A Long Way Gone begins in Ishmael Beah's early youth in 1993. A twist of fate leads Beah (along with his older brother and two friends) to leave their home village to practice for a talent competition in a nearby town on the eve of an attack by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) on his home village of Mogbwemo. From that moment, chaos envelops Beah's life as he seeks news of his family and survival for himself and his companions.
Early in the RUF assaults, Beah learns of the rebels' horrific actions mostly through hearsay and rumor. He spends the first few chapters of the book attempting to find his way home but when he learns "home" has been wiped out, he seeks information about his family's well-being. Beah, his brother Junior, and his friends form a small party of survivors seeking to return to the peace they had once known. Even at this point, the RUF attacks have turned Beah from child to young adult whose priorities have shifted from a love of rap music to a need to survive through each day's difficulties.
Beah and his companions run into the rebels and are separated from one another. Alone, Beah comes to grips with dangers both physical (snakes, wild boars, food supply) and psychological (isolation and fear). He reunites with his previous companions only to discover that the village he believed the rest of his family to have taken refuge in has already been hit by the RUF and utterly destroyed.
Now deprived of hope that his family will ever be whole again, Beah is ripe for indoctrination into the government military structure. He is taken to a government camp and treated well at first; however, it becomes clear that the government is facing too strong an opposition in the RUF and must now recruit boys into its army. As part of their conditioning, the boys are given drugs (cocaine and marijuana), fed a steady diet of American action films (such as Rambo: First Blood), and rewarded for finding the most efficient way to kill an enemy.
For nearly three years, Beah becomes the very thing that appalled him before: a bloodthirsty, heartless killer. He and his unit commit the same atrocities that the RUF had perpetrated upon Beah's own village and neighboring towns. Beah becomes desensitized to his situation, living each day in a haze of drug-induced apathy and regimented bloodlust.
UNICEF intervenes, taking some of the more "promising" boys away from their life of military violence. At first, Beah cannot reconcile himself to the seemingly weak ways of the foreign UNICEF workers and the locals who interact with him at the UNICEF camp. Only through the constant efforts of Esther, a UNICEF nurse, to treat him as a human being, not a monster, is Beah able to reconnect with his emotional self and grieve the terrors he has both undergone and committed.
Beah is sent to live with his Uncle Tommy and his family in Freetown - then unaffected by the war. He struggles to assimilate among people who are happy all the time. He is unable to speak about his experiences out of fear of alienating his new-found connections.
Beah learns of an opportunity to speak to the United Nations and strives to obtain one of two spots on the delegation to be sent from Sierra Leone to New York City. Through perseverence, Beah obtains the position and is flown to the United States to address the UN in person. He marvels at New York City by night and is trained to better tell his story by day. Eventually, he speaks before the General Assembly, moving the UN delegates to take action condemning the RUF and seeking to aid the people of Sierra Leone. His speaking instructor Laura Simms gives him her contact information in case he ever needs more help.
When he returns to Freetown, the city is invaded by a combination of the army and the RUF. Many people die, including Beah's Uncle, and Beah himself does not think he is able of surviving another experience of war. Beah leaves his family again and becomes a refugee. He escapes to neighboring Guinea and contacts Laura Simms. Eventually, she adopts him and he relocates to the United States, where he completes his secondary education and eventually attends college.