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Beah’s Father
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Beah--all alone in the wilderness--finds the courage and optimism to keep moving. He remembers when his father told him to look ahead to a "better day." Beah's father's point seems to be that life itself is a gift, and therefore worth being happy about. Beah is hungry and lonely, but he's alive, and therefore he should strive to protect himself and seek help.

The passage suggests one of the reasons that we're reading Beah's story in the first place. There's a kind of "reporting bias" involved in the book itself: Beah is an unusually strong and optimistic person; therefore, he finds the courage to survive, and eventually manages to come to America. There are many other children in Sierra Leone who weren't as lucky as Beah. While Beah is certainly lucky, it's suggested that he also managed to survive in part because of his own innate optimism and inner strength.

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.

Related Characters: Saidu , Jumah , Moriba , Alhaji , Kanei , Musa
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Beah unites with some other homeless boys wandering through the forest. Beah knows that it's a bad idea to join up with other boys, because they can easily be mistaken for rebels of some kind, and therefore the villagers won't trust them. But because Beah is so starved for company, he joins with the other boys: his need for company wins out against his need for safety.

The passage underscores how much Sierra Leone has changed in just a short while. Beah's community is in ruins, and the country as a whole seems to have become justifiably paranoid and frightened. Beah and his friends are assumed to be dangerous, and nothing Beah says can convince the traumatized villagers of Sierra Leone otherwise.

Chapter 10 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker)
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

As Beah spends more time as a homeless, parentless child, he also becomes more hopeless. He  wants to believe that his suffering will come to an end soon, but he sees no evidence that it will. The passage shows Beah in the depths of his despair: he's forced to wander around the country, trying to escape the war. Beah is still a child, and he can barely understand his present, much less the future of his country. It's impressive, though, that Beah continues trying to survive, despite his crises. Beah is a rational person, and so he gets frightened. And yet Beah is also an optimistic person--and so he finds the strength to carry on.

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.

Related Characters: Saidu (speaker), Ishmael Beah, Jumah , Moriba , Alhaji , Kanei
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Saidu, one of the boys who wanders with Beah, says that he feels that he's getting steadily weaker with each impending threat he faces. Saidu explains that each time he has a brush with death a part of him dies. One might think that surviving death would strengthen Saidu, but for him precisely the opposite is true: the constant threat of danger just fills Saidu with despair. Accepting death totally means letting go of life's value, even if one keeps living.

The passage mirrors the despair that the other boys, including Beah, feel as the war in Sierra Leone continues. And yet it's important to note that it's Saudi, not Beah, who voices his despair in this chapter. Perhaps Beah is a more optimistic and hopeful child than others of his peers. 

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Saidu , Jumah , Moriba , Alhaji , Kanei , Musa
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Beah notes that although his life as a wanderer is hard, there are occasional moments that help him survive--for instance, he and his peers come to a village where the villagers give them a feast. Beah's point is that happy moments, like the feast in the village, sustain him and his peers, so that when they encounter a tragic or frightening time, they still have enough energy and spirit to carry on instead of giving up.

The passage reinforces the point that optimism and happiness are key parts of survival. It's so easy to give up in the middle of a crisis like the one Beah faces, and so moments of happiness (and in his case, childlike innocence) act as vital motivators, saving Beah from total, destructive despair.

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Junior , Beah’s Mother , Beah’s Father , Beah’s Younger Brother , Beah’s Grandmother
Page Number: 71-72
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Beah and his peers arrive at a village that treats the boys with kindness and hospitality. Beah is offered a delicious feast, and afterwards, overcome by the good experience, he remembers his relationship with his grandmother, his mother, his brothers, and his father. Happiness, it's suggested, triggers more happiness: when Beah has a happy experience at the village feast, he's reminded of the other happy moments in his life.

The passage conveys both joy and despair. Beah's memories of his family members fill him with happiness, and yet they also remind him of his present misery: he is separated not only from his family but from his entire community, and seemingly from the promise of more lasting happiness in the future.

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Moon
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Beah describes the moon again, but in a very different context than before. While before the moon was open and inviting, a symbol of the peacefulness of nature, the moon is now hidden away. It's as if the moon can't bear to see what's happening to Sierra Leone--the spectacle of war is too terrible to watch.

There aren't many lyrical passages of this kind in the novel--yet here, Beah uses personification and metaphor to convey the full extent of the crisis in his country. Nature itself has turned its back on Sierra Leone, to the point where the moon--an old symbol of peace and romance--has abandoned Beah when he needs it more than ever.

Chapter 12 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Lieutenant Jabati (speaker), Ishmael Beah, Jumah , Moriba , Alhaji , Kanei , Musa
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to Lieutenant Jabati, the military man who forces Beah and his peers to fight on his side in the war in Sierra Leone. Jabati makes a long, rambling speech in which he urges the boys to support his side--and, moreover, to kill anyone who tries to run away from the danger. Jabati characterizes his position as patriotic: it's an honor to fight for one's country (Jabati claims that he and his forces are the "true" representatives of Sierra Leone), and therefore to run away from the war or oppose Jabati is to be against Sierra Leone itself.

Jabati's words are clearly false and manipulative: he's just trying to get as many loyal soldiers as possible. But because Jabati is speaking to a group of children, and because he's threatening them with death should they try to escape, he gains some followers.

