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Ishmael Beah: A Long Way Gone

Many students have recently become aware of the plight of child soldiers through the increasingly popular organization Invisible Children. However, the use of child soldiers is not an isolated situation and has been a controversial issue for many years. A staggering number of children are forcibly conscripted into national and rebel armies in countries across the globe such as Burma, Laos, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Iraq, Columbia and Bolivia.

Ishmael Beah, the author of the novel A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, was forced into military service at the age of 13 during Sierra Leone’s civil war and chronicles his struggles in this emotional memoir.

In the early 1990s, government corruption and disagreement over diamond resource management in the African country of Sierra Leone resulted in a rebellion by the Revolutionary United Front and eventually led to civil war. The war was characterized by the large amount of children forcibly recruited into both the government forces and the rebel army. Ishmael Beah was one of those children. When his home village was destroyed in 1993, Ishmael fled into the neighboring forest, where he lived with a small band of boys as internal refugees until eventually they were discovered and abducted by the national army.

This memoir follows Ishmael through his years as a boy driven to mass murder through forced drug use and the army’s perversion of his traumatized young mind. Over these few years, the army manages to completely rob Ishmael, and all the other child soldiers of their innocence. He is brainwashed into feelings of extreme hatred of anyone uncommitted to the army’s cause, a tactic used by recruiters to influence young soldiers to become willing participants in the internal conflict.

The army also introduces him to drugs such as marijuana, amphetamines and “brown-brown” (a mix of cocaine and gun powder pressed into open cuts) to create an addiction that decreased his ability to independently escape their ranks. However, A Long Way Gone goes beyond this time of hopeless violence and tells of his rescue by UNICEF, a children’s rights organization that brought him to a rehabilitation center. In this center, Ishmael is convinced by aid workers, doctors and nurses that he still is only an innocent child and is not responsible for the people he killed. After being released, he remains in Sierra Leone until the age of 17, until he again flees the violence by escaping to America.

Due to the intimate detailing of his thoughts and emotions during and after his service in the military, Beah gives the reader an inside perspective on a prevalent global issue. The personal nature of this true story inspires empathy and will hopefully lead the reader to take action against the use of child soldiers in current wars around the world. Although the conflict and use of child soldiers ended in Sierra Leone, similar problems currently exist elsewhere. If, after reading this book, you wish to learn more about this issue, I would recommend visiting humanrightswatch.org, or getting involved with the Invisible Children organization (invisiblechildren.com), which works in Northern Uganda.

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