Chill­ing con­fes­sion of a child who killed

A Long Way Gone: Mem­oirs of a Boy Sol­dier By Ish­mael Beah HarperCollins, 300pp, $ 27.99

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tim John­ston

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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