Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review: A Long Way Gone; Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

A Long Way Gone is an autobiographical book written by Ishmael Beah who spent several years caught in the middle of the civil war in Sierra Leone. It spans pretty much exactly the period of his exposure to the war, starting with the day before the fighting first impacted his life in 1993 and ending with his eventual escape from Sierra Leone into neighboring Guinea in 1997. Only glimpses of his life both before and after this appear as flashbacks or flash forwards in the story.

My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven't told them the full story of my life.

"Why did you leave Sierra Leone?"

"Because of the war."

"Did you witness some fighting?"

Everyone in the country did.

"You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?"

"Yes, all the time."


I smile a little.

"You should tell us about it sometime."

"Yes, sometime."

Sierra Leone was one of the main sources of slaves feeding America's Southern states and its history, in many ways, is inseparable from this. Native cultures in Africa were devastated by the slave trade, with entire tribal groups either enslaved or turned into slavers to feed American greed. In 1787, British abolitionists, perhaps also inspired by the recently ended little war between Britain and the American insurgents, helped 400 freed slaves from America return to Africa to settle what became Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. In many ways these freed slaves formed a new ethnic group within Sierra Leone that did not integrate well with the native cultures. A similar history is evident for neighboring Liberia, which was founded as a nation by resettled American slaves by the American Colonization Society starting in 1821. The histories of Liberia and Sierra Leone were very much intertwined. And it is this background that sets the stage for Ishmael Beah's life. Liberia gained independence in 1847, and held onto its independence since then while the rest of Africa was carved up by European powers.

Sierra Leone gained independence from Britain in 1961. By 1967 instability was already setting in with power conflicts among two main political parties and various military factions, leading to many coups, attempted coups and counter-coups. This led in 1978 to the establishment of a corrupt, one-party state. In 1991, a small revolutionary group began to oppose the corrupt, single-party government. That small revolutionary group, the RUF, became, under the influence of Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, one of the most brutal, disgustingly blood-thirsty band of thugs in history. Ishmael remembers his father's explanation in one flashback in the book right after seeing a woman carrying her dead little girl after a rebel attack:

Siaka Stevens returned to power in 1968, and several years later declared a one-party state, the APC being the sole legal party. It was the beginning of "rotten politics," as my father would put it. I wondered what he would say about the war that I was now running from. I had heard from adults that this was a revolutionary war, a liberation of the people from corrupt government. But what kind of liberation movement shoots innocent civilians, children, that little girl?

That was the Sierra Leone background to the conflict: "rotten politics" opposed by the RUF. The RUF was founded by Foday Sankoh. From Wikipedia:

A former corporal in the Sierra Leonean army, wedding photographer, and television cameraman, Sankoh became a student activist in the 1970s. After his activism earned him a short prison term, Sankoh joined a Cold War guerilla camp in Libya sponsored by Muammar al-Gaddafi, where Muammar al-Qaddafi was preaching revolutionary ideas to West African dissidents. It is here that he met Charles Taylor, future president of Liberia and Sankoh's financial benefactor and ally throughout the civil war. With his encouragement, Sankoh and two allies, Abu Kanu and Rashid Mansaray, returned from Libya to form the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

From wedding photographer to brutal rebel leader. Think about that next time you're at a wedding and that photographer is in your face.

In some ways Sankoh starts as a sympathetic figure, an idealistic opponent to a corrupt regime. Similarly, Charles Taylor of Liberia also starts as a sympathetic figure. From the Liberia Wiki entry:

In late 1989, a civil war began. The harsh dictatorial atmosphere that gripped the country was due in large part to Sergeant Samuel Doe's rule. An Americo-Liberian named Charles Taylor with the backing of neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire entered Nimba County with around 100 men. These fighters gained high levels of support with the local population who were disillusioned with their present government. A large section of the country came under the invaders' control as a result.

Again, a seemingly idealistic rebel against a harsh dictator. By 1997, Taylor had won the civil war and become the elected president of Liberia. Taylor's regime rapidly became even more brutally dictatorial than Doe's had been. Foday Sankoh led a parallel, allied, and equally brutal rebellion in Sierra Leone. It wasn't until 2002 for Sierra Leone and 2003 for Liberia that these civil wars finally ended and stability restored to this region. Interestingly, around the time I first read this book, Virginia had just elected Tom Perriello to Congress. Congressman Perriello has worked with child soldiers and local pro-democracy groups, and played a significant role in the peace and reconciliation process that ended the Sierra Leone civil war. He also became Special Advisor and spokesperson for the International Prosecutor that forced Liberian dictator Charles Taylor to surrender power without firing a shot.

