A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
by Ishmael Beah
There were all kinds of stories told about the war that made it sound as if
it was happening in a faraway and different land. It wasnt until refugees
started passing through our town that we began to see that it was actually
taking place in our country. Families who had walked hundreds of miles told how
relatives had been killed and their houses burned. Some people felt sorry for
them and offered them places to stay, but most of the refugees refused, because
they said the war would eventually reach our town. The children of these
families wouldnt look at us, and they jumped at the sound of chopping wood or
as stones landed on the tin roofs flung by children hunting birds with
slingshots. The adults among these children from the war zones would be lost in
their thoughts during conversations with the elders of my town. Apart from their
fatigue and malnourishment, it was evident they had seen something that plagued
their minds, something that we would refuse to accept if they told us all of it.
At times I thought that some of the stories the passersby told were exaggerated.
The only wars I knew of were those that I had read about in books or seen in
movies such as Rambo: First Blood, and the one in neighboring Liberia that I had
heard about on the BBC news. My imagination at ten years old didnt have the
capacity to grasp what had taken away the happiness of the refugees.
The first time that I was touched by war I was twelve. It was in January of
1993. I left home with Junior, my older brother, and our friend Talloi, both a
year older than I, to go to the town of Mattru Jong, to participate in our
friends talent show. Mohamed, my best friend, couldnt come because he and his
father were renovating their thatched-roof kitchen that day. The four of us had
started a rap and dance group when I was eight. We were first introduced to rap
music during one of our visits to Mobimbi, a quarter where the foreigners who
worked for the same American company as my father lived. We often went to
Mobimbi to swim in a pool and watch the huge color television and the white
people who crowded the visitors recreational area. One evening a music video
that consisted of a bunch of young black fellows talking really fast came on the
television. The four of us sat there mesmerized by the song, trying to
understand what the black fellows were saying. At the end of the video, some
letters came up at the bottom of the screen. They read Sugarhill Gang,
Rappers Delight. Junior quickly wrote it down on a piece of paper. After
that, we came to the quarters every other weekend to study that kind of music on
television. We didnt know what it was called then, but I was impressed with the
fact that the black fellows knew how to speak English really fast, and to the
Later on, when Junior went to secondary school, he befriended some boys who
taught him more about foreign music and dance. During holidays, he brought me
cassettes and taught my friends and me how to dance to what we came to know as
hip-hop. I loved the dance, and particularly enjoyed learning the lyrics,
because they were poetic and it improved my vocabulary. One afternoon, Father
came home while Junior, Mohamed, Talloi, and I were learning the verse of I
Know You Got Soul by Eric B. & Rakim. He stood by the door of our clay brick
and tin roof house laughing and then asked, Can you even understand what you
are saying? He left before Junior could answer. He sat in a hammock under the
shade of the mango, guava, and orange trees and tuned his radio to the BBC news.
Now, this is good English, the kind that you should be listening to, he
shouted from the yard.
While Father listened to the news, Junior taught us how to move our feet to
the beat. We alternately moved our right and then our left feet to the front and
back, and simultaneously did the same with our arms, shaking our upper bodies
and heads. This move is called the running man, Junior said. Afterward, we
would practice miming the rap songs we had memorized. Before we parted to carry
out our various evening chores of fetching water and cleaning lamps, we would
say Peace, son or Im out, phrases we had picked up from the rap lyrics.
Outside, the evening music of birds and crickets would commence.
On the morning that we left for Mattru Jong, we loaded our backpacks with
notebooks of lyrics we were working on and stuffed our pockets with cassettes of
rap albums. In those days we wore baggy jeans, and underneath them we had soccer
shorts and sweatpants for dancing. Under our long-sleeved shirts we had
sleeveless undershirts, T-shirts, and soccer jerseys. We wore three pairs of
socks that we pulled down and folded to make our crapes* look puffy. When it got
too hot in the day, we took some of the clothes off and carried them on our
shoulders. They were fashionable, and we had no idea that this unusual way of
dressing was going to benefit us. Since we intended to return the next day, we
didnt say goodbye or tell anyone where we were going. We didnt know that we
were leaving home, never to return.
To save money, we decided to walk the sixteen miles to Mattru Jong. It was a
beautiful summer day, the sun wasnt too hot, and the walk didnt 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 grandmothers 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
kamorteacher, as everyone called himwas 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
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 Khalilous 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 Khalilous 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 couldnt 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 didnt 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 couldnt 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
As we walked to our little brothers 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
He seems all right. I saw him this afternoon, I replied. Junior didnt say
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
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 brothers small
round face glowed, and sweat formed around the creases he had on his neck, just
like my mothers. All four of us walked to Mothers house. I held my little
brothers 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
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 brothers
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, Grandmothers 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 Grandmothers 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 didnt go that far. My heart pounded and my breathing intensified.
The vehicle stopped in front of my grandmothers 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 drivers 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 drivers, a woman who was leaning against it fell
to the ground. Blood was coming out of her ears. People covered the eyes of
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 couldnt. 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.
The wind had stopped moving and daylight seemed to be quickly giving in to
night. As sunset neared, more people passed through the village. One man carried
his dead son. He thought the boy was still alive. The father was covered with
his sons blood, and as he ran he kept saying, I will get you to the hospital,
my boy, and everything will be fine. Perhaps it was necessary that he cling to
false hopes, since they kept him running away from harm. A group of men and
women who had been pierced by stray bullets came running next. The skin that
hung down from their bodies still contained fresh blood. Some of them didnt
notice that they were wounded until they stopped and people pointed to their
wounds. Some fainted or vomited. I felt nauseated, and my head was spinning. I
felt the ground moving, and peoples voices seemed to be far removed from where
I stood trembling.
The last casualty that we saw that evening was a woman who carried her baby
on her back. Blood was running down her dress and dripping behind her, making a
trail. Her child had been shot dead as she ran for her life. Luckily for her,
the bullet didnt go through the babys body. When she stopped at where we
stood, she sat on the ground and removed her child. It was a girl, and her eyes
were still open, with an interrupted innocent smile on her face. The bullets
could be seen sticking out just a little bit in the babys body and she was
swelling. The mother clung to her child and rocked her. She was in too much pain
and shock to shed tears.
Junior, Talloi, and I looked at each other and knew that we must return to
Mattru Jong, because we had seen that Mogbwemo was no longer a place to call
home and that our parents couldnt possibly be there anymore. Some of the
wounded people kept saying that Kabati was next on the rebels list. We didnt
want to be there when the rebels arrived. Even those who couldnt walk very well
did their best to keep moving away from Kabati. The image of that woman and her
baby plagued my mind as we walked back to Mattru Jong. I barely noticed the
journey, and when I drank water I didnt feel any relief even though I knew I
was thirsty. I didnt want to go back to where that woman was from; it was clear
in the eyes of the baby that all had been lost.
Excerpted from A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah.
Copyright © 2007 by Ishmael Beah. Published in February 2007 by Sarah Crichton
Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.