When children are pushed into the fray

Imagine that, by age 25, the UN had appointed you as its spokesperson, Starbucks had selected your memoir as the second book ever to be offered for sale in its cafes, and Playboy was using you to model leather jackets by Armani.

Compared to all that he's already experienced, adjusting to fame in America should not be a daunting task for Ishmael Beah. That's fortunate, because he is about to become even more well-known for A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, the story of his experience as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, where civil war killed an estimated 50,000 people between 1991 and 2002. By age 12, Mr. Beah had already learned to function in the irrational ways of war and, for four years, he survived as a gun-toting child combatant.

In 1997, UNICEF removed Beah from the fighting, and he eventually went on to attend high school and college in the US. The two lives that Beah has lived are worlds apart, and "A Long Way Gone" is his attempt to bridge the gulf between his comfortable American existence and the violent coming-of-age and rules of combat that he experienced in Sierra Leone. ("A Long Way Gone" was published in the US this month, although excerpts appeared in The New York Times Magazine in January.)

Despite the epithet "child soldier," Beah's memoir focuses largely on his surreal transformation into and out of the killer mentality that war and drugs and circumstances force upon him.

Beah's story begins shortly before his family is captured (and later killed) and his village destroyed by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). He is 12 at the time and spends many months fleeing the violence, running from village to village, first in crusty sneakers and, later, barefoot.

He experiences grief and horrors that would crush many an adult, but struggles to hang on to the values instilled in him by his family. "When I was very little, my father used to say, 'If you are alive, there is hope for a better day.... Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward....."

But at the same time, Beach is engulfed with fear as he accepts what seems to him to be the new reality of war: Stealing is necessary to survive, grown men cry, blood and dead bodies lie everywhere. And you could be killed at any moment.

Beah eventually takes refuge at a military base. But the civilians there are soon given a choice: join the army or leave – and be captured by the RUF outside.

Like all but two males who flee – and whose dead bodies are brought back to the camp as examples – Beah accepts the AK-47 handed him. The gun towers over some of its prepubescent bearers.

He and other boys learn to shoot and ambush and are given heaps of gunpowder mixed with cocaine to pump them full of bravado. A few days later, it's time for war.

The book rapidly fast-forwards over the two years during which Beah shoots rebels, watches war movies ("We all wanted to be like Rambo." he tells us), takes drugs, and repeats. It's an odd, largish gap that leaves the reader wondering about the actual child-soldier part, and why the author neglects to tell more of it.

Perhaps the fact that the memoir recalls so little of the horrible experience reflects the numbness of Beah's consciousness during that time. Or perhaps Beah wants to keep his reader – and himself – from being too fully submerged in the bloody nightmare.

Two quick chapters later, his commander is volunteering him and other youth fighters to be taken to Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, for rehabilitation. And with that, Beah is no longer a soldier.

None of the boys like being divested of their hardness – or stripped of their guns, which had become their source of power. "It was infuriating," Beah recalls, "to be told what to do by civilians." The boys go on wanting to fight and, upon discovering some of them are from the Army and others from the RUF, they do, using bayonets they hide in their pockets and pistols they steal from the caretakers. Six children die before adults can separate them.

But slowly, painfully, the drugs drain out of their systems. The trained cruelty melts away. Civilian sensibilities and a respect for humanity return.

Beah writes to recount, not to relive the ghastly memories, or to shock or guilt-trip his readers. His language is simple and his tone somewhat detached, as though to delimit the frightening reach of that world. Often, he relies on the distanced perspective of a storyteller.

But when Beah is finally approached about the possibility of serving as a spokesperson on the issue of child soldiers, he knows exactly what he wants to tell the world: " 'We can be rehabilitated,' I would emphasize, and point to myself as an example. I would always tell people that I believe children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance."

Others may make the same assertions, but Beah has the advantage of stating them in the first person. That makes "A Long Way Gone" all the more gripping.

Carol Huang is an intern at the Monitor.

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