A Long Way Gone: Novel Summary: Chapter 11 - Chapter 15
After they leave the village they are all still grieving for Saidu, but they know they cannot grieve for long because they must continue to focus on their own survival. They are hopeful that they will be reunited with their families in the next village they reach. That night they walk through the forest in a thunderstorm.
When they reach the village they meet a man Ishmael knows from his hometown. The man’s name is Ngor Gasemu. Ngor Gasemu gets Ishmael and his friends to carry some bananas into the village for him. He says that Ishmael’s parents and brother are there and will be pleased to see him. Ishmael is excited. They reach a river and then climb a hill. But as they go downhill, and are almost at the village, they hear gunshots followed by screams. Then everything goes quiet. After hiding for a while they continue to the village and find that it is on fire. There are many corpses of people who have been shot. Ishmael runs around trying to identify any of the dead whom he might have known. But he cannot recognize anyone. Gasemu points out to him the house where his family had been living. Ishmael rushes into the smoke-filled house but can find no one, living or dead. Upset, confused, and frustrated, Ishmael lashes out at Gasemu, thinking that, had Gasemu not delayed him, he would have been in the village earlier and would have found his parents. Gasemu protests that he did not know the attack was going to happen.
Ishmael’s friends are equally distraught and begin fighting with one another. Then they hear people approaching the village and they run to the nearby coffee farm. A group of more than ten rebels walk by and then sit on the ground where they boast of their exploits that day. Two of the rebels are only a little older than Ishmael. The rebels smoke marijuana, play cards and talk about how they have burned three villages that day. They are most happy when they leave no one in the villages alive.
One of the boys in Ishmael’s group moves, and the coffee leaves make a sound. The rebels are suddenly on the alert and aim their guns. Gasemu and the boys get up and start running into the forest while the rebels fire at them. The boys run for hours in the forest. The rebels chase them but they escape. But Gasemu has been hit twice by bullets. The boys carry him as they walk on but soon after midday on the following day Gasemu dies. That night Ishmael sits by Gasemu’s body, crying. He is unable to sleep.
The boys walk for days. But one day they are confronted by armed soldiers who take them on a boat on a river,. They see corpses by the side of the river, and there is a gun battle in which Ishmael sees another man die. The soldiers let the boys off at Yele, a village that is controlled and occupied by rebel soldiers. At first, it seems as if they boys have found safety there. They stay in a big house and help in the kitchen. Ishmael enjoys going to the river and washing dishes. This activity distracts him from his disturbing thoughts, which give him severe headaches.
The soldiers mingle with the villagers, and some of them play soccer with the boys. At night, four of Ishmael’s five friends play marbles on the cement floor under moonlight. Ishmael sits in the corner on his own. The horrific sights he has witnessed give him nightmares.
One day the easy atmosphere in the village changes. It seems as if something is about to take place. The soldiers are drilled during the day and at night most of them leave the village. Ten soldiers are left behind to guard the place. There is the distant sound of gunshots, and in the morning only a few of the soldiers are able to make it back to the village. They are clearly disturbed by what they have been through.
A group of twenty more soldiers arrives. They prepare during the day and go off to fight at night. The gunshots are getting closer, and more soldiers are being killed. Prisoners are brought back, only to be lined up and shot. This goes on for many days.
Eventually, the soldiers’ leader, Lieutenant Jabati, gets everyone to assemble in the village square. He says that the village is surrounded by the enemy who want to capture the village so they can take the food and ammunition. He appeals for men and boys to volunteer to join the fight.
That evening, Ishmael and his friends consider what they will do. They decide that it is too risky to try to escape from the village.
The next day the lieutenant calls everyone to the square again. He shows them two dead bodies, that of a man and a young boy who had tried to leave the village even though the man had been warned that it would be too dangerous. The rebels killed them both. The lieutenant goes on to talk about the many atrocities that the rebels have committed. He says that they do not deserve to live and must all be killed. He tells all the men and boys to report to the ammunition depot. When Ishmael and his friends get there, there about thirty boys there, most between the age of thirteen and sixteen, although Kanei is now seventeen. Two of the boys, Sheku and Joshua, are age seven and eleven, respectively.
