copyright © 2007 Ishmael Beah, Sarah Crichton Books, New York
Perhaps, by now, most of us have seen enough gruesome Hollywood portrayals of war-time butchery that we are not much moved by the sufferings of people in far-off lands. Perhaps our only knowledge of them is as a movie backdrop for the heroic rescue attempts of Rambo or some other action hero. Perhaps we only think about war-torn countries and military atrocities for a brief moment during a quick scan of world news in the paper, or when an event is mentioned for 20 seconds in our favorite news broadcast.
Sierra Leone is a long way from our consciousness. It is somewhere in the jumble of what we call the dark continent. For decades we’ve had glamorized stories of heroic deeds of those who came there in the name of the British or other empire in an effort to “civilize” the continent. We seldom pay attention to the aftermath of countries struggling to re-foot themselves with some kind of social order. A Long Way Gone is one such story, told by a man who, as a child of 12, found himself orphaned and fighting to survive.
Although it is a gruesome tale of war, it is also a tale of the happiness and stability of family, and a tale of redemption. In this case, it is the story of Ishmael’s rehabilitation from a drug-induced, hate-filled boy soldier to a sane man with hope and a future. As such, it is not only a tale of how ruthless the human spirit can become, but it is also a model for how much the human spirit can overcome and repair, given the proper commitment.
What saved Ishmael, more than anything, was upbringing that taught him right from wrong. Part of him never forgot about decency of living. This, coupled with the commitment of those who helped him to detoxify from drugs and work through the horrors of PTSD, allowed him to find his way back to a happy and healthy life.
There are a lot of subplots into which we gain more insight. We certainly see in the story of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces the fact that power corrupts. We see the haze of war, that, oftentimes, people lose sight of which side they are on or even which side is just. They often don’t even remember what started the conflict, nor do they have any clear plans to resolve it.
We also see how the well-intentioned outsiders have a certain naivete about how to help solve the problems. Fortunately, in this story, we see them grow and change in their approach, to learn from their mistakes. But we also see that, inevitably, outsiders can only put bandages of the problems. The real solutions must come from the people of the nation themselves, and, usually, the process is a long a bloody one. Civil war is nothing new or unfamiliar to us. Even the United States were once not so united. What we can learn from Sierra Leone is that we would be naive indeed to feel that all the hurt from our own civil war has been addressed.
I can’t help but see similarities between this story of a boy in Sierra Leone and the stories of so many children in Chicago. I can’t help but see that, given the proper commitment, we can affect a change in the urban war zone that is the unmentioned blemish of national shame for America. I believe that
we face a crossroads there. To continue down the path that is being taken will result in a situation much like the one young Ishmael faced. But it doesn’t have to end that way.
Mr. Beah is not an English scholar. This is no intellectual read. It is frank and simple. But it is a first-hand account of reality. Consequently, it carries no spin. The reader can come to his own conclusions without spin or bias. I, personally, would like to get every child in south Chicago to read it. But, in order for that to happen, we’d first have to commit to real education there. Ironically, only through education do the children of Chicago have a future. By that same education, they would be empowered to read this book, by which they could see a hope for life beyond the war zone.