Little Orphan Army 

A Long Way Gone captures the real story behind African child soldiers.

Last fall, film critic David Denby gushed in the New Yorker about the just-out-on-DVD Blood Diamond. Set in Sierra Leone during its horrific civil war, the film is a romantic drama about an American journalist (Jennifer Connelly) and a South African diamond smuggler (Leonardo DiCaprio). Despite a great performance by Djimon Hounsou, every African character'including Hounsou’s'is little more than a backdrop of human depravity used to highlight the white protagonists as they scale new heights of angst.

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One doesn’t need a degree in postcolonial theory to understand what a problematic cliché it all is. African characters bleed; white folks have existential crises. So while Denby’s critical acumen has gone down in this critic’s estimation, it’s a welcome relief to read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, a memoir of the same conflict that Blood Diamond so thoughtlessly ransacked, written by someone who experienced it firsthand.

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Unless you’ve endured a civil war, it’s probably impossible to understand what Beah went through. From the age of 12 to 15, he was as a fugitive from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) which attacked his village and would later kill his family. At 13, he was recruited into the army of the Sierra Leone government'and he was hardly an anomaly as a child solider.

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Beah recounts his experience in deceptively simple prose. His descriptions of rapes and murders in broad daylight are so far beyond the pale of First World unpleasantness that, like a dead URL, the data just won’t load.

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However, sprinkled among the atrocities are moments that underline the madness of being young, desperate and unprotected. Witness a short list of experiences during Beah’s pre-soldier wanderings: being chased into trees by wild boars. Sleeping in trees for safety. Being rounded up (and bound) with a half-dozen refugee children in a coastal village where the chief demands to hear Beah’s hip-hop tape, and Beah barely escapes execution.

nn

Strange, then, that these adventures are sometimes more frightening then the war itself, perhaps because being alone in the jungle fleeing feral pigs is easier to envision than a brigade of middle-schoolers shooting up a rural village. As Beah said, he quickly lost compassion for anyone and could shoot a person as easily as one might recycle a can of Coke.

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Like most other young conscripts, Beah became addicted to “brown brown,” a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder popular among his comrades. They also relied on another sort of narcotic: Soldiers watched Hollywood war films like porn, to get psyched for a good day’s killing.

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A Long Way Gone doesn’t delve into the politics of the civil war; in Beah’s wartime view, the rebels either have destroyed your village or are about to. It’s not hard to understand Beah’s decision to fight, though, as it wasn’t much of a decision. Without a family, much less a regular meal plan, the army is a place where you can'if nothing else'stop running.

nn

From a safer perspective, the enemy is anyone who turns children into killing machines. As he’d later learn, both factions peddled the same logic to their child soldiers: “Over and over in our training he would say the same sentence: Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you.” It’s an unenviable contradiction: being revved up for killing by channeling your suffering, and then get loaded on numbing agents to forget it.

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There is a happy ending. Beah is chosen to be part of a U.N. panel on child soldiers. He travels to New York City and, years later, is adopted by a woman he meets there. He goes on to graduate from Oberlin, an elite private college in Ohio.

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How does he make sense of these two starkly different realities? What does a young man do with childhood memories few adults can handle? Maybe we’ll find out in another book. Beah doesn’t wrap up his life in a neat bow, as well he shouldn’t. It’s still far from over.

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A LONG WAY GONE: MEMOIRS OF A CHILD SOLDIER
nBy Ishmael Beah
nSarah Crichton Books
nFarrar Straus and Giroux
nNew York
n240 pages
n$22

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John Dicker

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