Friday, July 22, 2011

A Long Way Gone

I've read a lot of great books during my first year in the Peace Corps. 63 of them to be precise. And some excellent pieces of literature really stand out to me, including The Motorcycle Diaries (Ernesto “Che” Guevara), Mountains Beyond Mountains (Tracy Kidder), and All the President's Men (Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward). But no book has affected me quite as deeply as Ismael Beah's beautifully written autobiography, A Long Way Gone. When I started my blog, I promised myself that I wouldn't use it as a forum to review any specific book that I’ve read. This book transcends that promise.

I’m currently in the middle of an extremely stressful week. The Peace Corps crew out here in Ancash is putting on a fund raising event this weekend and, since it's the first time doing this particular event, we're learning as we go. As we hit (and successfully problem solve) one road block after another, I find myself getting more and more stressed and the amount of time I spend awake each night tossing and turning is growing exponentially.

Waiting for a combi back to site this afternoon, I finally cracked open A Long Way Gone. I'd been carrying it around all weekend but between running from one thing to another I didn't have time to start reading it. Finally I was sitting in one place long enough to pull out a book. It took approximately 9 pages for my heart to start breaking and for me to realize that whatever trials and tribulations I’m experiencing are truly insignificant.

A Long Way Gone is written by Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone's civil war. Beah is only twelve when the rebels attack and destroy his village and he's separated from everyone he's ever known and forced into hiding in the jungle, living off of fruit and terrified of his own shadow. Beah is terrified because “young boys were immediately recruited and the initials RUF were carved wherever it pleased the rebels, with a hot bayonet. This not only meant that you were scarred for life but that you could never escape from them, because escaping with the carving of the rebel's initials was asking for death, as soldiers would kill you without any questions and militant civilians would do the same.” (Beah, 24) Being recruited into this war meant being marked for life, both physically and psychologically.

Beah walks across the country seeking refuge and safety but within a year he is forced into the army's service. He chronicles the following years of fear and manipulation, drug abuse and brain-washing, in painfully graphic detail, giving a first-hand account of violence that much of the world could never dream of and would rather ignore. Beah sums up that part of his life by saying “(...) the problem (...) 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 of this is because of starvation, the loss of our families, the need to feel safe and be part of something when all else has 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 am not a soldier anymore; I am a child. (…) 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...” (199)

It amazes and inspires me that Beah, who has experienced the true depths of human suffering, is also able to describe happiness in the purest and most poetic terms I’ve ever heard. When discussing life before the war, Beah states he was “so happy that I felt every nerve in my body had awoken and swayed to the gentlest wind that sailed within me.” (102) Beautiful, no? A Long Way Gone will break your heart and then slowly put it back together, piece by piece, as you come to terms with the extreme cruelty of mankind and the amazing strength of the human spirit. As always, Beah says it best: “I believe children have the resilience to outlive their suffering, if given a chance.” (169)

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