To save money, we decided to walk the sixteen miles to Mattru Jong. It was a beautiful summer day, the sun wasn't too hot, and the walk didn't feel long either, as we chatted about all kinds of things, mocked and chased each other. We carried slingshots that we used to stone birds and chase the monkeys that tried to cross the main dirt road. We stopped at several rivers to swim. At one river that had a bridge across it, we heard a passenger vehicle in the distance and decided to get out of the water and see if we could catch a free ride. I got out before Junior and Talloi, and ran across the bridge with their clothes. They thought they could catch up with me before the vehicle reached the bridge, but upon realizing that it was impossible, they started running back to the river, and just when they were in the middle of the bridge, the vehicle caught up to them. The girls in the truck laughed and the driver tapped his horn. It was funny, and for the rest of the trip they tried to get me back for what I had done, but they failed.
We arrived at Kabati, my grandmother's village, around two in the afternoon. Mamie Kpana was the name that my grandmother was known by. She was tall and her perfectly long face complemented her beautiful cheekbones and big brown eyes. She always stood with her hands either on her hips or on her head. By looking at her, I could see where my mother had gotten her beautiful dark skin, extremely white teeth, and the translucent creases on her neck. My grandfather or kamor-teacher, as everyone called him-was a well-known local Arabic scholar and healer in the village and beyond.
At Kabati, we ate, rested a bit, and started the last six miles. Grandmother wanted us to spend the night, but we told her that we would be back the following day.
"How is that father of yours treating you these days?" she asked in a sweet voice that was laden with worry.
"Why are you going to Mattru Jong, if not for school? And why do you look so skinny?" she continued asking, but we evaded her questions. She followed us to the edge of the village and watched as we descended the hill, switching her walking stick to her left hand so that she could wave us off with her right hand, a sign of good luck.
We arrived in Mattru Jong a couple of hours later and met up with old friends, Gibrilla, Kaloko, and Khalilou. That night we went out to Bo Road, where street vendors sold food late into the night. We bought boiled groundnut and ate it as we conversed about what we were going to do the next day, made plans to see the space for the talent show and practice. We stayed in the verandah room of Khalilou's house. The room was small and had a tiny bed, so the four of us (Gibrilla and Kaloko went back to their houses) slept in the same bed, lying across with our feet hanging. I was able to fold my feet in a little more since I was shorter and smaller than all the other boys.
The next day Junior, Talloi, and I stayed at Khalilou's house and waited for our friends to return from school at around 2:00 p.m. But they came home early. I was cleaning my crapes and counting for Junior and Talloi, who were having a push-up competition. Gibrilla and Kaloko walked onto the verandah and joined the competition. Talloi, breathing hard and speaking slowly, asked why they were back. Gibrilla explained that the teachers had told them that the rebels had attacked Mogbwemo, our home. School had been canceled until further notice. We stopped what we were doing.
According to the teachers, the rebels had attacked the mining areas in the afternoon. The sudden outburst of gunfire had caused people to run for their lives in different directions. Fathers had come running from their workplaces, only to stand in front of their empty houses with no indication of where their families had gone. Mothers wept as they ran toward schools, rivers, and water taps to look for their children. Children ran home to look for parents who were wandering the streets in search of them. And as the gunfire intensified, people gave up looking for their loved ones and ran out of town.
"This town will be next, according to the teachers." Gibrilla lifted himself from the cement floor. Junior, Talloi, and I took our backpacks and headed to the wharf with our friends. There, people were arriving from all over the mining area. Some we knew, but they couldn't tell us the whereabouts of our families. They said the attack had been too sudden, too chaotic; that everyone had fled in different directions in total confusion.
For more than three hours, we stayed at the wharf, anxiously waiting and expecting either to see our families or to talk to someone who had seen them. But there was no news of them, and after a while we didn't know any of the people who came across the river. The day seemed oddly normal. The sun peacefully sailed through the white clouds, birds sang from treetops, the trees danced to the quiet wind. I still couldn't believe that the war had actually reached our home. It is impossible, I thought. When we left home the day before, there had been no indication the rebels were anywhere near.
"What are you going to do?" Gibrilla asked us. We were all quiet for a while, and then Talloi broke the silence. "We must go back and see if we can find our families before it is too late."
Junior and I nodded in agreement.