It's also worth noting the clear role that dehumanization plays in Jabati's brainwashing of his soldiers. He directly says that their enemies are "no longer human," and that thus they "do not deserve to live." Jabati knows that children would have a hard time killing other people if they truly accepted them as people--but if the whole thing is unreal, and their enemies are like animals or demons, then killing becomes more justified, more like a horrifying game.

Vizualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you.

Related Characters: Lieutenant Jabati (speaker), Ishmael Beah, Jumah , Moriba , Alhaji , Musa
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jabati again speaks to his captive children and tries to compel them to fight for him. Jabati wants the boys to be soldiers in his army: they're young, but they know how to fire guns, and therefore they can be useful to Jabati. Jabati tries to get the boys to fight on his side by manipulating them against the rebels. He suggests that it was the other side, not Jabati's own, that murdered the boys' families. Jabati could be telling the truth, or not: the point is that he wants the boys to take up arms against his opponents, without asking too many questions. Whether or not Jabati's forces killed the boys' parents, he's responsible for their misfortune: it's partly because of his military attacks that the country has fallen into civil war.

Once again note how direct Jabati is in his manipulation--he wants the boys to take part in their own brainwashing by "visualizing" their enemies as being the murderers of their families. It's as if it's inevitable that the boys will have to kill people--they just have the choice of whether or not to dehumanize and hate their enemies, or else risk going insane, crushed by guilt and responsibility.

Chapter 16 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Lieutenant Jabati , Alhaji
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Beah's memories of his time in Sierra Leone become vague and sketchy, reflecting the traumatic nature of his experiences. He recalls fighting alongside the army for many hours, even though it was raining outside. Beah was forced to fire a gun and kill supposed "rebels." At the end of the day, Beah stopped to survey the damage caused by the fighting: he saw that the ground was so soaked with blood that it bubbled up through the soil.

It's as if the natural world can't handle the violence and devastation that the soldiers of Sierra Leone have caused. In the first half of the book, nature was either antagonistic or supportive to Beah, but in the second half of the book, nature is more often than not portrayed as rejecting the sinful human race altogether. This tragic, lyrical passage thus encapsulates the way that nature remains detached from human violence and cruelty.

Chapter 17 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker)
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Beah--having been shot in the foot multiple times--is rushed to the hospital, where a doctor manages to take care of him, albeit very painfully. Beah survives his shooting, and foolishly thinks that he's been brave. Rather than accept the truth--he was lucky to have been shot in the foot, not the head--Beah deludes himself into believing that he was somehow responsible for his own survival; i.e., that his own toughness saved him from death.

The passage shows Beah lying to himself, showing that his time among the soldiers has distorted his perception of the world. Moreover, the passage shows Beah using self-deception as a kind of survival mechanism: instead of acknowledging his own powerlessness, Beah would prefer (quite understandably) to believe that he has some kind of control over his own life. Beah has been rescued from a life of fighting, and his rehabilitation is about to begin, yet for now he's still very much a product of his military conditioning.

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.

Related Characters: Esther (speaker), Ishmael Beah
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Esther, a nurse at the rehabilitation facility where Beah has been taken, tries to comfort Beah by telling him that his murders and other acts of violence weren't "his fault." Beah doesn't like to be told that his actions weren't his own fault--the statement just confuses him further. Beah knows perfectly well that he's responsible for the deaths of other human beings, and he hates himself for it. But he's not willing to lie to himself any further: he's not willing to accept, as Esther suggests, that his actions weren't his own. Beah was manipulated into enjoying fighting and killing--and that's why he feels so guilty, long after his days as a soldier are over. Beah will have to contend with his own sense of guilt for the rest of his life--and simplistic statements like Esther's "it's not your fault" don't make him feel any better.

Chapter 20 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Laura Simms , Bah , Dr. Tamba
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapters of the book, Beah--rescued from his life as a child soldier in the army in Sierra Leone--is taken to be with a United Nations worker named Laura Simms. Laura is leading a workshop program designed to offer aid and comfort to the children who've been forced to fight as soldiers in Sierra Leone. Simms focuses her workshop on communication and expression; she believes that the best way to get past guilt and self-hatred is to express one's feelings clearly and openly (a thesis that lies at the center of Beah's book itself). Beah seems to respond to Laura's methods: he recognizes that he needs to talk to other people about what he went through, rather than trying to deal with his pain on his own.

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.

Related Characters: Ishmael Beah (speaker), Laura Simms , Bah , Dr. Tamba
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Beah is sent to speak before the United Nations Council about his time as a soldier in the civil war. Beah's teachers give him a prepared speech, which they encourage him to read. And yet Beah prefers to speak for himself, showing that he's learned something from Laura Simms: speaking for oneself is the only way to feel better and accept oneself. In his speech, Beah talks about how the commanders in the army tried to manipulate the child soldiers to kill other people by telling them that they'd be getting revenge for their own families' deaths. In doing so, the military set off an endless cycle of revenge: each death invited another death in vengeance.

Beah's point, taken literally, is that Sierra Leone must break out of the cycle of violence and vengeance and instead use peace and understanding to solve its problems. His point can also be taken more generally, however: all countries (i.e., those represented at the United Nations) should use communication and openness instead of nuclear weapons and guns, and all individual people should learn to forgive and work together instead of rushing into an "eye-for-an-eye" mentality.