Reviewed in the New York Times 25 February 2007
By William Boyd

What is it about African wars that is so disturbing? Why do they unsettle us so?  We in the civilised West know all about bestial and mindless cruelty, as the events of 1939-45 so graphically prove. And yet as we read about Darfur and Mogadishu today and recall Rwanda and Sierra Leone not so long ago, or Biafra and the Congo further back, we realise that these vicious, bitter African conflicts have left their trace upon contemporary history, and upon contemporary consciousness, in ways that are somehow different from the usual squalid reckoning that modern warfare encourages.

The great benefit of Ishmael Beah’s memoir, A Long Way Gone, is that it may help us arrive at an understanding of this situation. Beah’s autobiography is unique as far as I can determine — the first time that a child soldier has been able to give literary voice to one of the most distressing phenomena of the late 20th century — the rise of the pubescent (or even pre-pubescent) warrior-killer.

Beah was 12 years old when the civil war in Sierra Leone entered his life in the mid 1990s. Sierra Leone, a former British colony in West Africa, sandwiched between Guinea and Liberia, suffered the usual post-independence rites-of-passage of corruption, unrest, military coups and gerrymandered elections. In the mid-‘90s civil strife in Liberia prompted the rise of the RUF (the Revolutionary United Front) a ragbag liberation army headed by a former corporal, Foday Sankoh, who took over the diamond mines in the east of the country and whose brutal militia army (with a horrible penchant for amputating hands) moved on towards the country’s capital, Freetown. However, you will gain little idea of the internecine political struggle from Beah’s account and a map would have been helpful.

In a sense, however, this is beside the point. A twelve-year old is only conscious of immediate circumstances and in Beah’s case the arrival of the rebels in his small town meant sudden separation from his family and months of indeterminate flight from danger with a handful of other boys.  These terrified youngsters wandered aimlessly along jungle tracks, starving and desperate, harassed and suspected as they scrounged for food and tried to make sense of what was going on.  Finally they reached the Atlantic Ocean but, once again, fearful villagers sent them packing and they were eventually recruited into the Sierra Leone army as boy soldiers.

Given rudimentary training, an AK 47 and as many drugs as he could consume (amphetamines, marijuana and a toxic mix of cocaine and gunpowder called brown-brown) Beah seems then to have led a two-year, mind-bending killing spree until he was rescued by some UNICEF field workers and sent to a rehabilitation centre in Freetown.  There, with counselling, care and attention and the psychological ministrations of a kindly nurse called Esther, Beah’s slow return to normality began, further augmented when he was sent to the UN in New York with the task of explaining the lot of the child soldier to a baffled and concerned international community.  He came to live in the US, graduated from high school and went to college. A Long Way Gone is his first and remarkable book.

It is interesting to try and comprehend what act of remembering is going on here. Who of us in our twenties could accurately summon up our day-by-day lives as preteens?  As you read A Long Way Gone it is the details that allow you to distinguish precise recall from autobiographical blur. Beah, for example, can remember the logo on the trainers he is issued with by the army. When he is captured by hostile fisherman he is released because he has a few rap CDs on him (LL Cool J, Heavy D and the Boyz amongst others [p15]) and can sing the songs and do the dance. All this has the idiosyncratic ring of precisely remembered truth. But when you read lines like these the effect is quite different: “We walked around the village and killed everyone who came out of the houses and huts…” [p.143] or, “After every gunfight we would enter the rebel camp, killing those we had wounded…” [p.122] The horror is duly registered but its vagueness and generality fail to deliver as moments of lived personal history. Indeed Beah’s time in the army, and the accounts of the patrols and firefights he was caught up in, represent only a small portion of this book. And who can blame him? The blood-lust of a drug-crazed adolescent on the rampage with an assault rifle would challenge the descriptive powers of James Joyce. Beah confesses to slitting the throat of a trussed prisoner, and writes lines such as: ‘I angrily pointed my gun into the swamp and killed more people. I shot everything that moved…’ [p 119] If similar passages are to be given credence his personal body count must total many dozens. Such knowledge is shocking, but it’s the reader’s imagination that delivers the cold sanguinary shudder, not the author’s boilerplate prose. It is a vision of hell that Beah gives us, one worthy of Hieronymous Bosch, but as though depicted in primary colours by a naïve artist.

However, perhaps this gives us a clue to the nature and effect of these terrifying African conflicts. I have only been close to one, in Nigeria in 1968-70, during that country’s civil war, known as the Biafran war. I was in my teens too, not much older than Beah, and far from the actual fighting. But, at dusk one night with my father, our car was stopped at a road block on a back road in the bush by a unit of Nigerian soldiers. They were young, aggressive, drunk on beer, bored and ostensibly looking for currency smugglers. They waved their Kalashnikovs at us and angrily ordered us out of the car. We were roughly searched, the trunk was opened and then my father cracked a joke and everybody laughed. But for a few moments I was profoundly aware that anything might have happened to us: there was no control, no ‘rules of engagement’, no chain of command. We were powerless, they had all the power. Night was falling, there were no witnesses. It was a moment of pure potential anarchy that could have gone any way.

Beah’s book confirms this feeling: the unbelievable violence and dread, the blood and death, seem — if this does not appear too awful an oxymoron — somehow guileless and innocent, random, unpremeditated. Is that what fundamentally disturbs us about these African conflicts? Beah tells a story of a messenger sent by the rebels. All his fingers had been amputated except his thumbs. He could still manage two thumbs up and say ‘One Love’ — a gestural echo of a reggae song that young Sierra Leonians used to give to each other in more peaceful times.  A joke is made: the cost is unimaginable.

Beah’s memoir joins an elite class of writing: Africans witnessing African wars. I think of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa’s novel about a young soldier during the Biafran war, Sozaboy — his masterwork — or Jean Hatzfeld’s blood-chilling interviews with Rwandan killers, A Time for Machetes. As you read A Long Way Gone you wonder how anyone comes through such unrelenting ghastliness and horror with their humanity and sanity intact. Unusually, the smiling, open face of the author on the book jacket provides welcome and timely reassurance. Ishmael Beah seems to prove it can happen.

This review appeared in the New York Sunday Times in February 2007.