A LONG WAY GONE: MEMOIRS OF A boy SOLDIER by Ishmael Beah (Douglas & McIntyre), 218 pages, $26.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Forget about blood diamond and any other Hollywood depiction of child soldiers in Africa. Ishmael Beah is the real thing.
In clear-eyed prose, the young man from Sierra Leone tells a powerful story of murder and redemption. He loses touch with his relatives when rebel forces lay waste to his village and wanders the land for months before finally alighting in another village where his family is reportedly seeking shelter.
There, he discovers that they were slaughtered by rebels just hours before he arrived. In a rage, he takes up arms with government forces, seeking revenge.
This is a story of war. No one trusts anyone; even the homeless children roaming the forests are feared. There are no grey areas, only wholesale slaughter, and there is nothing revolutionary about the bloodthirsty rebels.
Beah explains how a young boy who loves hiphop and quotes Shakespeare can turn into a vicious killer - one of the best in his troop. The metamorphosis is swift and chilling, and, as Beah describes it, you almost forget that he was just 12 years old when the tale began.
Eventually, Beah is pulled from the army by UN forces and - against his will - placed in a rehabilitation program designed to ease his trauma. The stories of the young, hardened boys self-mutilating and hurling garbage at their healers are heartbreaking.
Eventually, Beah relents and his pain begins to subside, whereupon he is united with his uncle's family in Freetown and chosen to represent Sierra Leona at a UN conference on children worldwide. There, he gives a moving speech - you cannot read it without weeping - about the thirst for revenge only breeding more killing and more revenge and more killing, in an endless cycle.
This is an important book.