Ishmael Baeh: A Long Way Gone

by Rachel Baker on September 20, 2008

a long way gone: memoirs of a boy soldier is Ishmael Beah’s extraordinary story of his life in Sierre Leone.  At the very beginning of the acknowledgments of this book, he writes:

“I never thought I would be alive to this day, much less that I would write a book.”

What do you do when your country is immersed in a violent and bloody civil war and you are only 11 when your village is destroyed by rebels?  If you are Ishmael Baeh, you learn how to survive.  But what does the word ‘survive’ mean?  The word ‘survive’ means to remain alive or in existence.  How does a child remain alive or in existence in a world where his country is immersed in ongoing violent civil war, he has no idea whether his family is alive or dead, and he’s only twelve?

Beah walked. He walked with his brother and their friends, then by himself for a while, then with a group of boys he knew from his village. They walked across the African terrain, skirting villages, stealing food, avoiding rebels. He walked. In the opposite direction of the war.  He walked so far and for so long that revenge for the murder of his family became a very attractive thought in his head.  He walked so long and so far there were days and days without food.  He walked so far and so long it was easy to manipulate him to join the front lines of the war against the rebels.

The first part of this book deals with this walking. Many times during this section the reader gets a sense of how the civil war is tearing apart the country :

I was glad to see other faces and at the same time disappointed that the war had destroyed the enjoyment of the very experience of meeting people.

Beah showed an amazing amount of courage during the time he walked to flee the war.  He doesn’t have time to mourn the loss of his family, but they are the catalyst that keeps him moving:

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.” I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going.  Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.

As the reader absorbs the events of the walk, he or she will begin to see where the breaking point began.  Beah joined up with a group of boys from different tribes in Sierre Leone.  He knew a couple of them from his village.  While it was nice to have companionship again, Baeh begins to get a real sense of the danger a group of boys could be in.

Our innocence had been replaced by fear and we had become monsters.

They were a long way gone from the security of their villages.  And this lack of security began to take an incredible toll.  Finding food was difficult, finding safe, dry places to sleep became a luxury.  But they were alive.  During this section of the book, we see glimpses of childhood antics, something that was normal and made them happy.  Something that reminded them they were in fact still alive.

Every village they came near put them closer and closer to death.  The final straw for the group of boys Baeh is with happens when they come upon the village their families have gone to. While they are walking up to the village they begin to hear gunshots and screaming.  The rebels were in the process of destroying the village.  They were minutes away from being with their families even if it was minutes before their deaths.

This is the turning point of the book.  If the descriptions of the village raids and the survivors weren’t gruesome enough for you, the next parts will be.  I promise.  I’m not going to go into detail.  I will tell you the next section of a long way gone begins to tell the story of how Baeh and his friends were initiated into the boy soldier way of life.  And how at that point, I don’t believe, they were alive as much as they were just existing.

The third and final part of a long way gone is about Baeh and some of the other child soldiers’ rehabilitation back into the rest of the world.  Baeh tells us about the drug withdrawals, the need for violence because it was what they’d known for so long, their child perception of what was really going on and why they were better than the civilian staff at the rehabilitation unit. As an added inspiration, he also tells us about how he got involved with the UN and the one last time he had to run away from the war.

I almost never tell this much about a book, but I felt it was important.  There are several things about a long way gone that struck me in an incredible way.  The first being as the book progresses, one can completely understand the draw to the security of the soldiers fighting against the rebels.  On a psychological level we can see how powerless these children were against the brainwashing used to initiate them into a life of violence.   It was horrifying how many times the phrase

…you are here because they killed your parents or families, others because this is a safe place to be.

was used or some other reminder that revenge for some act of violence against the boys should be carried out.  They boys were drugged on a regular basis, given food and shelter, and appreciation for the ‘job well done’.

The other aspect of a long way gone I found to be incredible was the writing quality.  Ishmael Baeh did a fantastic job of lacing the first and last sections with memories of who is was or who he became.  On the walk, you saw small reminders that he was only boy, memories of stories he’d heard, things his father had said, what school was like.  When he was in rehabilitation, you saw the contrast of what he was when he was a soldier and as rehab progressed, you began to see memories of his childhood again.  During the time he was a soldier, you got none of this.  He was just existing.

Throughout the book, the significance of ‘red eyes’ is hard to miss.  At first, I wasn’t sure why he kept mentioning the red eyes that men had when he came into contact with them.  Then I began to understand why and what danger red eyes represented.  The other recurring symbol is the moon, but that’s one I’ll let you find on your own.

a long way gone is a must read for everyone.  This book is heart wrenching and inspiring, written by man who survived more than any child should ever have to endure.  Ishmael Baeh was given a second chance to be alive again, and he took it!  He started out running from war in his country, got immersed in it and was a part of the horrific violence, was saved from it, had to run from it a second time, and now speaks out against the atrocities in his country that lead the children to become soldiers.  Through it all, Beah did what had to be done to Survive!

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