When most Americans think about child soldiers in Africa, the first thing that generally comes to mind are the Lost Boys of Sudan. Unfortunately, this is not a situation that is limited to Sudan, or even to Sierra Leone, the setting of this book by Ishmael Beah, who was forced to become a soldier, at the age of thirteen, for the army of his government.
It becomes clear, through sharing the author’s story, that for most of these boys becoming a child soldier is not a choice. After running from their homes in an attempt to escape ravaging army or rebel factions, most are separated from family and even other adults as they flee into the jungle. By banding together the boys manage to keep watch while others find shelter and sleep, but the necessity of food is what most often causes the boys to approach the villages, bringing them to the attention of armed factions who force them to either join them or be killed. In a speech he later gave at the United Nations Beah said, “All this is because of starvation, the loss of our families, and the need to feel safe and be part of something when all else has broken down.” Once under the control of the soldiers the boys are drugged with cocaine and marijuana, which impair their inhibitions and desensitize their consciences.
Beah fought for the Sierra Leone Army for almost three years, at which point a representative from UNICEF approached his commander and was allowed to take some of the youngest soldiers to a United Nations sponsored home in Freetown. I have never had a very high opinion of the UN, but I was very impressed by the time and effort that Beah’s narrative clearly shows that UNICEF puts into assisting these traumatized children regain mental stability and recapture what remains of their childhood.
Clearly, the road back is both challenging and painful, coming to terms with the acts that they perpetrated against others and needing to learn to forgive themselves. And nothing will ever fully eradicate the dreams and waking visions these traumatized boys experience. One of Ishmael’s friends, in the midst of their trials, put it in heartbreaking terms:
“How many more times do we have to come to terms with death before we find safety? Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death. Even though I am still alive, I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies. Very soon I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you. It will be quieter than I am.”
Perhaps the phrase that Beah used that implanted itself most indelibly in my brain was his belief in the “fragility of happiness”. After loosing everyone he loved and everything that made his life normal, he has a problem accepting that happiness can ever again be permanent. He expressed it thus at one point:
“I couldn’t bring myself to be completely happy. It was much easier to be sad than to go back and forth between emotions, and this gave me the determination I needed to keep moving. I was never disappointed, since I always expected the worst to happen.”
This book is a challenging read on a number of levels. For some reason, it is listed as a young adult read, and I know that some schools use it in their curriculum, but I would hesitate having a student younger than high school read it, given the atrocities that are described. Yes, these acts were committed by middle grade boys, but those boys are having to learn to live with the visions in their heads and the stain on their souls. I see no reason to put the weight of that ugliness into the minds of other young people who haven’t been forced to endure it to survive. This is a long way from being the most explicit rendering of the atrocities of war that I have read, but it is still in no way, in my opinion, appropriate for young readers. Another aspect is far less weighty. The book is written by Ishmael Beah himself, and so is clearly drafted by someone for whom English is a second language; as such, the writing style does take some adjusting to. I think this simplicity of language might well be why it is often thought an approachable read for middle school students.
Sometimes the very simplicity of the language works to beautiful advantage, especially when the author reminisces about his unrecovered family. During the many, many months that Ishmael spent keeping himself alive in hiding, prior to capture by the soldiers, he said this:
“When I was very little, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’ I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going. Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.”
To me, although at the time the quote is used in the book it is used in a literal sense, this quote is a metaphor for the entire arc of Ishmael Beah’s experience.