Ishmael is our narrator, but he's not quite the same as narrators in some other books. For starters, Ishmael Beah is a real person. He was born in 1980 in Sierra Leone. In 1993, the civil war raging in that country destroyed his village and took away his family. Overnight, Ishmael's entire life was turned upside down. A Long Way Gone is his memoir—the story of his life during the war. It's a disturbing story.
Before the war broke out, Ishmael was just a typical 12-year-old boy growing up in Sierra Leone. Sure, sometimes he caused trouble and got mad at other kids who picked on him, but he had never seen anything that could prepare him for the war that was coming. He met some desperate refugees from the war, but it didn't seem real.
I thought that some of the stories the passersby told were exaggerated. The only wars I knew of were those that I had read about in books or seen in movies such as Rambo: First Blood, and the one in neighboring Liberia that I had heard about on the BBC news. My imagination at ten years old didn't have the capacity to grasp what had taken away the happiness of the refugees. (1.1)
Literally overnight, Ishmael goes from a happy-go-lucky, rap-obsessed kid with a loving family to orphaned war survivor. Once he realizes there's no safe place him to hide, Ishmael is forced to wander around the countryside with some of his friends looking for food, shelter, and a way to survive this madness.
Gradually, Ishmael finds himself doing things he never would have dreamed possible. He steals to get food. Hey, it's that or starve. He also witnesses all kinds of horrific atrocities that forever change his life and the way he sees other people. This is heavy stuff for a preteen kid.
When he's just 13 years old, Ishmael is forced to join the army of Sierra Leone. We say, "forced" because he truly doesn't have much choice in the matter. It's either fight or be killed by the rebels. If there's one thing that Ishmael has learned throughout his struggles during the war, it's that he needs to survive. When your options are fight or die, what choice do you really have?
Besides, why wouldn't he want to kill RUF fighters? They destroyed his home and killed his family. They took away everything he ever loved and filled his world with fear and despair. Ishmael is angry—and has every right to be—and the army taps into that rage to get him to commit some truly horrific acts:
My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector, and my rule was to kill or be killed. The extent of my thoughts didn't go much beyond that. We had been fighting for over two years, and killing had become a daily activity. I felt no pity for anyone. My childhood had gone by without my knowing, and it seemed as if my heart had frozen. (15.1)
It also helps that Ishmael is provided a steady stream of drugs and war movies to motivate him to kill quicker, faster, and more brutally. The manipulation is actually rather brilliant in a sick and twisted way. Without a spare moment to think for himself, Ishmael can't ever question what he's doing. His commanders and fellow soldiers desensitize him to the violence and push him to commit more and more vicious acts. He's like a robot-slave to his commanders, without emotion or a conscience.
When he's 15 years old, Ishmael is rescued from the front lines by some UNICEF workers. Okay, "rescue" isn't exactly how Ishmael sees it. He has been completely transformed from a loving and innocent child to a mindless killing machine. Besides, he's glad to be in the army. There's safety in his squad and his gun. It's better than running around constantly scared. Not to mention that he starts withdrawing from the drugs the army forced him to take.
But in rehabilitation at Benin Center, Ishmael slowly learns to trust people again. He's spent the last few years fighting to survive and knowing that anyone could be his enemy, so it's tough for him to let other people in. Esther is the first person who's able to make a dent in his protective armor. Through her love and compassion (and some rap cassettes), Ishmael's able to move past his violent childhood and start healing.
One thing that helps is the constant refrain from the staff at Benin Center that the vicious things Ishmael does are not his fault. In a way, they're right. Ishmael has been programmed and brainwashed for war. He's lost everything in his life that he ever loved. Why wouldn't he be angry? Why wouldn't he be violent? The miracle is actually that Ishmael's heart isn't totally lost to war in the process.
In the end, Ishmael is able to heal with the unconditional love of family and friends. He accepts the help of others and goes on to help other kids in return. He speaks to other groups about child soldiers and how they can be rehabilitated and welcomed back into society. People don't have to be afraid of them. They can make a fresh start and become good people again. Their lives were stolen from them, but they can reclaim it:
I was talking at gatherings in Freetown about child soldiering and how it must be stopped. "We can be rehabilitated," I would emphasize, and point to myself as an example. I would always tell people that I believe children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance. (18.19)
Today, Ishmael lives in New York City with his wife and daughter and still helps young victims of war throughout the world. He works with UNICEF and is a human rights activist. He also founded the Ishmael Beah Foundation, which helps former child soldiers like himself start new lives. He hopes that kids traumatized by war will look at him and see that there's always hope.