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1. What does Ishmael say the war is about?
Ishmael says nothing about the causes of the war, or what each side was fighting for, or of the overall political and social conditions in Sierra Leone that caused the war. This was a deliberate strategy on the part of Beah, the author. He wanted to present the war through the eyes of a child. As a boy of twelve, when the war first affected him, he had no interest in politics. He had no reason to be interested—his main interest, understandably for a boy of his age, was in singing and dancing to rap music and hanging out with his friends. When the war comes to him, it is for him a battle for personal survival, not a political cause. He is also fueled by feelings of revenge—instilled into him by his army officers—against the rebels because they killed his family. Once again, these are personal feelings not political beliefs. For the reader, then, transported to a land he or she knows nothing about (for the American reader, that is), the war seems not only almost unimaginably brutal but also meaningless. It consists of one side mindlessly killing the other, and vice versa, in skirmishes in small villages. Ishmael does report Lieutenant Jabati’s speeches to his men, in which he says they are defending their country (“We kill them [the rebels] for the good and betterment of this country” [p. 123]), but such appeals to patriotism are not what inspire Ishmael. Ishmael’s ignorance of politics is again stressed when he is in Freetown during his rehabilitation and sees a convoy of cars and military vans. He is told that the new president, Tejan Kabbah, who had won an election eight months earlier is passing by. “I had never heard of this man,” Ishmael writes pointedly. This confirms the tenor of the book as a whole: Ishmael is a boy caught up in a war he knows nothing about for a cause he does not care about.
2. Why was the war fought and what course did it take?
During the 1980s Sierra Leone was a one-party state governed by the All-People’s Congress (APC) party. However, this period was marked by extensive government corruption and abuse of power. Although Sierra Leone is rich in natural resources it became one of the poorest countries in the world because of mismanagement. The civil war in neighboring Liberia helped to create conditions for war in Sierra Leone because a Liberian war leader reportedly sponsored the rebel group called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) as a way of destabilizing Sierra Leone, which at the time was a base for a United Nations peacekeeping force.
The war broke out in 1991 in villages in eastern Sierra Leone that were near the Liberian border. The aim of the RUF was to seize and control the diamond sector, and in 1991 it took control of the diamond mines in the Kono district. (It is the mining area around Ishmael’s home town of Mogbwemo that the rebels seize in 1993.) In 1992 a military coup took place that established the National Provisional Ruling Council, replacing the civilian government. However, the new military government was powerless to prevent the RUF from controlling much of the country. It was the years immediately after this, from 1993 to January 1996, that Ishmael was a soldier. The war continued after Ishmael was rescued from it, as he himself found out when he went to stay with his uncle in Freetown after his rehabilitation. There had been an election in April 1996, and a civilian government had taken power, but in May 1997 there was another military coup, and the new military government known as the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) invited the RUF to participate in it. The following year, when Beah was safely in the United States, the military government was ousted and the civilian government restored. But this did not stop the violence as the AFRC and its RUF allies fought to regain power. Fighting returned to Freetown in 1999, before a peace accord was signed in July 1999. But this did not last, and the war dragged on, finally ending in January 2002, with the civilian government in charge. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, the civil war resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than two million people—about one-third of the population of Sierra Leone.
3. What is the situation in Sierra Leone today?
According to the CIA’s World Factbook, Sierra Leone is gradually returning to a fully democratic government following the ravages of the civil war. There was a general election in 2007 that led to one civilian government being peacefully replaced by another.
The nation has also tried to come to terms with the recent past. In 2002 the government set up a Special Court to try those responsible for war crimes during the civil war. It also set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Special Court indicted many of those held responsible for the atrocities. Some died before they could be tried, but in June 2007, the Special Court found three men guilty of war crimes, including not only murder, terrorism, and enslavement but also the act of conscripting or enlisting children under fifteen into the armed forces.
