Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Sobering Must Read

Do we all have the capacity to become killers who boast of their accomplishments? Or are pubescent boys who have become enamored with Rambo the perfect candidates for becoming soldiers?

I just finished “A Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah, a book whose images I will carry forever. It personalized the story of boy soldiers in Sierra Leone, recently publicized by the movie “Blood Diamond.”

I absolutely detest violence of an kind, refusing to see movies that show torture or gruesome death (with the exception of James Bond movies, which never seem real.) So I didn’t see Blood Diamond, but at Kristin’s invitation, I did go hear Ishmael Beah talk about his book at Politics & Prose and of course I bought the book and collected his autograph. I picked it up yesterday as I tucked myself in for a quiet day of doing nothing and couldn’t put it down. This is a story the whole world should read.

Not only is the story compelling, but the author’s prose is beautiful as he tells his mostly sad, but sometimes funny, story of how he lost his life and then reclaimed it. Here are just a couple of clips from the time when he became forever separated from his family and had to leave his village:

“The silence of the village was too scary. I was scared when the wind blew, shaking the thatched roofs, and I felt as if I were out of my body wandering somewhere. ... Not even a lizard dared to crawl through the village. The birds and crickets didn’t sing. I could hear my footsteps louder than my heartbeat”

“I walked for two days straight without sleeping. ... Often my shadow would scare me and cause me to run for miles.”

“One of the unsettling things about my journey, mentally, physically, and emotionally, was that I wasn’t sure when or where it was going to end. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I felt that I was starting over and over again.”

“A cock crowed to dispatch the last remains of night and to mute the crickets that couldn’t let go of the darkness of their own accord.”

“We walked fast as if trying to stay in the daytime, afraid that nightfall would turn over the uncertain pages of our lives.”

“The breeze picked up its pace. The leaves of the trees began to rub against each other, resisting the wind. More branches snapped in the forest and the wailing intensified. The trees looked as if they were in pain. They swayed in all directions and slapped each other with their branches. A heavy rain followed, with thunder and lightning that lasted for less than fifteen minutes.”

As the author and a small band of boys wander through the forest, finding the remnants of atrocity and longing for their missing families, they skirt death several times and finally are captured by the Army who become a surrogate family. Drugs become a way of life that reddens their eyes and makes them numb to what they must do on a daily basis to survive. They are told repeatedly. “Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you. ... If you see someone without a head tie of this color or a helmet like mine, shoot him.” They killed anyone even suspected of being a rebel, often in gruesome ways. They were totally deadened to what they were doing, high all the time on marijuana, cocaine, and speed.

The author was one of the fortunate boy soldiers, rescued from this existence by UNICEF workers who took him to a clinic in Freetown where he spent months just learning how to live without the drugs and the constant violence. At first he had absolutely no memory of his family, of the stories his grandmother told, of his little brother. But gradually the hellish scenes of the war were replaced with memories of his past.

This boy, who was reciting Shakespeare at age 7 and who lived to survive his ordeal, is now only 26 years old. A recent graduate of Oberlin College, “A Long Way Gone” is his first book. I think he now has multiple possibilities for what he is going to do with his life. But his heart will always remain with his country, a place that still evokes the same scenes that he so beautifully describes in his book.

This is a book that makes you think. It should be a MUST READ for children and adults as well as we struggle to become aware of the many injustices that exist in our world today.


Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

I have to heartily agree with you on this book .. I really didn't expect much from it going in, but it is tremendously inspirational and very well written to boot

4:03 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Reel -- The kid speaks as well as he writes. The book talk, which was to a capacity crowd, convinced me that he is going places as an author and as a spokesperson for injustice. I will happily follow his progress on both fronts.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

I've been catching up on book club reads but you just moved this to the top of the queue. I'm glad we went.

6:06 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- Yes. This will be my next pick for our book club.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

Sounds like a sobering must NOT read for me. But thanks for the review!

8:27 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Reya -- I would have said the same thing before I heard the author speak. Remember I'm the one who has never been able to watch Schindler's List or any of the other movies that portray the atrocities of the Holocaust. But this book serves as a wake-up call to those of us with cushy Western lives to realize that that life is so very different in other parts of the world. And many of the ways he describes the natural beauty of his country remind me of the way you notice natural phenomena all around you. It's much more than a book about war and violence. And it does have a happy positive ending, at least for the author!

9:02 AM  
Blogger GEWELS said...

Sounds like this is definitely a must-read.
I tried to watch Blood Diamond this past weekend but truly became sickened by the violence. I walked out of the room several times- and I can normally stand anything- but not this. The killing was too brutal to watch.
The book sounds fascinating- and I think it is important to know what atrocities exist outside of our little protective bubble of a world.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Gewels -- There was some of that same really awful killing in the book, but fortunately it was only a few chapters. And the real focus was on how it came to this, not on the violent acts themselves. You can always see the little boy in this strong protagonist who is forced to grow up at such a young age.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

It sounds like the story of humanity - bloody and violent. One of the problems / benefits of living in a "civilized" society is that we forget this and think it a rare occurance. Sadly, it is far too common.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Richard -- I think it's a relatively modern phenomenon to turn children into soldiers. All war is bloody and violent but it usually involves adults killing each other and spares the young children of the atrocities.

1:52 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Turning children into drug addicted murdering zombies is one of the most awful sagas of human history. To try to answer the question you posed at the beginning of this great post - yes, i think under these circumstances any child subject to brainwashing under the influence of drugs would turn into a killing soldier just as these boys did.

You should see the movie!

2:57 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

David -- I can read about it but I'm not sure I'm up to seeing it in brilliant red.

4:16 PM  

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