Just three days earlier, I had seen my father walking slowly from work. His hard hat was under his arm and his long face was sweating from the hot afternoon sun. I was sitting on the verandah. I had not seen him for a while, as another stepmother had destroyed our relationship again. But that morning my father smiled at me as he came up the steps. He examined my face, and his lips were about to utter something, when my stepmother came out. He looked away, then at my stepmother, who pretended not to see me. They quietly went into the parlor. I held back my tears and left the verandah to meet with Junior at the junction where we waited for the lorry. We were on our way to see our mother in the next town about three miles away. When our father had paid for our school, we had seen her on weekends over the holidays when we were back home. Now that he refused to pay, we visited her every two or three days. That afternoon we met Mother at the market and walked with her as she purchased ingredients to cook for us. Her face was dull at first, but as soon as she hugged us, she brightened up. She told us that our little brother, Ibrahim, was at school and that we would go get him on our way from the market. She held our hands as we walked, and every so often she would turn around as if to see whether we were still with her.
As we walked to our little brother's school, Mother turned to us and said, "I am sorry I do not have enough money to put you boys back in school at this point. I am working on it." She paused and then asked, "How is your father these days?"
"He seems all right. I saw him this afternoon," I replied. Junior didn't say anything.
Mother looked him directly in the eyes and said, "Your father is a good man and he loves you very much. He just seems to attract the wrong stepmothers for you boys."
When we got to the school, our little brother was in the yard playing soccer with his friends. He was eight and pretty good for his age. As soon as he saw us, he came running, throwing himself on us. He measured himself against me to see if he had gotten taller than me. Mother laughed. My little brother's small round face glowed, and sweat formed around the creases he had on his neck, just like my mother's. All four of us walked to Mother's house. I held my little brother's hand, and he told me about school and challenged me to a soccer game later in the evening. My mother was single and devoted herself to taking care of Ibrahim. She said he sometimes asked about our father. When Junior and I were away in school, she had taken Ibrahim to see him a few times, and each time she had cried when my father hugged Ibrahim, because they were both so happy to see each other. My mother seemed lost in her thoughts, smiling as she relived the moments.
Two days after that visit, we had left home. As we now stood at the wharf in Mattru Jong, I could visualize my father holding his hard hat and running back home from work, and my mother, weeping and running to my little brother's school. A sinking feeling overtook me.
Junior, Talloi, and I jumped into a canoe and sadly waved to our friends as the canoe pulled away from the shores of Mattru Jong. As we landed on the other side of the river, more and more people were arriving in haste. We started walking, and a woman carrying her flip-flops on her head spoke without looking at us: "Too much blood has been spilled where you are going. Even the good spirits have fled from that place." She walked past us. In the bushes along the river, the strained voices of women cried out, "Nguwor gbor mu ma oo," God help us, and screamed the names of their children: "Yusufu, Jabu, Foday ..." We saw children walking by themselves, shirtless, in their underwear, following the crowd. "Nya nje oo, nya keke oo," my mother, my father, the children were crying. There were also dogs running, in between the crowds of people, who were still running, even though far away from harm. The dogs sniffed the air, looking for their owners. My veins tightened.
We had walked six miles and were now at Kabati, Grandmother's village. It was deserted. All that was left were footprints in the sand leading toward the dense forest that spread out beyond the village.
As evening approached, people started arriving from the mining area. Their whispers, the cries of little children seeking lost parents and tired of walking, and the wails of hungry babies replaced the evening songs of crickets and birds. We sat on Grandmother's verandah, waiting and listening.
"Do you guys think it is a good idea to go back to Mogbwemo?" Junior asked. But before either of us had a chance to answer, a Volkswagen roared in the distance and all the people walking on the road ran into the nearby bushes. We ran, too, but didn't go that far. My heart pounded and my breathing intensified. The vehicle stopped in front of my grandmother's house, and from where we lay, we could see that whoever was inside the car was not armed. As we, and others, emerged from the bushes, we saw a man run from the driver's seat to the sidewalk, where he vomited blood. His arm was bleeding. When he stopped vomiting, he began to cry. It was the first time I had seen a grown man cry like a child, and I felt a sting in my heart. A woman put her arms around the man and begged him to stand up. He got to his feet and walked toward the van. When he opened the door opposite the driver's, a woman who was leaning against it fell to the ground. Blood was coming out of her ears. People covered the eyes of their children.
In the back of the van were three more dead bodies, two girls and a boy, and their blood was all over the seats and the ceiling of the van. I wanted to move away from what I was seeing, but couldn't. My feet went numb and my entire body froze. Later we learned that the man had tried to escape with his family and the rebels had shot at his vehicle, killing all his family. The only thing that consoled him, for a few seconds at least, was when the woman who had embraced him, and now cried with him, told him that at least he would have the chance to bury them. He would always know where they were laid to rest, she said. She seemed to know a little more about war than the rest of us. . . .
