1. What does Ishmael say the war is about?
Ishmael says nothing about the causes of the war, or what each side was fighting for, or of the overall political and social conditions in Sierra Leone that caused the war. This was a deliberate strategy on the part of Beah, the author. He wanted to present the war through the eyes of a child. As a boy of twelve, when the war first affected him, he had no interest in politics. He had no reason to be interested—his main interest, understandably for a boy of his age, was in singing and dancing to rap music and hanging out with his friends. When the war comes to him, it is for him a battle for personal survival, not a political cause. He is also fueled by feelings of revenge—instilled into him by his army officers—against the rebels because they killed his family. Once again, these are personal feelings not political beliefs. For the reader, then, transported to a land he or she knows nothing about (for the American reader, that is), the war seems not only almost unimaginably brutal but also meaningless. It consists of one side mindlessly killing the other, and vice versa, in skirmishes in small villages. Ishmael does report Lieutenant Jabati’s speeches to his men, in which he says they are defending their country (“We kill them [the rebels] for the good and betterment of this country” [p. 123]), but such appeals to patriotism are not what inspire Ishmael. Ishmael’s ignorance of politics is again stressed when he is in Freetown during his rehabilitation and sees a convoy of cars and military vans. He is told that the new president, Tejan Kabbah, who had won an election eight months earlier is passing by. “I had never heard of this man,” Ishmael writes pointedly. This confirms the tenor of the book as a whole: Ishmael is a boy caught up in a war he knows nothing about for a cause he does not care about.
2. Why was the war fought and what course did it take?
During the 1980s Sierra Leone was a one-party state governed by the All-People’s Congress (APC) party. However, this period was marked by extensive government corruption and abuse of power. Although Sierra Leone is rich in natural resources it became one of the poorest countries in the world because of mismanagement. The civil war in neighboring Liberia helped to create conditions for war in Sierra Leone because a Liberian war leader reportedly sponsored the rebel group called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) as a way of destabilizing Sierra Leone, which at the time was a base for a United Nations peacekeeping force.
The war broke out in 1991 in villages in eastern Sierra Leone that were near the Liberian border. The aim of the RUF was to seize and control the diamond sector, and in 1991 it took control of the diamond mines in the Kono district. (It is the mining area around Ishmael’s home town of Mogbwemo that the rebels seize in 1993.) In 1992 a military coup took place that established the National Provisional Ruling Council, replacing the civilian government. However, the new military government was powerless to prevent the RUF from controlling much of the country. It was the years immediately after this, from 1993 to January 1996, that Ishmael was a soldier. The war continued after Ishmael was rescued from it, as he himself found out when he went to stay with his uncle in Freetown after his rehabilitation. There had been an election in April 1996, and a civilian government had taken power, but in May 1997 there was another military coup, and the new military government known as the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) invited the RUF to participate in it. The following year, when Beah was safely in the United States, the military government was ousted and the civilian government restored. But this did not stop the violence as the AFRC and its RUF allies fought to regain power. Fighting returned to Freetown in 1999, before a peace accord was signed in July 1999. But this did not last, and the war dragged on, finally ending in January 2002, with the civilian government in charge. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, the civil war resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than two million people—about one-third of the population of Sierra Leone.
3. What is the situation in Sierra Leone today?
According to the CIA’s World Factbook, Sierra Leone is gradually returning to a fully democratic government following the ravages of the civil war. There was a general election in 2007 that led to one civilian government being peacefully replaced by another.
The nation has also tried to come to terms with the recent past. In 2002 the government set up a Special Court to try those responsible for war crimes during the civil war. It also set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Special Court indicted many of those held responsible for the atrocities. Some died before they could be tried, but in June 2007, the Special Court found three men guilty of war crimes, including not only murder, terrorism, and enslavement but also the act of conscripting or enlisting children under fifteen into the armed forces.
As refugees from the war are slowly returning from neighboring countries, the Sierra Leone government is trying to create jobs and end political corruption. Revenues from diamond mining have increased significantly since the end of the war. Diamonds account for about half of Sierra Leone’s exports. However, Sierra Leone, with a population estimated in 2009 as 5,132,138, remains an extremely poor country with wide disparities in how wealth is distributed. According to the World Factbook, “The fate of the economy depends upon the maintenance of domestic peace and the continued receipt of substantial aid from abroad.”
4. How widespread is the use of child soldiers?
It would be comforting to think that the forced conscription of children into the armed forces during the war in Sierra Leone was an aberration, not something that can happen again in the modern world. However, that is not the case. Even in the twenty-first century, the use of child soldiers is common in armed conflicts around the world. According to Human Rights watch, an international nongovernmental organization, as of 2007, there were an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children fighting in various wars. According to a Global Report published in 2008 by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, at the end of 2007 children were used as soldiers in seventeen armed conflicts around the globe. The coalition noted that this was down from twenty-seven conflicts in 2004, but the downturn was more because the conflicts had ended than because child soldiers were no longer being recruited. The Global Report identified the following countries where children were recruited for paramilitaries, militias, civilian defense forces or armed groups linked to or supported by governments: Chad, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Iran, Ivory Coast, Libya, Myanmar, Peru, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Uganda. The most flagrant offender, according to the Global Report, is Myanmar, where the government uses thousands of children in its battle against rebel groups. In Uganda, tens of thousands of children have been forced into joining armies over a period of nearly twenty-five years. In some of these countries, including Uganda, girls as well as boys have been forced to become soldiers.
There have in recent years been concerted international efforts to end the use of child soldiers. Sierra Leone, which has tried and convicted men responsible for recruiting child soldiers, has become a leader in this issue. The use of child soldiers has now been prohibited by international law. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict has been ratified by 120 states. The UN Security Council has adopted resolutions calling for the establishment of a monitoring mechanism on children and armed conflict. However, these and other prohibitions are no guarantee that when new conflicts break out, child soldiers will not be recruited.
5. Is Beah’s story factually accurate?
A Long Way Gone achieved popular and critical success, but questions have been raised by some regarding the factual accuracy of a number of events Beah recounts in the book. Beah writes that his village was attacked in January 1993 and after that he became a refugee from the war. Critics claim that there are school records showing that Beah was in school later than this date, and that the village was attacked in 1995, not 1993. This would mean that Beah would actually have been recruited at the age of fifteen, not thirteen as he writes in the book. This would have meant that he was only a child soldier for a few months, rather than over two years. Some critics point to the structure of the book to confirm this. They point out that most of the book deals with Beah’s wanderings as a refugee and the months he spent in rehabilitation. Only two chapters (13 and 14) cover his actual experiences as a soldier (although he does present more incidents from his military service at various points in flashbacks). Questions have also been raised about the account Beah gives of the fight between the former boy soldiers at the rehabilitation home, in which several boys were killed. There are no independent reports of such a fight ever taking place. Some believe that Beah used others’ experiences as his own and that he embellished his tale. They point to his interest in creative writing at Oberlin College and the fact that his adoptive mother was a storyteller. The suggestion is that Beah was encouraged by those around him to tell a more vivid story. Others have more charitably suggested that Beah simply got his dates mixed up, and his memory may have been unreliable because on his own admission he was high on drugs most of the time he was in military service. Beah has vehemently denied that he invented anything, however. In an article published in Publishers Weekly in 2008, Beah wrote, “Sad to say, my story is all true.”