As refugees from the war are slowly returning from neighboring countries, the Sierra Leone government is trying to create jobs and end political corruption. Revenues from diamond mining have increased significantly since the end of the war. Diamonds account for about half of Sierra Leone’s exports. However, Sierra Leone, with a population estimated in 2009 as 5,132,138, remains an extremely poor country with wide disparities in how wealth is distributed. According to the World Factbook, “The fate of the economy depends upon the maintenance of domestic peace and the continued receipt of substantial aid from abroad.”
4. How widespread is the use of child soldiers?
It would be comforting to think that the forced conscription of children into the armed forces during the war in Sierra Leone was an aberration, not something that can happen again in the modern world. However, that is not the case. Even in the twenty-first century, the use of child soldiers is common in armed conflicts around the world. According to Human Rights watch, an international nongovernmental organization, as of 2007, there were an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children fighting in various wars. According to a Global Report published in 2008 by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, at the end of 2007 children were used as soldiers in seventeen armed conflicts around the globe. The coalition noted that this was down from twenty-seven conflicts in 2004, but the downturn was more because the conflicts had ended than because child soldiers were no longer being recruited. The Global Report identified the following countries where children were recruited for paramilitaries, militias, civilian defense forces or armed groups linked to or supported by governments: Chad, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Iran, Ivory Coast, Libya, Myanmar, Peru, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Uganda. The most flagrant offender, according to the Global Report, is Myanmar, where the government uses thousands of children in its battle against rebel groups. In Uganda, tens of thousands of children have been forced into joining armies over a period of nearly twenty-five years. In some of these countries, including Uganda, girls as well as boys have been forced to become soldiers.
There have in recent years been concerted international efforts to end the use of child soldiers. Sierra Leone, which has tried and convicted men responsible for recruiting child soldiers, has become a leader in this issue. The use of child soldiers has now been prohibited by international law. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict has been ratified by 120 states. The UN Security Council has adopted resolutions calling for the establishment of a monitoring mechanism on children and armed conflict. However, these and other prohibitions are no guarantee that when new conflicts break out, child soldiers will not be recruited.
5. Is Beah’s story factually accurate?
A Long Way Gone achieved popular and critical success, but questions have been raised by some regarding the factual accuracy of a number of events Beah recounts in the book. Beah writes that his village was attacked in January 1993 and after that he became a refugee from the war. Critics claim that there are school records showing that Beah was in school later than this date, and that the village was attacked in 1995, not 1993. This would mean that Beah would actually have been recruited at the age of fifteen, not thirteen as he writes in the book. This would have meant that he was only a child soldier for a few months, rather than over two years. Some critics point to the structure of the book to confirm this. They point out that most of the book deals with Beah’s wanderings as a refugee and the months he spent in rehabilitation. Only two chapters (13 and 14) cover his actual experiences as a soldier (although he does present more incidents from his military service at various points in flashbacks). Questions have also been raised about the account Beah gives of the fight between the former boy soldiers at the rehabilitation home, in which several boys were killed. There are no independent reports of such a fight ever taking place. Some believe that Beah used others’ experiences as his own and that he embellished his tale. They point to his interest in creative writing at Oberlin College and the fact that his adoptive mother was a storyteller. The suggestion is that Beah was encouraged by those around him to tell a more vivid story. Others have more charitably suggested that Beah simply got his dates mixed up, and his memory may have been unreliable because on his own admission he was high on drugs most of the time he was in military service. Beah has vehemently denied that he invented anything, however. In an article published in Publishers Weekly in 2008, Beah wrote, “Sad to say, my story is all true.”
How does isolating himself emotionally help Beah to survive his experiences in the Sierra Leone civil war?
Beah's experiences force him to deny his emotional side in order to survive. His flight from RUF attacks on the various villages in Sierra Leone requires him to let go of attachments to family and friends. Although he holds out hope to see his family, he has no choice but to close off himself to the world. Emotional attachment can be weakness, and weakness can get you killed. Even when he joins forces with groups of friends (first Talloi, Gibrilla, Kaloko, and Khalilou, and later, Kanei, Musa, Saidu, Jumah, and Moriba) Beah remains emotionally distant from his companions. When the boys bury Saidu, they know that they will never visit to his gravesite, despite the villager's efforts to comfort them with an open invitation to return. Over the months on the run, Beah gets separated - sometimes in death - from his companions. The unpredictability of his life dictates that he stay detached. Even after he has begun rehabilitation, he is only able to call Esther a "temporary" friend. He has been living too long with the goal only to remain alive for one more day.