A Long Way Gone begins with Ishmael and some of his friends starting off from their home village, Mogbwemo, for a neighboring village for a talent show. Ishmael was 12 years old. While in that neighboring village, some other friends came home early from school because their school was closed down because of a nearby rebel attack. The rebel attack had occurred in Mogbwemo where Ishmael's family were. This was the first moment where Ishmael realized that the civil war within his nation could impact his life. He never saw his parents again.

Immediately Ishmael and his friends from Mogbwemo head back home to find their family. This already is a horrible choice to have to make: flee to safety and abandon your family, or head right into a war zone to try and find your family. Ishmael, a child of only 12, chose to head into the war zone to find his family. Very soon they saw what they were getting themselves into.

"Do you guys think it is a good idea to go back to Mogbwemo?" Junior asked. But before either of us had a chance to answer, a Volkswagen roared in the distance and all the people walking on the road ran into the nearby bushes...The vehicle stopped in front of my grandmother's house...we saw a man run from the driver's seat to the sidewalk, where he vomited blood. His arm was bleeding. When he stopped vomiting, he began to cry. It was the first time I had seen a grown man cry like a child, and I felt a sting in my heart. A woman put her arms around the man and begged him to stand up. He got to his feet and walked toward the van. When he opened the door opposite the driver's, a woman who was leaning against it fell to the ground. Blood was coming out of her ears.

They turned back, never making it back to Mogbwemo. What does a 12 year old do when his home and family are suddenly taken from him? Ishmael stayed where he was hoping everything would be okay. It was weeks later that Ishmael got his first glimpse of the rebels themselves. Unexpectedly, gunshots erupted around them in the village they had taken refuge. The Sierra Leone soldiers who had been stationed in the village had run away once they realized they were outnumbered. The civilians were left to themselves. Many simply ran. Some drowned in the river as they fled. Others were shot in the back. Ishmael and his friends escaped, beginning a period of aimless wandering, hunger and fear. Their world became one where they could trust no one and no one trusted them. Both sides, particularly the rebels, used child soldiers, so a band of 6 children wandering the countryside terrified civilians.

Being a group of six boys was not to our advantage. But we needed to stay together because we had a better chance of escaping the day-to-day troubles we faced. People were terrified of boys our age. Some had heard rumors about young boys being forced by the rebels to kill their families and burn their villages. These children now patrolled in special units, killing and maiming civilians...So whenever people saw us, we reminded them of the massacres...some people tried to hurt us to protect themselves, their families and communities.

Ishmael and his friends were even captured by the rebels and saw first hand their senseless brutality, even being lined up for execution. A sudden nearby gunfight, presumably soldiers attacking the rebels, gave him and his friends a chance to escape. Finally they settle in a village where, in exchange for doing guard duty (yes, even civilians used children as soldiers) and helping farm, they were given food and shelter. After several months, this village was also attacked by the rebels. In fleeing from this attack, Ishmael became separated from everyone and spent a strange month in the jungle alone before he finally met up with another group of boys, some of whom he had known at school.

Once again I was with a group of boys. This time there were seven of us. I knew this was going to be a problem, but I didn't want to be by myself anymore. Our innocence had been replaced by fear and we had become monsters. There was nothing we could do about it.

Lord of the Flies for real.

At one point they received word that their families might have taken refuge in a nearby village. By the time they reach that village the rebels had just attacked, killing everyone.

More than twenty people lay facedown in the earth. They were all lined up, and blood still poured out of their wounds. A stream of it had begun running along the ground, making its way under each body, as if joining them together.

Ishmael is left only with the rumor that his family had been staying in a hut that had been burned to the ground with everyone in it. Never any confirmation of his family's fate.

My entire body went into shock. Only my eyes moved, slowly opening and closing. I tried to shake my legs to get my blood flowing, but I fell to the ground, holding my face. On the ground I felt as if my eyes were growing too big for their sockets. I could feel them exploding, and the pain released my body from the shock. I ran toward the house. Without any fear I went inside and looked around the smoke-filled rooms. The floors were filled with heaps of ashes; no solid form of a body was inside. I screamed at the top of my lungs and began to cry as loudly as I could, punching and kicking with all my might into the weak walls that continued to burn.

