Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Lost Boys

If I say “lost boys”, do you think “Peter Pan” or “Sudan”? After reading A Long Way Gone Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah you may also think “Sierra Leone”. Beah, now 28, was born and lived in Sierra Leone until he was 18 when he moved to New York. There he finished high school and graduated from Oberlin College. He has written this book in part to expiate the demons that have followed him since he was trapped in the civil war in his home country starting when he was 12. At first impression you may think the connection between Barrie’s boys and Beah tenuous but remember that an early scene of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan is their attempt to shoot Wendy with a bow and arrow after Tinker Bell tells them Wendy is a bird, and convinces them that killing her would bring great favor with Peter. Replace the bow and arrow with an AK-47.

Beah says he has always had a photographic memory. Surely many of the scenes he describes are so horrific as to be unforgettable to anyone. One of the most shocking aspects was the constant use of drugs including cocaine and marijuana by the children. Perhaps that explains in part how they were able to survive the atrocities to which they were witness and in which they acted.

At the age of 16, Beah came under the auspices of UNICEF for “rehabilitation”. Those chapters of the book are equally compelling in their portraits of Beah’s drug withdrawal and the start of his emotional healing.

While this experience is, on the one hand, another example of “man’s inhumanity to man” and to children, it is also a compelling testament to the resilience of those same children. This particular child has grown up to be an articulate and dedicated spokesperson for all children affected by war. Unfortunately there are still far too many children in various countries who continue to suffer the effects of ongoing wars. Far from being trapping in a never ending fantasy of make-believe, these children like Beah are losing a childhood that cannot be reclaimed.

Since its publication, several Australian journalists have made an aggressive challenge to some of the events and the timeline of this memoir. You can read more about the dispute at Wherever the truth lies, this book has brought well-deserved attention to the serious and on-going problem of child soldiers. It is well worth your time.

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