When he becomes a soldier, Beah's trainers use drugs and emotional manipulation - teaching the boys to picture their targets as the men who burned their villages and killed their families - to push the boys to acts of violence agains the rebels. Beah finds that he must suppress his emotional reaction to the atrocities he commits or lose his focus and, thereby, his life.
How does Ishmael Beah address the loss of innocence in A Long Way Gone?
While Beah's memoir is written largely in a matter-of-fact tone, he does use several devices to illustrate the theme of loss of innocence: use of flashbacks, symbolism, and nature motifs.
Beah states plainly that his induction into the Sierra Leone military at the age of 13 was the end of his childhood. Although the violent pursuit of rebels across Sierra Leone traumatized Beah, it is not until he is turned into a killer that he believes himself to have lost his innocence. At this point, Beah stops utilizing flashbacks to his childhood, clearly delineating his old "good" life with his new "bad" life. Before this point, his memories were comforting to him during his wandering and, narratively, they served the function of reminding the reader that Beah is still a child caught in an impossible situation.
When he is at the Benin Home, he only starts to delve back into childhood memory/flashback when he is able to work through his war experiences. The phantasmagoric nightmares serve as a barrier to remembrances of his family; only by moving through the war images is he able to call up his childhood memories, and then begin healing.
Beah's rap tapes also symbolize his innocence. His childhood ended without warning, when he and his friends were traveling to practice dance routines. The tapes remain with Beah throughout the months spent avoiding RUF attacks. They save his life - convincing the a chief that he is still a child at heart and not a "devil" - and narratively become a physical representation of his innocence. The tapes are burned when the army takes his cloths, thus continuing their symbolic importance. Music, a reminder of his old life, becomes a gateway to healing when Esther's gift of a Walkman helps Beah to open up at Benin Home.
Throughout the book, Beah notices and describes the natural world around him in beautiful detail. As the violence increases, the references to nature subside. The scene where Beah and his friends see the ocean for the first time - creating a much-needed respite - stands out as the strongest example. They play together, once more becoming children.
How does Ishmael Beah use memory as a comfort in his most difficult circumstances?
Ishmael Beah refers to memories throughout A Long Way Gone, relayed as flashbacks. In difficult times, he clings to moments from happier years - especially those occurring before his parents' divorce. By focussing on such memories as stories his grandmother told him, his grandfather's medicines, and the blessing of his childhood home, Beah is able to find solace in madness. If he remembers a time when he was happy, there is hope that he can regain that life. He sometimes feels these memories are a burden, reminding him as they do of a time when his life was much better than his current circumstances. Still, he returns to memories of his family as a sign he has recuperated from his life of violence.
Describe some of the tactics used by the military to indoctrinate child soldiers, and their lasting effects on Beah.
In order to acclimate children to war and mold them into effective killing machines, Lieutenant Jabati and his men employ several different tactics: drugs, pop culture, and several modes of emotional manipulation transform boys into killers. When Beah is about to go on his first raid, he is handed white pills for "energy". These white pills, plus brown brown and marijuana create a constant haze. Ultimately, there is a disconnect from reality when the addiction takes hold. Without the drugs, as in Benin Home, Beah becomes aggressive and the boys resort to raiding the hospital to quell their hunger. When the drugs begin to wear off, Beah's headaches return - as do images of slaughter.