The rebels chased the boys and the one surviving adult from the village, shooting at them as they ran. Once they reached safety, they realized the adult had been shot while they fled and he died in their arms.

This was life in Sierra Leone if you were on your own. Running, starving, finding refuge until the rebels hit again, then running again. Seeing everyone die, often brutally and senselessly.

Finally they were captured by soldiers of the Sierra Leone army and taken to a village they had made their base. At this point the army seems to behave differently than the rebels, because they didn't threaten, kill or torture unless they captured an actual armed rebel. And no one was forced, initially, to fight for the army. What is not clear is whether this changed, or if the army always was sometimes as bad as the rebels, sometimes better. But later Ishmael himself participated in actions that, to my mind, were scarcely different from what he had seen the rebels do. Both sides justified it in the name of revenge.

Think of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Think of America's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Think of the Balkan wars, Rwanda, Burundi...As killing continues, and the more techniques like terror, torture and killing of civilians are used in a war, the more vendettas pile up and the harder it is to find resolution. To me one of the worst decisions Bush ever made (among many) was to employ torture. By doing so all he did was give the people of Afghanistan and Iraq fiercer and fiercer vendettas. Brutality begets brutality in a cycle that is hard to break. In some cases it lasts for centuries. Bush fell into the trap of returning brutality with brutality, justifying it in the name of "national security," and all it has done is make our situation worse. Reading about Ishmael's life shows how a group of children first witnessed brutality then sank into that same brutality themselves.

At first the army protected the village, but as the children go about an almost normal life, they see the army slowly losing the fight and the rebels closing in. Finally, the rebels are right outside the village and the soldiers on the verge of defeat. So the army commander gives everyone in the village a choice: become part of the army or leave the village. The first two to try and leave are shot by the rebels. There is no choice. Everyone joins the army, memories of their brutally killed families inspiring them to WANT to join the army.

Training is brief and designed to inspire brutality. Imagine any rebel is the one that killed your family, then drive in the bayonet. Feel that each time you shoot a rebel, you are killing the very ones who killed your family. Take revenge. Very shortly the children, some as young as 9, are sent into battle along with the remnants of the soldiers. Before they go they are given drugs (initially they sound like simply amphetamines). They win, driving off the rebels.

The next years are a blur of drugs (including pot, amphetamines and "brown brown," a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine), fighting, slaughter and brutality. Children become officers leading their own squads into villages that they destroy completely, leaving no survivors. At some point it is clear that the army and rebels are scarcely different:

But what kind of liberation movement shoots innocent civilians, children, that little girl?

Lord of the Flies for real. But Lord of the Flies with heavy weapons and drugs.

Before we got to a rebel camp, we would deviate from the path and walk inside the forest. Once the camp was in sight, we would surround it and wait for the lieutenant's command...Whenever I looked at rebels during raids, I got angrier, because they looked like the rebels who played cards in the ruins of the village where I had lost my family. So when the lieutenant gave the orders, I shot as many as I could, but I didn't feel better. After every gunfight we would enter the rebel camp, killing those we had wounded.

The army generally pressed the civilians into helping them, rather than rape and kill them like the rebels. But it is clear that despite this, often the army would shoot at anything that moved, to the point where there would be no one left to carry any supplies they captured.

What struck me the most about the descriptions of the war is that although both sides at times showed a good grasp of tactics, there was no sense of strategy at all. It was all about killing, capturing weapons, fuel, food and drugs, and keeping others away from weapons, fuel, food and drugs. In some cases it seemed as if Ishmael's unit didn't even look carefully enough to see if a camp was rebel or army before going in to capture what they could. It was barely controlled looting and revenge killings with little sense of strategy. I think this is why civil wars of this nature never progress to any completion until a foreign force (sometimes UN, sometimes mercenaries, sometimes regional nations like Nigeria) intervenes. Such intervention imposes a strategy above and beyond simple vendetta and short-term need for supplies.