They begin training at six the following morning. Led by Corporal Gadafi, they learn how to crawl in the bushes and are handed AK-47 assault rifles. Ishmael is frightened. The only gun he has ever had was a toy gun when he was seven. They continue the training exercise, carrying the heavy guns on their backs. Then they practice stabbing banana trees with bayonets. In the evening, they learn how to fire the guns.
Analysis, chapters 11-12
This is where Ishmael’s life as a child soldier (he is still only thirteen) begins. He has been conscripted into the government army, not that of the rebel RUF. Ishmael has no choice but to do what he is told. The lieutenant and corporal motivate their new recruits by continually reminding them that the rebels killed their parents and they must be ruthless.
Accounts of the civil war in Sierra Leone usually state that the rebels, the RUF, used child soldiers more than the government army. But as Ishmael’s story shows, the government forces also recruited children. And as the story continues, it will become apparent that each side is equally brutal, committing unspeakable atrocities. At the beginning of chapter 12, Ishmael nearly vomits when he sees a badly injured soldier, which is the reaction that anyone might have. But another soldier tells him “You will get used to it, everybody does eventually” (p. 100). This suggests the horrors that are still to come.
The difference between the two opposing armies, on the evidence up to this point in A Long Way Gone, is that while the rebels kill civilians, the government forces attack only rebel soldiers. When Ishmael is first taken to Yele, for example, the atmosphere there is harmonious. Government forces control the village but the villagers are allowed to peacefully go about their business.
The book is at its halfway point but up to this point Ishmael and his friends have been traveling to escape the conflict. Now they are caught up in it and become part of it, and there is no escape for them.
The horror of recruiting children as soldiers is vividly shown in the brief pictures Beah gives of Sheku and Joshua. The guns are too heavy for them to carry and they keep dropping them. When it comes to learning how to use the guns, they are not strong enough to lift them, so they are given high stools to stop the guns from falling.
One Sunday the boys are told they are about to go out on their first armed mission. The corporal gives them green headbands and tells them that if they encounter anyone who is not wearing one of the same color, or a helmet like the corporal’s, they must shoot him. Ishmael and his friends make a pact that they will try to stay together.
They set off, the adult soldiers leading the way. Josiah and Shekuh have a hard time; the guns they carry are taller than they are. Ishmael is terrified but he tries to hide the tears that form in his eyes. They lie down near a swamp and prepare to ambush the enemy. When the rebels appear, the lieutenant orders a grenade to be fired. The rebel commander orders a retreat, and a gun battle begins. Many soldiers are killed, and Ishmael is spattered with blood. Josiah is shot and killed. Ishmael stands to carry his body away, but the corporal tells him to get down and shoot. He shoots and kills a man. His friend Musa is shot and killed. Ishmael’s squad takes the guns and ammunition from the dead and forms another ambush. More rebels come, and Ishmael plays his part in the shooting that follows. Many are killed.
They return to the village at night and clean the blood off their guns. Ishmael is numb from the events of the day. That night he has a nightmare. He wakes up and begins shooting inside the tent. The corporal and lieutenant take him outside and give him more of a drug, in the form of a white tablet, that all the soldiers are given before they go out to fight. Ishmael does not sleep for a week, and takes part in two more military expeditions.
During the days, Ishmael take his turn guarding the village. He smokes marijuana and sniffs a combination of cocaine and gunpowder. This is in addition to the white tablets. These give him a lot of energy and he is addicted to them. At night they watch war movies. They also raid rebel camps to replenish their supplies. Ishmael has adjusted to his new life. He writes that “killing had become as easy as drinking water” (p. 122). He is angry at the rebels and has no remorse about killing them. He shoots as many as he can. After they have killed the rebels in a village, they force civilians to carry their loot back to the base. Sometimes they take prisoners and often shoot them. Like the rebels, they torch the villages after they have taken their supplies.
