In A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah’s story of being a boy soldier in Sierra Leone is told. He goes from a scared child to a feared soldier, wielding weapons made to kill, to a spokesperson to another civilian in just another war. He loses his family and friends, makes more, and loses them too. Ishmael paints a gruesome image of a war without a cause, save for revenge.
Ishmael’s story begins when he, his brother Junior, and their friends travel to a nearby village named Mattru Jong for a rap concert.
They arrive in Mattru Jong; after a while, refugees claim to be attacked by the RUF, the Revolutionary United Front. They say that Ishmael’s village of Mogbwemo has been attacked. Ishmael and his group trek back to Mogbwemo after Mattru Jong are also attacked, but when they arrive, they find no sign of any of their parents and are chased out by residing RUF.
The group ventures from village to village, always returning to Mogbwemo. They stay in one village, working in return, but when the RUF strikes again, separating Ishmael from his brother and friends. He is left to wander around until he finds a group of kids who derives from Mogbwemo and joins their group.
He travels with the group, finding villages scared of the appearance of 5 children as well as villagers who take pity on the homeless boys until they catch wind of a village where Ishmael’s family is located.
As they make their way over there, a man from the village -Gasemu confirms the presence of Ishmael’s family. In exchange, they agree to help Gasemu carry a load of bananas with him back to the village. Because of this detour, when the group finally reaches the village, it is found to be burned to the ground, with no survivors. Ishmael blames Gasemu for slowing the group, not letting them see their families, and begins assaulting him; before Gasemu is fully hurt, more soldiers show up, exposing the group to gunfire, which kills Gasemu, who is shot fatally.
The group once again wanders from village to village, seeking refuge, until they find a village occupied by the Sierra Leone Armed Forces or just the Army. After relative safety under their protection, the Lieutenant of the Army tells the residents, which are comprised mostly of boys, that the RUF is nearby, and they need soldiers, as the village is too valuable to just run from. Ishmael and his group are converted into boy soldiers, trained and efficient, given their AK-47s on the day of their training.
On his first battle, Ishmael witnesses two of the friends he has been traveling with die from gunshot wounds; the two were the most charismatic boys in the group, and their gruesome deaths imprinted things into Ishmael’s mind. As a child soldier, Ishmael was made Junior Lieutenant after a contest on who can execute RUF prisoners the fastest; as a reward, he is given command of his lethal unit of soldiers. He was given drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and some concoction of cocaine and gunpowder called “brown brown”. Ishmael concise and devious, labeled the “mamba”, Ishmael can hide in plain sight and silently dispatch foes, a frightening display from a child.
During his time as a child soldier for the Army, Ishmael was also shot and almost killed, surviving on his and others’ wills alone, as medical supplies were limited. Sometime after his conscription and participation in the war, members of UNICEF took Ishmael away to give him and others a second chance. He is brought to the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown, where the rest of the boys were brought in by UNICEF. There he meets other kids from the Army and befriends Mambu, quickly afterward, they have a brawl with RUF soldiers who have also been brought back. After a violent confrontation, the RUF boys are killed with weapons taken from the inexperienced guards. Slowly, the boys are rehabilitated, going to school, forgetting the war, but their violent past proceeds then, and they have no family to go to.
At the nearby hospital, Ishmael befriends his nurse, Esther. Esther’s care and friendship help Ishmael get out of his sullen state, into a more interactive one. Esther gives him a Walkman CD player, on which Ishmael listens to his old rap tracks, and this bonds the two. Meanwhile, Ishmael meets his childhood friend in Freetown. Ishmael is adopted by his uncle, the brother of his deceased father, who takes him in willingly and wholeheartedly.
Soon after, Ishmael is enlisted to be a spokesperson for Sierra Leone and travels to New York to take part in an international conference. Comparing his life in Freetown to his temporary lodging in New York, Ishmael feels confined, but he makes friends and goes back to Freetown after the event is over. He keeps connections with a supplier of money and opportunities who ends up giving him a spot in the USA. Back in Freetown, after living in relative comfort with his new family, more revolution strikes. The RUF and the Army join to rebel against the government itself, bringing Freetown into martial law.
Ishmael decides to leave Sierra Leone by sneaking into the country above and going to the United States, where his contact is waiting. In the last scene, Ishmael, all alone, watches a single mother asking her sons a question about if there was a monkey, who if you didn’t shoot it, one parent would die, and if you did, the other would die. Ishmael remembers his answer.
The events in the book are shocking, the deaths, and honestly, the lives. The things Ishmael went through are terrifying, the average person probably couldn’t handle all the traumatizing events. Having to lose your family, and friends, to kill for vengeance, to be taken away from it. All of these were compounded on top of each other, I doubt I could have taken it.