March 16, 2007

Review - A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Africa has always seemed, in my limited worldview, to be a tragic continent, wracked by wars, famine, and corruption in the aftermath of imperialism. Because its problems are so vast and sad, it's often difficult to grasp the nature of these horrors when all one knows is the broad outlines. But artists are determined not to allow such an easy dismissal of these realities, especially critical now that the West must face the plight of Darfur. Hotel Rwanda forced me to grapple with the modern reality of genocide on a deeply intimate level, and now Ishmael Beah's memoir A Long Way Gone has succeeded in bringing to light another travesty of Africa's situation - the use of child soldiers to fight their endless wars.

Beah grew up in Sierra Leone and for most of his childhood knew little about his country's as-yet-contained war between the rebels and the corrupt government. American rap music was for more relevant and interesting to Beah and his friends. But at the age of twelve, the fighting intervenes, separating him from his parents. He and his companions are forced to live on the run, wandering aimlessly from village to village, searching for food and avoiding the conflict. Beah unflinchingly describes the violence and death they witness, images so grotesque the reader can't help recoiling in horror. Eventually, another attack separates Beah from his traveling companions, including his older brother, the last member of his immediate family to be lost. In a war supposedly fought for such higher goals as liberation from an oppressive government vs. protection from lawless rebels, the irrational cruelty of these sudden attacks on civilians is glaringly apparent.

Beah joins forces with another group of boys, some of whom he knew from his youth - yes, although still technically a minor at the time, it seems only appropriate to speak only of his pre-war life as childhood, as no one can witness and experience what he did without growing up in a sickening way. Beah himself implicitly makes this distinction, evocatively recalling daily life in the villages where he grew up during more peaceful times - places where naming ceremonies mixed traditional and Islamic beliefs and food was still ground by mortar and pestle. A Long Way Gone illustrates the disruptive power of war, as ordinary activities are now carried out in fear and Beah and his companions are routinely threatened by terrified villagers who believe that, in these times, a group of adolescent boys can only intend trouble.

Beah's flight from war proves futile, as he finds himself in an army-controlled village and recruited into soldiering. Pumped full of drugs and rage at the rebels for ruining his life, Beah quickly adopts a soldier's mindset, one in which how quickly one can kill a man becomes a source of pride. The reader can clearly see the emptiness of the soldiers' platitudes about fighting for the country - in reality, they seek only to survive, raiding rebel-held villages for food, ammunition and drugs. He starkly chronicles this world, refusing to spare us or himself from images of blood and terror, forcing a confrontation with the inhuman realities of his experience. Brutal violence becomes the only modus operandi - until, abruptly, Beah is taken away by aid workers to an urban rehabilitation center.

Beah's return to normalcy was incredibly challenging, as he initially struggled against efforts to leave the soldier's life and then grappled with guilt for his actions. Sierra Leone's civil war is over now and Beah a graduate of Oberlin College who works to end the atrocities which he himself underwent, but it is too late for so many other soldiers, both child and adult, and civilians who suffered and died in this conflict. Beah's memoir is a heart-wrenching story from which we, as responsible global citizens, must not look away.

No comments: