“A Long Way Gone” is about a 12-year-old boy, Ishmael, who was unable to return to his home in Sierra Leone because anti-government rebels had attacked his village. After traveling with a group of displaced boys for months, when he was 13 he joined the government army who were fighting against the rebels because his family had been killed. At 16 he was taken from the army by UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund organization. The chapter in this book that had the most impact on Ishmael is chapter 12, when Ishmael decides to join the army and fight against the rebels. This decision had the biggest impact because it became the pivotal point in his life where he truly lost the last of his childhood innocence. After he had joined the army he became revengeful, violent, and psychologically hurt. Soon after he had joined the army he was trained to think of every rebel as the rebel that killed his family.
He was consumed by thoughts of revenge. On page 112 it says that in the army training the drill instructor said, “Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you.” On page 113 Ishmael says he became very angry and began to visualize scenarios of shooting or stabbing a rebel. He imagined capturing several rebels at once, locking them in a house and setting the house on fire as they had done to his family. On page 116 he is in his first battle and two of his friends have been killed. He began to shoot at everything that moved because he was so angry that they had died.
After joining the war he didn’t care how the army treated the rebels or anyone else out of their “group.” They did whatever they wanted to accomplish their goals. On page 124 he is in a contest to see who can kill their prisoner the fastest and he says, “I didn’t feel a thing for him, didn’t think much about what I was doing.” These experiences made Ishmael a person who quickly turned to violence with little provocation. Later, when he is rehabilitation, he and his friends want new mattresses because theirs had become soaked. They go to Poppay, the man in charge of supplies, and make their demands. When he refuses to give them new mattresses they attacked Poppay. One of the boys stabbed his foot and Poppay fell down. He covered his head as the boys continuously kicked him. They then left him bleeding and unconscious, and never did get new mattresses. Ishmael was angry because he missed his squad and missed the violence. On page 138 he says that they would throw bowls, spoons, food, and benches at the UNICEF staff. One afternoon, after they had chased off the staff and nurses, they placed a bucket over the cook’s head and pushed him around the kitchen until he had burned his hand on a boiling pot and agreed to put more milk in their tea.
When Ishmael was in rehabilitation he not only had physical injuries from the war, he was also emotionally injured. On page 145 he said, “Whenever I turned on the tap water, all I could see was blood gushing out. I would stare at it until it looked like water before drinking or taking a shower.” Living through the horrors of war truly destroyed these children. The other boys who were with Ishmael would run out of the hall screaming in fear, “The rebels are coming!” The younger boys sat by rocks weeping and saying that the rocks were their dead families. At night some of the boys would wake up from nightmares, sweating, screaming and punching their heads to drive out the images that continued to torment them. Being in the war had created intense fear in these children. Years later when Ishmael is living in New York he still had nightmares of dead bodies. He dreamt of himself as one of the soldiers who has been shot. After his first battle he said, “My mind had not only snapped during the first killing, it stopped making remorseful records.”
The most important thing I learned from this book is gratitude for the life I have. We in America shouldn’t take our lives for granted. Compared to children in countries torn apart by war, we have it so easy. There hasn’t been a war fought here in America for many generations. We aren’t seeing people murdered and dying everyday as he had. We have hospitals and well trained doctors if someone is sick or injured. We don’t have to fight to survive. Even the homeless have shelters to help them. When Ishmael and his friends were trying to stay alive, they were on their own most of the time. People would kick them out of their towns. They had to find food and shelter, and death was hard to avoid. Children in America aren’t joining a war and risking their lives. We are able to live carefree childhoods without having to worry if we’ll make it to the next day or if our families will be destroyed. This was a hard book to read. It’s clear these boys may never really recover from what happened to them. The events I read about in this book will haunt me for a long time.a