I didn’t much want to read about Ishmael Beah and his childhood days as a killer. I’d already read Dave Eggers’ What is The What (See 9/1/08) about the lost boys of the Sudan and felt sufficiently knowledgeable and bummed by the whole idea of children and slaughter that I felt no compulsion to seek more. However, my wife and I have been working with a group that trains lay midwives in the hinterlands of this impoverished country, so brutalized and demoralized by a ten-year civil war; so I had some knowledge of and sympathy with it. Sierra Leone is the British version of America’s Liberia, a place where slaves from a variety of tribes and locations were shipped to be freed and settled among a local populace that often had no use for and intense hostility toward them. I felt I should know more, understand more, whether I wanted to or not, and this book, lent to us months ago, sat there accusingly on the shelf until I finally picked it up and opened it.
There weren’t a lot of surprises inside. A twelve year old boy is forced out of his village by rebel soldiers. He and six of his friends wander the countryside for months, avoiding the fighting, starving most of the time, depending either on the kindness of strangers or stealing food, until they are finally surrounded by and impressed into the army. They are handed AK-47’s, given minimal training, hopped up on cocaine and pot, indoctrinated with Rambo and Rambo-like video tapes, and sent out to kill rebels. The rebels killed your families, they are told, now it’s your turn. And they, indeed, take their turn.
Again, they wander the countryside, but this time with guns, bayonets, and rpg’s. They burn people out of their villages in the same manner they were burned out of theirs. Filled with industrial strength drugs and hate, they bathe themselves and the equatorial countryside in blood, day after day.
There’s a happy ending, more or less, for Ishmael. He is chosen (for reasons and in ways he never understands) for rehabilitation and taken to the country’s capital, Freetown, which has been relatively untouched by the war. After months of drug-and-violence withdrawal, his gifts for music and writing make him kind of a poster boy for the resurrected. He finds his way to NYC (unlike some of his buddies, who are reconscripted after Freetown is taken over by the rebels), finds a sponsor and an adopted mother, graduates from Oberlin, and joins the UN crusade for children’s rights.
He’s an appealing guy who doesn’t mince words about what he’s done, doesn’t try to spin or excuse it. Gives the reader a few nightmares about how it haunts him. The little story that ends the book is a perfect synthesis of his dilemma. And perhaps ours, too, when we approach and judge these people and situations about which we understand so little. It’s a short book, so go ahead, see if you have the guts to read it.