War is fertile ground for feelings of regret and guilt. Although as a manipulated child soldier, Beah can never be said to be at fault, his actions as a child soldier are often at odds with the person he imagined himself to be. Beah experiences himself firing the gun or slitting the throat—because he did fire the gun and slit the throat—and therefore cannot help but feel he is responsible for the pain he causes.
In the first half of the memoir, regret is pervasive. He feels himself guilty for, at various times, not asking his troubled brother what he was feeling, stealing food from strangers and children, and hitting friends out of anger. Despite this guilt, Beah’s most essential condition is helplessness. He is always unsure of what will happen next.
When they are picked up by the army, it is the boys’ sense of their own helplessness that is key to coercing them. The language of the lieutenant at the time of conscription is not that of choice. He tells the boys that they are free to flee, but that the village is surrounded, and that anyone who flees will be given no rations. The other option is to fight. Fighting gives the boys a chance to change their futures, while to flee is to accept their dismal fate. But the choice is ultimately a false one. To fight is to probably die as well, as the boys are poorly trained, ill-equipped, and well, boys. Further, the lieutenant may very well be lying. At other times, after all, the army is shown to be able to ferry people to and from the front, as in the case of the boy’s rehabilitation.
As a child soldier and as a killer, Beah reclaims his agency and even his pride through revenge. Deep down, he is still very much conflicted about killing, evidenced by his migraines and constant escape through drugs. But even if he feels conflicted, he still thinks his actions are righteous. For that reason, the refrain of the staff at the rehabilitation house after the war, “it is not your fault,” only provokes further violence from the boys. They feel not only condescended to, but that forgiveness is an insult: they feel they were right to avenge their families.
Beah eventually comes to find agency in his future and to understand revenge as a circuit that only leads to endless violence. He understands he cannot change his past, but that he can change the fates of those who might otherwise suffer as he did. He goes to the UN as a model of rehabilitation, and later devotes himself to a life of advocacy.
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Guilt and Responsibility Quotes in A Long Way Gone
I was afraid to fall asleep, but staying awake also brought back painful memories.
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.
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.
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.
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.