One day in 1996 Ishmael is in a camp when UNICEF representatives come through. He and a group of other child soldiers are told to put down their arms and go with the UNICEF reps. These children, now disarmed and soon to enter massive drug withdrawals, are driven to Freetown, the capital that saw the first return of freed slaves from America to Africa some 200 years before.

What followed was almost a farce, but in the end it worked. The rehabilitation of the child soldiers was clearly handled with more idealism that thought at first, but those who were doing it learned from their mistakes and succeeded in rehabilitating these children back into society. Among the initial mistakes were seemingly not realizing how severe the drug withdrawal symptoms would be after years of nearly constant drug use. They also put rebel and army kids together, leading to a brawl where the children grabbed guns from the guards and opened fire on each other. After that rebel and army kids were kept separate through rehab. I wonder why have armed guards at all! It is clear the guards had no intention of using their guns on the children, so all it was was a source of weapons for children who still considered themselves soldiers. Most of the children were plagued by nightmares and delusions, suffering full blown post-traumatic stress syndrome that kicked in as drug withdrawal faded. The children often beat up the rehab staff and each other, only slowly losing their brutality. But patience and routine slowly won out and the children began to become children again.

The rehab workers were amazing, even in the face of violence and sullen teen angst beyond anything you see in an American middle school. It was here I was thinking of Tom Perriello, now Congressman from Virginia's 5th district. He was one of these wonderful people in some capacity and his work along these lines was one of the reasons I saw him as someone whose views and expertise could be of considerable use among the sea of wealthy lawyers in Congress.

Ishmael initially was typical of the violent, sullen, nightmare-plagued lost children of the war, but as he recovered, he became one of the best spokesmen for the child soldiers, speaking to representatives from all over the world about his experiences and the importance of rehabilitation. Finally he was released from rehabilitation into the care of an uncle he had never previously met until most of the way through rehab. His life with his uncle was the first moment of normality since he said goodbye to his family and left Mogbwemo in 1993.

Ishmael gets selected to go to a conference in NYC on child soldiers. He leaves Sierra Leone wearing his summer clothes, to arrive in NYC during a snowy winter.

I knew the word "winter" from Shakespeare's texts and I thought I should look it up its meaning again.

It isn't until later in his stay in NYC that he is given a winter coat by a woman who later became his sponsor and adoptive mother. His initial impression of NYC in some ways matched my own:

There were so many cars on the street, and they impatiently honked, even when the light was red.

Reminding me of when a friend of mine first visited me in NYC and his first comment to me (even before "hello") was "What's with people here. Are their hands permanently fused to their horn?"

At the conference Ishmael gives a speech that beautifully sums up his experiences and the problems around the world, and shows a greater understanding of the dynamics of civil war than many Republicans have:

I am from Sierra Leone, and the problem that is affecting us children is the war that forces us to run away from our homes, lose our families, and aimlessly roam the forests. As a result, we get involved in the conflict as soldiers, carriers of loads, and in many other difficult tasks. All this is because of starvation, the loss of our families, and the need to feel safe and be part of something when all else has been broken down. I joined the army really because of the loss of my family and starvation. I wanted to avenge the deaths of my family. I also had to get some food to survive, and the only way to do that was to be part of the army. It was not easy being a soldier, but we just had to do it. I have been rehabilitated now, so don't be afraid of me. I am not a soldier anymore; I am a child. We are all brothers and sisters. What I have learned from my experiences is that revenge is not good. I joined the army to avenge the deaths of my family and to survive, but I've come to learn that if I am going to take revenge, in that process I will kill another person whose family will want revenge: then revenge and revenge and revenge will never come to an end...

This would have been a wonderful end to the book. But sadly life does not make for wonderful endings. When Ishmael returned to Sierra Leone, the civil war soon came to Freetown. On May 25, 1997, Ishmael woke to gunshots. By then one of his friends who had also been a child soldier had joined him in living with his uncle. When they heard the gunshots, they looked at each other: "Not again."

What had happened was a military coup. The coup leaders joined with the RUF and the same lawlessness that had haunted the countryside came to Freetown. It is almost heartbreaking to read how a child who had escaped the life of a child soldier found this kind of madness following him into his new life. At first violence controlled the streets, and most civilians stayed home hoping to be left alone. Food was hard to come by and soldiers shot at any protesters against the coup. Slowly, chaos became normality, and people began to find a new, surreal routine.

