what i'm reading: a long way gone: memoirs of a boy soldier

I blogged about Dave Eggers' What Is the What, while I was still reading it. It turned out to be an extraordinary book, both in the ordeals the Sudanese refugees have survived and in the telling of the story. Proceeds from the sale of What Is the What support the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.

Ishmael Beah, who narrates his own story in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, lived through a similar ordeal in a different country, Sierra Leone, with one crucial difference. Deng was never a soldier. Through a series of fortunate coincidences, or fate if that is your belief, he never held a gun and was never forced to kill.

Beah's story begins similarly to Deng's, in that he is violently torn from home and family, and everything he has ever known and loved is destroyed. Then it gets worse. From Beah we learn how ordinary children are turned into killing machines, and what it does to them.

First everything they have and have ever known is taken from them. Their parents are killed, often as they watch. Their homes and villages are burned. They are separated from their brothers and sisters and friends. They witness rapes, mutilations, murders. They are forced to survive on their own in the wild. They starve and they witness what starvation and chaos do to ordinary people.

Then they are told that those people over there are the ones responsible for everything that has befallen then. They are told - over and over and over - that they can get revenge on the people who did this, these people (the other side) who are evil and kill for no reason.

They are fed and given protection, along with massive amounts of drugs. They are taught how to use guns. Then they are used both as human shields and utterly expendable killing machines.

At first Beah is sickened by the task. He has blinding migraines. He is terrified. But as he is forced to continue - it is, quite literally, kill or be killed - he stops feeling anything at all.

The boy soldiers are kept completely isolated from all other society. At all times they are either in the forest killing people and torching villages, or at the soldier camps, watching war movies and taking drugs. Beah says, "It was as if nothing existed outside our reality."
The villages that we captured and turned into our bases as we went along and the forest that we slept in became my home. My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector, and my rule was to kill or be killed. The extent of my thoughts didn't go much beyond that. We had been fighting for over two years, and killing had become a daily activity. I felt no pity for anyone. My childhood had gone by without my knowing, and it seemed as if my heart had frozen. . . . In my head my life was normal. But everything began to change in the last weeks of January 1996. I was fifteen.
After reading this book, I now understand the meaning of the word brainwash.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this incredible book is the story of the Beah's rehabilitation.

Eventually some boys in the Beah's squad are - to their minds - kidnapped by UN and UNICEF agency workers. They are bewildered, they feel abandoned, they rage with anger and violence. They want to kill the military police who guard them. They want to kill their teachers and counselors. They have come to believe that their families and protectors are the men who have turned them into monsters.

The rehab process is a new experiment. Agency workers believe that if the boys are put in a new, healthy environment, they will become normal again. It turns out to be more complicated than that. The boys are addicted not only to drugs, but to violence. They fight constantly - not harmless playground fighting, murderous fighting - and they viciously attack anyone who tries to help them.

Eventually, though, love and compassion break through. Only then, and when the drug withdrawal winds down, do the flashbacks, terrors and nightmares begin. The rehabilitation process is slow and very painful - but it works. They actually become boys again.

Then, almost unbelievably, Sierra Leone breaks down further into even greater, more widespread violence. I won't spoil the outcome. It is both wonderful and terrible.

A Long Way Gone is a story of hope, redemption, and the best of humanity, a story of how love and compassion and proper care can bring almost anyone back from the brink. But it is also a story of despair and the very worst of humanity. These children are said to be soldiers and victims of war. But can we really call this war? Men with machine guns and machetes forcing children to slaughter a civilian population. Gangs of drugged men and boys looting, burning, raping, killing completely defenseless victims, then terrorizing and starving any survivors. As the book jacket says, this is how wars are fought now. There are thought to be 300,000 child soldiers in the world.

A Long Way Gone is much shorter than What Is the What, and told in a simple, straightforward, almost stripped-down voice. In that sense the book is easy to read, but facing the violence and horror of the story is not easy. The way I see it, if Achak Deng and Ishmael Beah could live through this - if they survived and transcended and brought us their stories - the least we can do is bear witness.

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