Excerpted from A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah Copyright © 2007 by Ishmael Beah. Excerpted by permission.All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.Continue reading the main story
A long way gone is a title of the book written by Ishmael Beah about the war in the eyes of a young soldier. This is a book about how an average teenager becomes a cruel murderer. Is he able to stop and drop out of the game? Ishmael was born in Sierra Leone (Africa) and had to leave his native town at the age of 12 after being attacked by the fighters. He was roaming around the country, which was lashed round. When he turned 13, he was given a rifle and told to take service in the military. Being a child at heart, he turned out to be capable of inhuman, truly monstrous deeds.
The Dark Continent, crazy guilt of the countries with a vivid patch, which Sierra Leone is, a state, obtained its independence from the Great Britain in 1961. Brief years of gladness because of the obtained freedom were replaced with years of cruel state control, corruption, outrage. “Freedom is, first of all, a responsibility but not privileges,” Albert Camus wrote. In practice, everything turned out the other way, those, who managed to get power, were eager to get more of privileges, positions, money. Releasers mutated into tyrants, people rioted.
Beah narrates about what happened in a pronouncedly dryly flat voice as if he was an old man who has seen a lot, who has gone through all the deadly fears and who does not wait for anything any longer, neither from the world, nor from people.
Here comes a boy going to visit a city nearby with his brother and a friend for a rap contest, saying goodbye to his mother and the younger. A father? He is somewhere with a hateful stepmother. He was and gone. Everyone has its own way.
Those rebel fighters who came into his town and killed everyone they could find had a way of their own too. Or this is what they thought. Both way, it happened and there was no place to go back to. The boys decided to run. Run in any direction.
This is it, a fate. How good that is of them to be fond of rap. Rappers, these cool guys, who liked cabbage-like mode of dress in 90`s, which is why the boys turned out to have a lot of clothes. So, love for music overseas not only saved them lives but also let them to prolong it.
What does a civil war do with children? At first, it turns them into thieves, stealing food from same hungry ones. Then – into cast away – decent people get freaked out from the groups of youth suspecting them in racketeering. Some are caught by rebel fighters and got killed. Some survive turning into the same bastard with blood on their hands. Parents, brothers and sisters, friends get lost on the way. Everything is lost, all the principles, which makes it to where there is no new harvest but a total bitter hatred.
“Why everyone around dies but not me?”
Sometimes – very rarely – a kindness passes through all the horror. Some take shoes off the hungry boys making them walk on white-hot sand, others – provide with food and treatment. Some curse and fear, others – tutor and bless. There are very few of kind ones though, shamefully few, because the price for mercy is death.
Then defenders “of theirs” come into the camp of the soldiers. Soldiers tell them to either take the weapon and fight or leave beggaring, starving, throwing the hooks.
Probably Golding was right writing on how wild children become without adults. It turns out to be though that with adults directing them they are able to go wild even faster and to the more extent. The symbol of the civil war despite the region, country, and continent – filled in with stimulators 13-year old with AK-47 atilt wearing new pair of snickers with the eyes of an old man.
“Sometimes right in the middle of watching a movie we were told to go to the raid. We were back in a couple of hours destroying loads of people going back to watching the movie as if it was a break for a short walk. There were three kinds of activity only – military campaigns, movies and drugs.”
“Jungles have become my home where we spent nights quite often and villages we took and turned into our bases. My detachment was my family. My tommy gun became my defender and supporter. I followed a simple rule “kill or you get killed” and did not think of anything else. More than 2 years has passed since I was serving in the military and I got used to the fact that murderers are an integral part of the real world, of the day-to-day routine. I did not know any pity. I did not notice how my childhood ended up, and my heart seemed to turn into a stone.”
One my circle of history and Ishmael with friends turn out to be in a rehabilitation center under the authority of United Nations Children's Fund with a breakage, a blood-lust and revenge, with a piece of bayonet and migraine, with nightmares full of the victims` faces. The workers of the center knock the door of his heart in vain. He will not let anybody in until Esther the nurse comes.
Ishmael became one of the two lucky people who were chosen as delegates for the First international child`s parliament under United Nations Organizationand got in the country of his dreams – America. And what is next… what is next…
How could he lived through the new military coup in his country? How a young boy was able to remain sane seeing how the cars, houses get burnt, how civilians die? How was he able to escape from Freetown and remain alive?
A miracle? Let it be a miracle. Eventually the miracles end up and life begins. Moreover, some new experience. A long way gone by a soldier-boy. A long and dreadful. So is his story about his way. In the name of everything he, his family and friends had to go through, such stories are required to read and jump to conclusions. Remember. Have faith, hope and remain a human being whom one can trust and rely on.