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Our story starts with Ishmael Beah, a 12-year-old boy living in Sierra Leone. One day, Ishmael, his brother, and another friend walk to a neighboring village where they plan on rapping and dancing in a talent show. While they're away, their hometown is attacked by armed rebels who are fighting against the government of Sierra Leone and roaming up and down the countryside killing just about anyone they come into contact with. Ishmael's life is turned upside down when he and his friends lose their families in the attack and are forced to wander from village to village looking for food, shelter, and kindness wherever they can find it. Sadly, there's not much left.
The boys witness unspeakable acts of violence and nearly escaped being killed on several occasions. They're also forced to steal food just to survive. After a while, Ishmael is separated from his brother and his friends in a rebel attack and continues to wander the countryside on his own desperately trying to survive. It's a while before he happens to meet another group of friends who he travels with to a nearby village they all hear is safe. Fingers crossed, guys.
Turns out "safe" isn't exactly the right word to describe this place. The army of Sierra Leone is stationed there, but the village is under attack by rebels and the army desperately needs more troops. All the men and boys in the village (some as young as seven years old) are ordered to join the army. They're given guns and a whole lot of drugs and they rush out to fight off the rebels. Ishmael watches some of his friends die and he kills a man for the first time. He actually kills a lot of men. At this point, he's only 13 years old.
Over time, Ishmael becomes more and more numb to the reality of what he's doing as a soldier. The army provides him and his friends with food, security (in the form of guns), as well as constant access to marijuana, cocaine, and pills. Ishmael serves with the army for about two years and he ends up becoming so good at killing that he gets promoted to Junior Lieutenant. Trust us, this is not a promotion you want to brag about.
One day, a UNICEF truck comes to the camp where Ishmael and some other boy soldiers are stationed. Their commanding officer tells them to go with the UNICEF guys because they're going to be rehabilitated back into regular society. This doesn't really go over too well. Ishmael and the other boys are suffering from serious drug withdrawal. They've always developed a taste for fighting and violence so they pretty much make life a living hell for the staff at the rehab center. Still, the doctors and nurses there don't quit on them.
Eventually, Ishmael befriends a nurse named Esther. By reminding him of his love for rap music, she's able to help Ishmael move past the terrible things he's done. Ishmael discovers he has an uncle living in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and he goes to live with his Uncle Tommy after he's fully rehabilitated. Ishmael is chosen to go to New York City to speak to the UN about the effects of war on children. His take-away: war is not a good thing for kids.
Back in Sierra Leone, things are peaceful… for a while. Eventually, the rebels take control of the capital and overthrow the government. Ishmael and his family in Freetown are in constant danger. Ishmael calls Laura Simms, a woman he met while in New York City, and asks if he can come live with her if he's able to escape from Sierra Leone. Laura says yes, and Ishmael starts out on a dangerous journey to neighboring Guinea where he eventually catches a plane to America and is adopted permanently by Laura.
We were hoping for a happy ending.