A Long Way Gone

A Long Way Gone Summary and Analysis of Chapter 16


Beah becomes frustrated at UNICEF’s Benin Home. “It was infuriating to be told what to do by civilians,” he says, adding “A few days earlier, we could have decided whether they would live or die.” The dramatic contrast between his place in a military structure and his new life is irreconcilable. On the whole, the boys keep up an air of indifference to the medical and relief workers who attempt to care for them. They suffer drug withdrawals that lead them to steal medicine from the infirmary and reduce them to powder, but the drugs do not have the desired effect. The boys’ violence is barely contained, sometimes spilling out into the neighborhood and often directed by the boys against one another.

The boys undertake a silent protest by dragging their mattresses outside each night to sleep in the open. Each day, the UNICEF workers return their mattresses to their bed frames; then the boys drag them outside again. One night it rains and the mattresses are left out in the sun to dry. When the boys ask why their mattresses are not on their beds, the workers respond that they must wait until the mattresses are dry to bring them in.

When the boys hurt the UNICEF workers, the workers respond by smiling patiently and continuing their relief efforts. This frustrates the boys, who want the civilian workers to respect (or fear) them as dangerous soldiers. Beah’s migraines return with a vengeance. The boys decide to break the glass windows in the classrooms; Beah chooses to punch the windows with his fists and eventually manages to wound himself deeply enough to require a trip to the hospital. The nurse who treats him asks him his name, but Beah remains stubbornly silent. When he throws the glass of water she has given him across the room, shattering it, the nurse simply gives Beah a blanket and begins to sweep up the broken glass.

Later, Beah wakes up from his sleep to see a city soldier in the room with him and the nurse. Although he was sent to check up on Beah, the boy notices that the soldier is more interested in the nurse than in him. Beah contrasts this lieutenant with himself, a “junior lieutenant” in the Sierra Leone army. He recounts his experience in charge of a small strike force of boys. He and Alhaji emulate moves from the war movies they have watched as they attack a village. The squad kills everyone in the village, impractically leaving no one alive to carry supplies back to their base. Beah sends Kanei and Moriba back to base; the two boys return with the corporal, some soldiers, and several civilians to carry the supplies. Because of this raid, Alhaji acquires the nickname “Little Rambo.” Lieutenant Jabati nicknames Beah “Green Snake” because he does not look dangerous, but he is deadly when he wants to be.

Returning to the present, Beah refuses to answer the city lieutenant’s questions. Beah leaves the room and returns to the large hall where the boys gather for recreation. By now most of the boys have gone through their drug withdrawals, with the result that many were beginning to recall and face their wartime actions. The boys are told they will have classes for two hours each day; in class, the boys are disruptive and chaotic, learning little. They take their school supplies and sell them to outside vendors. Beah, Mambu, and Alhaji save their portion of the money for a trip to Freetown, which they undertake on the sly.

Freetown astounds Beah and Alhaji, who have never seen the city before. The boys enjoy it thoroughly, although they fall into their former military formation of Beah in front while Mambu and Alhaji walk behind. The boys return to the compound and tell the others of their adventure, prompting several unauthorized trips to the city. The UNICEF staff are forced to schedule regular trips to Freetown to prevent the boys’ desertion, but tie participation in the trips to attendance in classes, thus finding a way to keep the boys in the compound and their classrooms.

Beah and the other boys become exasperated with the common refrain “It’s not your fault.” They abuse their teachers, medical workers, and other volunteers at the compound when they hear the statement. Many of the boys finally learn to sleep through the night, although they frequently awaken the next morning in the field with no memory of how they got there. Beah learns to sleep without medication, but at the same time finds himself facing his memories of the war. He recalls an incident where the prisoners from a raided village were buried alive. He recalls stabbing them in the legs and binding them so they could not flee. The boys forced them to dig their own graves then pushed them into them, then began shoveling dirt over them. Throughout the night the boy can hear the prisoners groaning and struggling for breath until they all die of suffocation. The boys joke about the prisoners already being buried. Around the campfire that night, Beah realizes he has several bruises from bullets that only barely missed killing him. He thinks has been too drugged and traumatized to realize the true danger of his experience.


As in the previous chapter, Beah uses a flashback here to fill in the missing years between his induction into the Sierra Leone army and his transfer to the UNICEF compound. Whereas earlier flashbacks were of better times with his family (which he experienced them during times of intense trauma), now his flashbacks only go back to the war, even though he is experiencing them during a time of apparent security. He has truly lost his childhood to the war; now his memories only go back as far as his life as a soldier.

During one of the memories, Beah returns to his contrast between natural beauty and human ugliness. He recounts an encounter with rebels in which Moriba and others were killed. Though they have suffered losses, the soldiers press forward after the rebels to trail them to their base: “We fought all day in the rain,” Beah writes. “The forest was wet and the rain washed the blood off the leaves as if cleansing the surface of the forest, but the dead bodies remained under the bushes and the blood that poured out of the bodies stayed on top of the soaked soil, as if the soil had refused to absorb any more blood for that day” (p. 150). The motif of nature as something beyond human good and evil, but which at the same time refuses to be sullied by the violence of men’s battles, recurs here as a hint at Beah’s own chance at redemption; if nature can cleanse itself of the blood of fallen soldiers, perhaps Beah and his fellow soldiers can do so as well.