Violent movies, like the drugs, help to create a surreal, dreamlike atmosphere for the boy soldiers. They would often go on attacks in the middle of films like Rambo or Commando, sometimes acting out techniques seen in the movies on the battlefield, and then pick up where they left off when returning to base. The reality of war bleeds into the fiction of war films, which helps to further disconnect the soldiers from the truth of situation. Beah's almost cinematic nightmares feel like a product of this conditioning and only through rehabilitation is he able to confront and discuss his wartime actions.
When he is being trained, Beah learns to channel his rage and seek vengeance for his family. Though he had spent months suppressing his emotions for the sake of survival, Lieutenant Jabati and his men encourage Beah and the boys to tap into the fear and anguish in order to kill. This gives the boys a personal motivation for each kill; though it is unlikely they are targeting the actual rebels who murdered their families. Jabati also exploits his authority by staging contests where the person who kills a prisoner fastest is the "winner". When Beah wins, there is a sense that Jabati is proud of him. In a way, Jabati becomes a father figure to the boys. When Beah and Alhaji are given up to the UNICEF workers, Beah feels betrayed by Jabati. In creating a power dynamic between them, Beah's trust is shattered. It takes the efforts of nurse Esther and other aid workers to begin rebuilding Beah's trust in adults.
Discuss Beah's time in Benin Home. How did the boys' behavior change throughout their time in rehabilitation?
When Beah and Alhaji are handed over to the UNICEF relief effort, they feel betrayed by Lieutenant Jabati. The boys are still in soldier mode when the arrive at Benin Home; when they meet other refugee children who were RUF, a fight ensues and people die. Beah and his friends are resistant to schooling and talking about their experiences. They are still in survival mode, unable to trust anyone and suffering through withdrawal from drugs. Beah and his friends take unauthorized trips to Freetown, and the staff has no choice but to start taking them into the city - but they also bribe the boys into remaining in class. This action - along with Esther's gift of a Walkman and rap tapes - is a moment where the aid workers show respect for the boys at Benin Home. Slowly but surely, with the help of their caretakers, the boys begin to open up about their time at war. When the drugs subside for Beah, his headaches return with a vengeance. It takes him a long time to be able to cope with his new surroundings, as he had gotten used to living without hope of a life on the other side of war.
How do Beah's experiences in New York City change the course of his life?
In Chapter 20, Beah travels to New York to speak at the UN. He finds the city is different than he expected, as he had envisioned people racing down the street in sports cars. Beah sees a world outside of violence and war - a world that is very different from Sierra Leone. He learns the word "snow" and repeatedly visits the dreamlike Times Square. Beah also finds that his story is sadly not unique. At the UN, he talks with many children who had similar experiences in their own countries. Beah realizes that he is not alone. Laura Simms, a storyteller who helps the children with their presentations, forges a deep connection with Beah; he eventually flees the war to live with her in New York. Other than laying the groundwork for a future home and life in the United States, the trip to New York gives Beah hope. At the end of the chapter, he is sad to leave, but also knows that if he dies in Sierra Leone, people will care. After years of witnessing and causing meaningless death, Beah comes to understand the value of his own life.
Discuss Beah's writing style. How does writing from the perspective of a child help create an understanding of the child soldier experience?
Though his memoir was written when he was 27, Beah adopts a writing style appropriate to his age during the events described. This helps the reader to gain insight into what it would be like to live through his experiences. Essentially, the reader is given only the information Beah himself would be privy to at 12 and 13. The villagers - especially the children - largely do not know the motivations and causes that the RUF are operating under; they are familiar only with the violence they inflict. Until it is at his doorstep, the war was something he heard rumors of but didn't fully comprehend; by denying the readers a historical and political context, we are thrust into his position and feel his confusion and fear when the rebels attack.
Throughout his trials, Beah uses memories of his childhood as a buffer to the harsh reality. These instances help remind the reader that he is still indeed a child, which illustrates the evils of the civil war. Also, Beah does not shy away from the grittier aspects of his experience, like the death of prisoners at his hand. He does not judge or interpret his or any one else's actions, instead letting the reader moralize on his or her own. By not ruminating or reflecting on the atrocities, the reader can truly get into Beah's head and experience the horrors alongside him.