The lieutenant makes a speech to the villagers, saying he and his men are there to protect them. He says the rebels kill for no reason, but he and his men are defending the country in what they do.
Ishmael feels fine about what he is doing. He is pleased because he is no longer running away, and he is a member of a group that values him. He and the others spend all their time “either at the front lines, watching a war movie, or doing drugs” (p. 124).
The day after the lieutenant’s speech Ishmael and Kanei take part in a contest to see who can kill a prisoner the quickest. Ishmael slits the throat of a prisoner, who dies almost immediately. Ishmael wins the contest, and Kanei is second. Ishmael is promoted to junior lieutenant, and Kanei to junior sergeant. They all celebrate with drugs and war movies.
Analysis, chapters 13-14
In these two chapters, Ishmael makes the transition from being a frightened boy to a war-hardened, brutal soldier. When he sets off on his first mission, he says he was “never . . . so afraid to go anywhere in my life as I was that day” (p. 116). That day he kills for the first time and also sees his friend Musa killed. By the end of chapter 14, he has become a merciless killer. When he kills the prisoner, he “didn’t feel a thing for him, didn’t think that much about what I was doing” (p. 124). He simply believes what he as been told, that all the rebels are responsible for the deaths of his family. Killing has become a way of life for him. The drugs he and his fellow soldiers take not only give him continuous physical energy but also make him aggressive and warlike.
Despite what the lieutenant of Ishmael’s squad says, that the government forces are morally superior to the rebels, the reader may see little difference between the two armies. The government forces attack villages, incur civilian casualties, and force civilians to join their army. They torch villages and kill prisoners.
Ishmael says that during this time nothing existed in his mind save war, drugs, war movies, and killing. After being severed from his family and community and wandering around for months with his friends like lost boys, he has finally found another group to identify with. But it is a group dedicated to fighting and killing, not to nourishing life. At this point Ishmael is still a child of only thirteen or fourteen.
Ishmael writes that his life went on like this for two years. It just became normal for him. But in January 1996, when he is fifteen years old, things change. One morning that month he and twenty other soldiers walk to the small town of Bauya to get ammunition. Ishmael, Alhaji, and Kanei are pleased to meet up again with Jumah, who is stationed in Bauya. The following morning, Jumah goes off on a raid.
Later that morning, a UNICEF truck arrives with four men. Ishmael and fifteen other boy soldiers are told to lay down their weapons. The lieutenant tells them they are being taken away. They will be put in school and helped to find another way of life. The boys do not know what is happening and are upset. They think of the squad as their family. Ishmael is angry at losing his gun.
The boys get in the truck. The ride lasts for hours. Ishmael is restless and thinks about trying to hijack the truck. He and Alhaji plan to take a gun from one of the soldiers accompanying them. They reach a crowded city, and Ishmael knows it is Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city.
They enter a fenced compound and see boys their own age sitting on the verandahs of houses. They are shown into one house where there are rows of beds and then taken to the kitchen to eat. The boys eat but then want to know where they can get some drugs. Another group of twenty boys arrives, and they sit on the opposite side of the dining table. A fight nearly breaks out, until each group learns that they were both on the same side in the war. They exchange information, but no one knows why they have been taken away from the fighting.
Ishmael makes friends with a boy called Mambu. He, Mambu and Alhaji start a conversation with some boys who are sitting on a verandah. It transpires that these boys are former rebels, and a fight breaks out. The boys use bayonets and knives. Five men including three MPs (city soldiers) try to break up the fight, but the boys overwhelm them and take their guns. Mambu shoots several of the rebel boys. The rebels shoot two boys on the other side.
When the MPs finally manage to break up the fight, six boys are dead and several wounded. Mambu, Ishmael and the others go to the kitchen and talk about their exploits.
Later they are taken by military vehicles to Benin Home, a rehabilitation on the outskirts of the city.