People began going about their daily business of searching for food, even though the stray bullets were likely to kill them. Children played guessing games, telling each other whether the gun fired was an AK-47, a G3, an RPG, or a machine gun. I mostly sat outside on the flat rock with Mohamed and we were both quiet. I was thinking about the fact that we had run so far away from the war, only to be caught back in it. There was nowhere to go from here.

This reminds me of a scene from Grief of My Heart, the memoirs of a Chechen doctor who survived both Chechen wars. There the author witnessed a similar surreal childhood game in the midst of an urban battlefield:

"You're dead!" shouted a small boy to his friend who crouched behind a burned-out car on the street.

"No! I killed you first. Fall down!"

I stopped in my tracks. I counted fifteen kids of all ages, including girls, playing "war," oblivious to the danger all around them...

In the background you could hear the firing of real guns. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. They had lived with war so long, that was all they knew...

I couldn't get those kids out of my mind. If someone didn't get them off the streets, they could grow into little animals with no knowledge of right or wrong; no traditions to guide them. Bang! Bang! You're dead! That is all they would know.

This is another reason why these kinds of conflicts can simmer so long. The next generation doesn't learn anything but war. Violence and war become normality, making peace that much harder for the next generation to achieve.

The new chaos in Sierra Leone was ended only by Nigerian intervention in 1998, restoring civilian government. Even then, the RUF kept fighting and it wasn't until 2002, with Nigerian and UN help, that the civil war officially ended in Sierra Leone. But Ishmael could not wait that long. He was faced with almost certain death or rejoining the army. Mere days after the death of his uncle, he chose to escape through Guinea and back, eventually, to NYC where he was adopted by a woman he had met on his first trip to NYC. The book ends with him entering Guinea, with the fate of Sierra Leone left unresolved.

Ishmael now rides the same subways I do in NYC and has finished his education, graduating from Oberlin and working for the rights of children worldwide. Like Sierra Leone, Ishmael seems to have achieved stability. His book has been accused by an Australian newspaper of inacuracies, though to me, given the drug use described by Ishmael, perfect acuracy would seem impossible. The writing style is up front and uncontrived. I found the gist of the book very convincing. I did feel there were certain descriptions that struck me as odd, but as the memories of a child under the influence of drugs in a war zone, what would you expect? The book is compelling, rings true and without a doubt captures the genuine truth about what civil wars around the world boil down to.

Meanwhile Charles Taylor is in custody and on trial on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among Taylor's American supporters is Pat Robertson. From Wikipedia:

According to a 2 June 1999, article in The Virginian-Pilot,[31] Taylor had extensive business dealings with televangelist Pat Robertson. According to the article, Taylor gave Robertson (who also had business dealings with dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire) the rights to mine for diamonds in Liberia's mineral-rich countryside. According to two Operation Blessing pilots who reported this incident to the state of Virginia for investigation in 1994, Robertson used his Operation Blessing planes to haul diamond-mining equipment to Robertson's mines in Liberia, despite the fact that Robertson was telling his 700 Club viewers that the planes were sending relief supplies to the victims of the genocide in Rwanda. The subsequent investigation by the state of Virginia concluded that Robertson diverted his ministry's donations to the Liberian diamond-mining operation, but Attorney General of Virginia Mark Earley blocked any potential prosecution against Robertson.

I should note, Mark Earley is a Republican. Yet another example of corrupt Republican greed and disrespect for the law. Earley ran for Governor of Virginia, but thankfully this man who was willing to shelter possible war crimes, lost to Democrat Mark Warner.

Liberia went on, in 2005, to become the first African nation to elect a woman president, the amazing Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Meanwhile, Charles Taylor's son, "Chuckie Taylor," a US citizen, has been convicted of participating in torture in Liberia. Legally, U.S. citizens can be tried for committing torture in other countries, perhaps something many Blackwater mercenaries should take note of.

Foday Sankoh died of a stroke while awaiting trial in 2003. The current president of Sierra Leone is Ernest Bai Koroma, a member of the APC, the political party of the "rotten politics" days, now supposedly reformed. From what little I can gather, Koroma spent all the years of civil war working for insurance companies.

For my part, Sierra Leone is one nation in which I have been making loans to small businesses through I hope my small efforts through Kiva will help stabilize this long-suffering nation.

Buy A Long Way Gone and learn about what civil war really means.

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