At 12, Ishmael Beah was a bit of a naughty boy. He didn't bother to tell anyone where he was going when he, his older brother and a friend set off to walk from their village in Sierra Leone to rap and dance in a talent show 16 miles away. He thought there was no need, because they'd be back soon. Rebel troops chose that day in 1993 to attack his village, burning the houses and slaughtering or driving off the inhabitants. Ishmael never saw his family again. When he was 13, the Sierra Leone government army press-ganged him into a unit of boy soldiers to fight the rebels. By 15, he was a hardened cutthroat, too drugged and traumatized to feel any pity when he killed.
Beah did ultimately escape that life, through luck and cleverness. Now a 25-year-old American college graduate, he has written A Long Way Gone, a memoir of exceptional power. Beah doesn't bother much with the convoluted politics behind the civil war that seems now finally to have ended, though he does include a helpful chronology at the end of the book. This is his deeply personal story. In vivid detail, he takes us inside the mind of the boy he was: frightened, depressed, hungry, helpless, alone. When the little boy is first handed an AK-47, he is terrified of it. His superior officers, including a lieutenant who quotes Shakespeare, make the boys into killing machines by feeding them drugs and playing on their desire to avenge families massacred by rebels. Beah's own psychological turning point comes when two friends are killed while fighting beside him. After that, he has no trouble pulling his trigger. Even after he has the good fortune to be turned over to a United Nations rehabilitation program, Beah's shell shock doesn't end. Weeks of monstrous behavior is followed by years of migraines, flashbacks and crippling survivor's guilt. The recovered Beah now works with Human Rights Watch and speaks out for children's rights. A Long Way Gone is compelling evidence for that cause.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.