These days I live in three worlds: my dreams, and the experiences of my new life, which trigger memories from the past.
After a month of living in the relative safety of New York City, Ishmael Beah is still haunted by nightmares of his time fighting the war in Sierra Leone. His new life is unfamiliar to him and cannot protect him from returning to the past terrors of his young life. Worse still, his vivid dreams constantly draw him back to the terror of his life in Sierra Leone as a victim of the RUF violence. He is a young man divided against himself, as his country had been divided against itself - in both cases, due to the rebels' violent actions.
Things changed rapidly in a matter of seconds and no one had any control over anything. We had yet to learn these things and implement survival tactics, which was what it came down to.
Beah acknowledges that the rebels' violence has force himself and others like him to resort to "survival tactics." His world has been turned upside-down, and in the shock of his first few months' experience with the civil war, he is not yet ready to change with the mercurial situations he finds himself in. When civilization breaks down, the world is thrown into chaos and former priorities are set aside in favor of mere survival. Beah here foreshadows that he will eventually learn that life-saving lesson, but hints that it is a deplorable situation for a young man be forced to turn all his thought to survival from day to day.
When I was very little, my father used to say, "If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die."
Beah's recollection of his father's words helps him to keep pushing forward, even though he is lost in the forest without a purpose in life. He is able to hold onto this precept even as he battles depression brought on by his isolation from other human beings. It is this lesson that keeps Beah moving onward even when horrible things happen to him and those around him; he believes that his destiny will still have some good in it so long as he is alive. Conversely, he knows that his life will end when he has run out of good fortune, so he has no fear of pushing forward toward whatever life has in store for him.
My eyes widened, a smile forming on my face. Even in the middle of the madness there remained that true and natural beauty, and it took my mind away from my current situation as I marveled at this sight.
Even amid the horrors of civil war, Beah can see a grander perspective when confronted by natural beauty. He and his companions had never seen the ocean, so the sight, sound, and smell of it overwhelms them with joy. For the first time since any of them fled the rebels, they joke with one another, wrestle in fun, and play soccer on the beach. The boys have a moment of respite from their terrifying ordeal, and in that moment remind the reader (and each other) that they are still children at heart, forced to grow up too quickly because of circumstances beyond their control.
One of the unsettling things about my journey, mentally, physically, and emotionally, was that I wasn't sure when or where it was going to end. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life. I felt that I was starting over and over again.
Beah's memoir sheds light on the multifaceted damage done by civil war and terrorism. As a victim of the violence, a young man who has lost his family and way of life and is in turn considered dangerous by most of the civilians he encounters, Beah suffers more than simiple physical pain. The anguish of losing his family and friends is compounded by the uncertainty each day brings. Although they attempt to find a safe haven, the boys know from bitter experience that no such place seems to exist in Sierra Leone. Each new village brings either hopelessness - in the form of desolation and isolation - or hostility on the part of the frightened inhabitants. Beah feels that there is no place for him to call "home" any longer, and fears that such a place may never exist in his future. He must start "over and over again" with each new day, keep moving so as to avoid both the rebels and their terrified victims. For Beah, as for any other refugee from warfare, there can be no rest. Whatever dreams he had in childhood of his adult life have not only been put on hold, they have been obliterated. His only goal now is to live through each day.
That morning we thanked the men who had helped bury Saidu. "You will always know where he is laid," one of the men said. I nodded in agreement, but I know that the chances of coming back to the village were slim, as we had no control over our future. We know only how to survive.
Despite their acceptance by villagers and refugees, Beah and his companions suffer the loss of one of their own - the coma-stricken Saidu. Their place in the village is confirmed by the sorrowful ceremony of Saidu's funeral, a rite of passage heralding both belonging and loss. Despite their kindness in the wake of tragedy, Beah knows that he and his friends cannot find peace among the villagers. They have changed too drastically on the inside; they have grown up too quickly into men who recognize that survival is more important than familial connections. Unfortunately for the boys, their losses to date have hardened them into people who exist only to keep existing, with no higher purpose in mind.
Whenever I looked at rebels during raids, I got angrier, because they looked like the rebels who played cards in the ruins of the village where I had lost my family. So when the lieutenant gave orders, I shot as many as I could, but I didn't feel any better.
Beah sums up his coping mechanism and motivation for becoming an effective killer in the Sierra Leone civil war. He channels his pain at the loss of his family into a raging hatred of the rebels who killed his loved ones, and lets the fire of this anger burn through his gunfire. Even as he uses this method to dehumanize his enemies, he realizes that killing an infinite number of rebels will not restore his soul to peace, nor will it reclaim his lost childhood. He follows orders, and follows them effectively, but his humanity is the price he must pay for being a good soldier.
I had my gun now, and as the corporal always said, "This gun is your source of power in these times. It will protect you and provide you all you need, if you know how to use it well."
Corporal Gadafi's mentality is demonstrated by this statement, which the corporal transmits to the soldiers under his command. In the violent times of the Sierra Leone civil war, weapons are power; Beah learns to focus his sense of security and strength in his G3 rifle for most of his military career. Later in the memoir, when his weapon is taken from him, he panics and feels at a loss without the tool of violence which has come to define him.
This emphasis on the power of the object is central to the soldiers' ability to cope with the chaos of the civil war. In a world where lives may be lost seemingly at random, and death may come from almost any direction, the only power any soldier has to control the world around him resides in his gun. Like so many other soldiers, Beah must accept this reality in order to survive and remain relatively sane in the violent nightmare landscape of constant ambushes, raids, and sudden deaths.
Sometimes we were asked to leave for war in the middle of a movie. We would come back hours later after killing many people and continue the movie as if we had just returned from intermission. we were always either at the front lines, watching a war movie, or doing drugs. There was no time to be alone or to think.
Another coping mechanism used by the soldiers was desensitization. By believing that armed conflict was as much a part of daily life as mealtime or movies, the men are able to shut off their feelings about the death and suffering they see (and create). The movies serve to desensitize them further; they watch violent films such as Rambo and Commando which glorify and stylize violence to the point that the viewers can create a disconnect between their actions and the real world.
Beah's comment that "There was no time to be alone or think" hints at what he later terms "brainwashing" on the part of the military structure. The soldiers are given no chance to reflect on their actions, lest they begin to comprehend the full scope of their deeds and their surroundings. By keeping the men busy, entertained, or drugged, the officers are able to keep their men steady for the job they must do: kill rebels. The cost is the soldiers' humanity.
When I was a child, my grandmother told me that the sky speaks to those who look and listen to it. She said, "In the sky there are always answers and explanations for everything: every pain, every suffering, joy, and confusion." That night I wanted the sky to talk to me.
Beah makes this statement in Chapter 17, immediately after repeating his fascination with the appearance of the moon in Chapter 1. The sky again represents the natural world - the world greater than that of civil strife and human violence. For the past several years leading up to this moment, Beah has been divorced from the redemptive power of nature. He has been trained to fight, to kill, and to survive. Now, having broken through his own barriers against trusting nurse Esther and the UNICEF worker Leslie, Beah recovers his sense of family history. He invokes the memory of his grandmother and her lesson about man's communion with the natural world. For the first time since he was inducted into the army, Beah remembers this connection and seeks to make himself whole again.
A Long Way Gone Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A Long Way Gone is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Laura Simms is a facilitator for the United Nations First Children's Parliament; her workshop is intended to help the children learn more effective ways of communicating their harrowing experiences to their audience. Beah connects with her...
On the last day of the conference, a child from each country speaks at the UN Economic and Social Council chamber about their experiences. Beah talks about the sense of security that joining the army gave boys like him who were homeless and...