The Horrors and Redemption of Childhood in a Civil War: How Love and Kindness Healed the Deepest Scars
When you read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, you get the personal tale of one young boy embroiled in Sierra Leone’s civil war.
The author had been separated from his family early on in the conflict and was forced to join the army at just seven years old, being drugged and tasked with carrying out horrific acts that no child should ever have to endure.
These sections of the book tell his story of loss and redemption amidst all of the horrors and tragedy of Sierra Leone’s civil war.
You will learn how propaganda was used to keep the boy soldiers bloodthirsty, why peacetime was hard even after they had been rescued and most importantly, how kindness was paramount for healing some of these children’s deep psychological scars.
War Ravaged Sierra Leone, Leaving Innocent Children to Bear the Brunt of Its Horrors
The civil war in Sierra Leone caught the people by surprise, turning life upside-down and devastating the population.
Even though reports of conflict from neighboring Liberia had been heard for years, the actual eruption of war in Sierra Leone came suddenly and shocked even those who lived there.
In 1993, when Ishmael Beah and his brother Junior went to Mattru Jong for a talent show, they never expected to return home under such dire circumstances.
When their friend arrived with news that their hometown had just been attacked by a rebel group, it became apparent that their parents might have been one of the people who fled Mogbwemo–or worse.
On their journey back home, they saw an overwhelming number of displaced people; wounded and carrying what little they could with them.
The sight of this devastation was eye opening and enough to make Ishmael turn back towards Mattru Jong in search of safety.
The change from living a peaceful life with family one day to having no idea where your parents are the next was devastating on its own—but the consequences were much more tragic for those caught directly in the midst of it all.
The Unthinkable Reality of War for Young Children: Fending For Themselves in Sierra Leone’s Civil War
As one of the most affected by the civil war in Sierra Leone, children bore much of the burden.
Without warning, many were suddenly cut off from their families during attacks and left to fend for themselves without any resources or outlets for communication since cellphone networks hadn’t been established by the early 1990s.
Sadly, people simply weren’t prepared for war and didn’t have any safe havens to which they could escape when rebels attacked.
The author himself experienced a surprise attack while cooking a meal at his friend’s house in Mattru Jong, where he was separated from his brother.
For survival purposes, he had no choice but to join other lone boys just like him.
Such groups had to roam from village to village in search of food and safety, always knowing that every action carried danger with it.
Thus, it is truly heartbreaking to think about life as a child who’s forced into these adult responsibilities almost overnight.
It is impossible to measure the real impact of war on children – yet we can never forget how they suffered it more than anyone else, having to face life alone or in groups with no support system in place.
The Horrors of War for Young Boys: Fear and Suspicion from Both Rebels and Civilians
In Sierra Leone, young boys had few safe places.
They were hunted by rebel groups, who sought to enlist them into their ranks and even forced them to kill their own families and friends.
The rebels also branded children with their initials RUF as a way to gain control of them.
This branding made these children targets for both rebels and civilians.
People feared rebel child soldiers, looking upon each young man suspiciously and attacking them without provocation.
The author of A Long Way Gone was just 12 when he and his companions found themselves suddenly surrounded by angry villagers demanding their shoes and chasing them over hot sand, seriously burning their feet in the process.
The cruelty didn’t end there– they were also victims of horrific abuse at the hands of the Sierra Leone national army.
Young boys in Sierra Leone had little chance of survival; they were constantly on the move, fleeing from violence while desperately hoping to find safety somewhere else.
Child Soldiers Forced to Fight their Own War: Trapped between Loyalty and Duty
Even the Sierra Leone national army, which was fighting against the rebels during the country’s long civil war, engaged in cruel tactics.
This became apparent when the army captured a group of children that had been on the run and brought them to a military base in Yele.
At that point Lieutenant Jebati called an assembly and announced that because of their numbers, new soldiers were needed and that the boys should enlist.
Despite initially offering those who didn’t want to fight a way out, it wasn’t long before they felt like all options were taken away from them.
The children were given weapons and expected to participate in military drills just like grown soldiers.
Weighing up their options for safety, peace and comfort; they reluctantly became involved in battles in which some of their closest friends got killed right beside them.
It was a harsh reality – even though they were mostly young boys with minimal experience in warfare, they still had no choice but to follow orders.
Exploring the Brainwashing Tactics Used to Turn Children into Cold-Blooded Soldiers in Sierra Leone
The army’s methods for turning young boys into efficient killing machines were twofold: they drugged them and then bombarded them with propaganda.
By giving the boys white capsules, marijuana, and even a cocaine-gunpowder mix called brown brown, they rendered them incapable of feeling pain or any sense of empathy.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Jebati would tell them that the rebels had burned their villages and murdered their families, encouraging them to channel what little moral compass they had left towards blind hatred and cruelty as a form of revenge.
The result was an entire generation of boy soldiers who believed all of this deeply in themselves, with many rebel counterparts later professing that they too were fed the same lies.
The War Is Over, but the Trauma Lingers On: A Soldier’s Story of Transitioning Back to Civilian Life
Boy soldiers who survived the war were deeply traumatized by what they did and lived through.
Even after being taken to a rehabilitation facility such as Benin Home, many of them still acted as though they were in a state of war.
They refused orders, fought each other and attacked the staff, despite there being no provocation.
The author was no different – the memories of his atrocities haunted him, and he was struggling with the reality of his brutal past.
In particular, he remembered his duties as a junior lieutenant: murdering people and burning rebels alive during battle.
This disturbing realization was a stark contrast to what he had done while drugged under orders from commanding officers.
The journey to become psychically recovered is one that survivors will carry with them for a long time, one that cannot be healed overnight despite having clean beds and regular meals.
The Power of Kindness in Healing Trauma: How Compassion Transformed a Former Boy Soldier’s Life
The author of A Long Way Gone experienced unimaginable trauma, serving as a child soldier in Sierra Leone.
But he was fortunate enough to experience kindness and compassion from a variety of caregivers and his own family members.
This sympathy ultimately enabled him to turn his traumatic story into something positive.
At Benin Home, the future certainly seemed dark for the former boy soldiers who were often quick to act with violence towards staff members.
However, those responsible for the children’s care never gave up on them and would counter their physical and verbal abuse with comforting words and acts of kindness.
The author found solace in his close friendship with Esther, a nurse at Benin Home who provided medical attentions and listened as he cautiously recounted his memories from war-torn Sierra Leone.
She also bought him gifts (such as a Walkman and some music tapes) that helped lift his spirits when normalcy remained out of reach.
Similarly, his uncle Tommy provided extraordinary amounts of unconditional love which ultimately allowed the author to retreat from battle life back into normality again.
Eventually, these generous souls nurtured him back to health enough for him to start advocating for those still affected by war back in Sierra Leone.
He got an invitation to perform in a talent show organized by Benin Home which was attended by the United Nations, European Union and other non-governmental organizations.
These doors eventually led him being invited to represent Sierra Leone at the United Nations First International Children’s Parliament where he could address delegates concerning the pains inflicted upon children of his homeland due to war.
The final conclusion of A Long Way Gone is that war has a deep and lasting impact on the lives of those affected.
In this case, it was the civil war in Sierra Leone which pulled families apart and forced young boys into both the national army and rebel groups as active soldiers at as young as seven years old.
These children experienced traumas that no one should ever have to go through, yet with patience and kindness, these sons survived and eventually healed from the horrors of their past.
This remarkable story serves as an insight into how even in times of conflict, humanity can still be found amidst destruction and chaos, whether from within oneself or from the kindness of others.