Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Long Way Gone

I just finished this very moving book, called A Long Way Gone; memoirs of a boy soldier, by Ishmael Beah.

It is an account of Ishmael's experience as a child soldier in Sierra Leone. He was captured at age 13, and rescued and rehabilitated by UNICEF at age 16. He is a remarkable person, and his story is an important one. But the images described in the book are pretty horrific. I was expecting a lot more gory description that there was, so I would recommend this book without reservation, because it is kind of like Schindler's List; important to engage with so that we can avoid history repeating itself, and pay our respects to the many, many who lost their lives in the violence of war.
Ultimately, it is a story of hope and redemption, and one that highlights the importance of family, education, and love during any rehabilitative process. Several details struck me hard: one was his description of his first encounter with war, and in particular he saw a woman carrying her two year old daughter on her back, whose daughter was killed and saved her life, because the bullets and shrapnel stayed inside the toddler. That was awful. Another was the fact that Ishmael was captured along with a great number of other boys, one of whom was SEVEN YEARS OLD--too close to Ayden's age for comfort. The seven year old couldn't even properly carry his gun because it was so heavy; he dragged it on the ground behind him. Needless to say he didn't live long as a soldier. And the third detail that struck me hardest was the story of a child soldier friend who was also rescued by UNICEF and rehabilitated, but who went back to being a soldier because his family refused to take him in, knowing what he had participated in. If your family thinks you are a monster, how can you be anything else? Rehabilitation is nothing if you have no one on your side when you are finished. These are children! Babies with guns. And drugs. And brainwashing so severe that they fully identify themselves as violent, powerful, and irredeemable.

I highly recommend reading this book, though barricade your emotions first. Ishmael's account really puts a human face on the abstract idea of child exploitation, and the idea of redemption. I have wrestled with the idea of redemption for several years, in that it is such a long road to return from certain experiences to any semblance of a normal and happy and productive life. How do you move on from experiences where you were the perpetrator of violence? It is one thing to wrestle with being the victim of violence, and it is a lifelong and horrific process, but it is entirely another thing to wrestle with being the perpetrator. And move beyond it. And reach out, and believe in yourself as somehow worth healing and moving forward. And, once you've moved forward, do you tell people about it? Your uncles and aunts, your wife or husband, your children and grandchildren--do you tell them this horrible specter of yourself that existed in the past?
I believe in redemption. I believe that people are valuable and good despite any good or bad action they have done. I believe that if each person who has been violent could learn to accept forgiveness and heal, they can go on to do much good in the world. It is a lie of epic proportions that they are beyond healing and beyond help, and it holds so many people back from being able to heal.
This book exposes all of this, in a very real and engaging way.
Eighteen thumbs up. Read it.


tamie said...

Oh I'm so glad you posted about this because it needs to go on my jail wish list pronto. Because the question, how do you move on when you've been the perpetrator, is the absolute crux of the matter.

Thanks, Mel. It's one of my favorite books. I'm so glad you read it.

Louise and Gary Chapman said...

I also love this book. Our school has started an elementary school in Sierra Leone so it was even more meaningful to read.

Asheya said...

I heard about this book a while ago, and was intrigued. I will have to read it. I was thinking recently about the child sex trade (something different, but along the same lines). And I was wondering, who are the people who pay to have sex with children? And how do they live with themselves, or justify it to themselves? I was thinking about this because there is a large slogan painted in Spanish on a wall along the highway to Matagalpa that says something like "Children are not for sale. Say no to the child sex trade." Which means it's a problem here, most likely. And that is very, very sad.

Janet said...

Will be on my next Amazon order. Thanks for the review.

Sara and family said...

Mel - I just finished the "Lucy Maud Montgomery" biography by Jane Urquhart as part of the Extraordinary Canadians series edited and compiled by John Raulston Saul.

Read it!!! I know that you will love it. Super easy to read and gives such great and personal insight to one of our favourite authors. I learned so much about Montgomery. Now I have to read "Anne of Green Gables" again.

tamie said...

Asheya, I have often wondered the same thing, about the sex trade. And the thing is--the thing is--that it's not this rare and isolated thing, you know? Because the child sex trade is *huge*. Which means that a huge number of people are buying sex from children. I could understand if it was this rare thing, this weird sexual deviance thing. But it's *common*. That is what baffles me beyond all comprehension.