Fight or flight

Being young, desperate and defenseless

Last year, film critic David Denby gushed in the New Yorker about Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond. Set in Sierra Leone during a horrific civil war, the film is a romantic drama about an American journalist and a South African diamond smuggler. Despite a great performance by Djimon Hounsou, African characters, including Hounsou's, are little more than a backdrop of human depravity, used to highlight the white protagonists — played by Jennifer Connelly and Leonardo DiCaprio, as they descend to new depths of angst.

That might sound reductive, but one doesn't need a degree in postcolonial theory to understand what a problematic cliché it is. Africans bleed, white folks have existential crises. The setting could be Sierra Leone in 1994 or Luke Skywalker's Tatooine in, say, 2242 — what's the difference? Denby's critical acumen has gone down in this critic's estimation. That's why reading Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone is a welcome relief. It's a memoir of the same conflict Zwick so thoughtlessly ransacked, written by someone who experienced it firsthand.

Unless you've endured a civil war, it's probably impossible to understand what Beah went through. From the age of 12 to 15, he was as a fugitive from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which attacked his village and later killed his family. At age 13, he was recruited into the army of the Sierra Leone government. He was hardly an anomaly as a child solider.

The simplicity of Beah's prose belies the horrors he's experienced. He recounts episodes of killing people and fleeing looted villages, of rapes and murders in broad daylight.

However, be-tween the atrocities are moments that underline the madness of being young, desperate and defenseless.

Here's a short list of what can be considered the "lighter side" of his pre-soldier wanderings:

• Being chased into trees by packs of wild boars.

• Sleeping in trees for safety.

• Being rounded up (and bound up) with a half dozen refugee children in a coastal village. There, the chief demands to hear Beah's hip-hop tape. While Naughty By Nature's "OPP" fails to impress him, at least Beah is spared execution.

Strange then that these adventures are sometimes more frightening than the war itself; perhaps because being alone in the jungle fleeing feral pigs is easier to envision than a brigade of middle-schoolers shooting up a village. As Beah said, he quickly lost compassion for anyone and could shoot a person as easily as one might recycle a can of Coke.

Like most other young conscripts, Beah became addicted to "brown brown," a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder popular among his comrades. An interesting parallel between Beah's war experience and that of Anthony Swofford, whose Gulf War memoir Jarhead was made into a somewhat forgettable film, is the reliance on another sort of narcotic: war movies. In both cases, soldiers watched Hollywood war films like porn, to get psyched for a good day's killing. Unlike Swofford, who saw combat but didn't kill anyone, Beah shot people and celebrated with his friends.

A Long Way Gone doesn't delve into the politics of the civil war. In Beah's wartime view, the rebels either destroyed your village or they were about to. It's not hard to understand Beah's decision to fight, though, as it wasn't much of a decision. Without a family, much less a meal plan, the army is a place where you can, if nothing else, stop running.

From a safer perspective, the enemy is anyone who turns children into killing machines. As he'd later learn, both factions peddled the same logic to their child soldiers "Over and over in our training he would say the same sentence: 'Visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you.'"

There is a happy ending. Beah is chosen to be part of a United Nations panel on child soldiers. He travels to New York City and, years later, is adopted by a woman he meets there. He goes on to graduate from Oberlin College, an elite private college in Ohio.

How does he make sense of these starkly different realities? What does a young man do with childhood memories few adults can handle? Maybe we'll find out in another book. Beah doesn't wrap up his life in a neat bow, as well he shouldn't: It's far from over.

John Dicker reviews books for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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