Beyond the Book: Background information when reading A Long Way Gone

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A Long Way Gone

Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

by Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2007, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2008, 240 pages

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The Republic of Sierra Leone is a small country with a population of about 5.3 million on the west coast of Africa bordered by Guinea and Liberia. The life expectancy of men is 39 years and women 42 years. The name is an adaptation of the Portuguese, "serra leoa" (lion mountains). During the 18th century it was an important center for the slave trade. In the late 18th century, British abolitionists and the Sierra Leone Company founded Freetown as a home for Black Britons* and in 1808 the country became the first British colony in Africa. By 1821 Freetown was the seat of government for all British colonies in West Africa.

Sierra Leone gained its independence in 1961. In 1967 a military coup deposed Premier Siaka Stevens' government; a year later Stevens returned to power following another military coup. In 1978 Stevens declared a "one-party" state with himself as the leader of the one party. In 1985 Major-General Joseph Saidu Momoh became president following Stevens' retirement and promptly declared a state of economic emergency.

Civil war broke out in 1991 and a new multi-party constitution was adopted the same year; a year later President Momoh was ousted in a military coup led by Captain Strasser; four years later Strasser was ousted in a military coup led by his defense minister. Soon after a peace deal was signed with the rebels; but that unraveled soon after. In 1997 the UN Security Council imposed sanctions against Sierra Leone barring the supply of arms and petroleum products, but a plentiful supply of naturally occurring diamonds ("blood diamonds") ensured Sierra Leone a continuous source of tradeable goods with which to buy arms.

After 8 years a ceasefire was achieved in 1999 and UN troops arrived to police the agreement, but the peace did not last and UN forces came under attack with several hundred UN troops abducted in 2000 - British forces mounted an operation to rescue the hostages and the rebel leader was captured. In 2002, peace was eventually established and by 2004 17,000 foreign troops had disarmed more than 70,000 soldiers including many boy-soldiers. In 2002 it was estimated that 2/3rd of the population had been displaced by the conflict, 75,000 killed, and many thousands more had been raped or had had limbs amputated by machetes in a systematic terror campaign.

*Black Britons (or Black Loyalists) was the term used to describe former North American slaves or free blacks who joined the British Army against the colonists in the American Revolutionary War.


Child Soldiers (from The Human Rights Watch)

  • An estimated 200-300,000 children, some as young as 8-years-old, are currently serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces in more than 33 countries (list).
  • Technological advances in weaponry and the proliferation of small arms have contributed to the increased use of child soldiers.
  • Both girls and boys are used as child soldiers. In case studies in El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Uganda, almost a third of the child soldiers were reported to be girls. Girls may be raped, or in some cases, given to military commanders as "wives."
  • Once recruited, child soldiers may serve as porters or cooks, guards, messengers or spies. Many are pressed into combat, where they may be forced to the front lines or sent into minefields ahead of older troops. Some children have been used for suicide missions.
  • Children are sometimes forced to commit atrocities against their own family or neighbors. Such practices help ensure that the child is "stigmatized" and unable to return to his or her home community.
  • Many former child soldiers do not have access to the educational programs, vocational training, family reunification, or even food and shelter that they need to successfully rejoin civilian society. As a result, many end up on the street, become involved in crime, or are drawn back into armed conflict.
  • In 2000, governments from around the world agreed on a new international treaty to prohibit the use of children as combatants. The new child soldiers protocol establishes 18 as the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities, for compulsory recruitment, and for any recruitment or use in hostilities by non-governmental armed groups (formerly the age cutoff was 15). As of April 2004, 115 countries have signed the new protocol, and 71 countries had ratified it. Whether it makes any difference remains to be seen.

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This article was originally published in February 2007, and has been updated for the August 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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