Chilling confession of a child who killed
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier By Ishmael Beah HarperCollins, 300pp, $ 27.99
THIS is not a book for those who are squeamish about man’s inhumanity to man or, more accurately, child’s inhumanity to man. This is Lord of the Flies with assault rifles, cocaine and much more blood.
Ishmael Beah was a child soldier in one of the most brutal episodes in recent history, the civil war that pitted the west African government of Sierra Leone against rebels of the Revolutionary United Front and their deranged leader Foday Sankoh in the 1990s and early years of this decade. But this is not a book about politics: Beah gives us a victim’s- eye view — albeit a victim who participated in the killing — of the slaughterhouse.
It runs from the day the 12- year- old left his village and his family to go to a nearby town to take part in a dance competition. While he was away the rebels attacked and his family scattered.
Beah endured months of running from the fighting, sometimes alone, sometimes with other children, always hungry and always afraid of the murderous bands of gunmen and frequently shunned by people for whom strangers, particularly young strangers, were a threat. In a civil war, even victims eventually turn on each other.
Eventually, he finds someone who knows his family. They set out to locate the family, but as they approach their destination they see smoke rising: everyone in the village where his parents and younger brother had taken refuge have been killed by the rebels just minutes before.
His wanderings end in a government- held town surrounded by rebels, where he is recruited by a Shakespeare- quoting lieutenant who gives him an AK- 47, feeds him ‘‘ brown brown’’ — cocaine mixed with gunpowder — and sends him off to kill.
Beah’s flat, dispassionate prose magnifies the horror of the carnage he describes. The total disregard for human life is the overwhelming impression: after he and two of his teenage friends wipe out an entire village — deciding to cut the throats of the guards first for a bit of a challenge — his only concern is that they have left no one alive to act as mules to carry their looted drugs, food and ammunition back to their base.
The rebels were worse: they invented the idea of ‘‘ long sleeves- short sleeves’’, where one arm was cut off at the shoulder and one at the wrist so they couldn’t ‘‘ lend a hand’’ to the government. Sankoh’s little joke.
But ultimately this is a book about human redemption. Beah is pulled out of his squad and put in a UN rehabilitation camp, which he does everything he can to disrupt. ‘‘ I was angry because I missed my squad and needed more violence,’’ he says.
Contemptuous of those who would help him, and suffering from acute drug- withdrawal symptoms, the now 14- year- old fighter is eventually won over by the compassion of the camp nurse. Beah ends up going to New York to speak at the UN about his experiences as a child soldier.
He eventually escaped the madness of Sierra Leone and went to the US, where he went to high school and now lives: his is a very modern redemption.
Child soldiering is not a new phenomenon, nor was it always condemned: British admiral Horatio Nelson was in the navy when he was 12 years old, and Australians still revere the Diggers who lied about their age and joined up to be sent to Gallipoli and the Western Front.
But these children were always the exception in what were essentially grown- up wars. The wars in places such as Sierra Leone and Liberia were different, and plumbed new depths of anarchy, fuelled by the modern invention of arms light enough for a child to carry and fire, combined with the realisation by unscrupulous commanders that, properly brutalised and drugged, children were perfect soldiers for their ruthless form of war: amoral, fearless and obedient.
‘‘ The idea of death didn’t cross my mind at all, and killing had become as easy as drinking water,’’ Beah writes.
His rehabilitation, and the belief that he was not responsible for what he had become, has obviously brought a measure of peace to him, but one wonders how easy it can be to live in the world with his searing knowledge of the brutality that humanity is capable of, something most of us are shielded from.
In one sense, trying to describe war to someone who hasn’t experienced it is like describing colours to the blind, but Beah avoids the obvious pitfall of sliding into sensationalism and in A Long Way Gone he has produced a powerful and distressing book.
He is a worthy Virgil, should you want to take a tour in the seventh circle of hell. Tim Johnston has reported extensively from central and Southeast Asia. For readers’ previews of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, visit www. theaustralian. com. au/ books.