Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Review--A Long Way Gone

I picked up a book for almost nothing at the Cat's Meow thrift store in Corvallis a few weeks ago.  I read it immediately.  Visit the book's website by clicking here.

The book is the autobiography of a child soldier in Sierra Leone.  When Ishmael is only 12, he has gone off with a few friends to visit another village, a 16 mile walk.  They are children.  The revolt, rebel armies against the government troops, seems distant although he has heard of the conflict.  But that day, the war comes to Ishmael.

 His village is struck by rebels while he is away.  They rush back, hoping to find their families, hiding in the forest when they hear gunshots.  They find only dead bodies and people dying.  The wounds of the dying are described graphically.  They are spared time and time again, often merely by luck, from death at the hands of the rebels.  But most villagers are not so lucky.  The rebels capture villages, but if the villagers get wind of their approach they will flea.  The rebels want the villagers to remain in the villages as human shields against attack by government soldiers.  When villagers try to flea, they are shot and sometimes tortured first before being killed.

The boys run, from village to village, they traverse the jungle, in search of food and safety.  They are feared themselves, sometimes denied help, because boys in this region are often soldiers for one side of the other, and very dangerous.

Ishmael, the author, describes being separated from his brother, after one village where they have taken refuge, is attacked.  He runs into the forest, becomes lost and finally joins up with a group of six other young boys, also fleeing the violence.  But seven young boys are considered suspicious and dangerous.  It is hard on them.  They end up on the coast at last, but are driven from a village running for their lives because the villagers fear them.  First they are stripped of their shoes, and quickly burn the bottoms of their feet on the scorching sand, until they can go no further.  They find a fishing hut, and a young man from the village provides them refuge until their feet heal, until they are discovered and taken back to the village.  They are questioned and about to be set loose without clothing on the ocean to die when the village elder finds one of Ishmael rap tapes still in his pocket.  Ishmael and his friends had left his home village on that 16 mile walk to attend a talent show, where they performed often, the songs of American rap artists.  Now, on the verge of death at the hands of a paranoid village, he is asked to perform for the elder, and to dance.  He does and they are spared, allowed to leave alive.

Eventually, he and his friends are captured by government soldiers who provide them refuge in their village base.  But quickly, they understand they are there to become soldiers and defend the village, surrounded at that time, by rebels.  They are trained briefly and given AK47's that some of his friends can barely carry, as the guns are bigger than they are.  In the first battle, one friend is blown up against a tree.  He watches him die.  The descriptions of the dying are very graphic.  Big holes leaking blood.  Faces torn half off.  Hands vibrating as the last oxygen leaves the body.  The sickly sweet sticky smell of blood everywhere.

After his friend is killed before his eyes, Ishmael becomes a killer.  The children spend off hours in a tent watching American war movies, like Rambo.  They all want to be like Rambo.  They are given drugs, some a mixture of stimulants and gun powder, which they snort, along with cocaine.  They raid villages and rebel bases to get ammunition, guns, supplies and drugs.  All the soldiers are drug addicts quickly and ruthless killers.

At one point, Ishmael, now also known as the Green Snake, and his friends are in a competition to see who can slash a prisoner's throat so that he dies the quickest.  The winner gets a promotion.  Ishmael stands behind the prisoner he is to kill and quickly deftly slashes his throat, so that he dies.  He wins is promoted to leader of a squad.  Once, when they attack a village, one friend tells him to wait, that he wants to try out his Rambo moves.  He has smeared mud on his face and enters the village with only a knife between his teeth to kill the guards.  After that, his nickname is little Rambo.  Always they are high on many drugs and stay up many many days high, mainly talking about how good the drugs are.

At one point, Ishmael is shot in the foot in a battle.  He survives, although they must carry him back to their old base camp to get medicine.  The bulleta are pulled out while is awake, only drugged up on cocaine and other street drugs.  Later, they capture four rebels involved in the attack where his foot was shot and he is told "these are the ones who shot you."  They shoot the rebels in the feet and let them suffer four days before they kill them by burying them alive.

Suddenly, one day, a UNICEF truck pulls into base camp and there is much talk, then the boys  are lined up and names are read and the people with those names asked to step forward.  Ishmael is one asked to step forward.  They are loaded into the UNICEF truck while the boys wonder what is happening.  Their commander tells them their service is no longer needed and their weapons are taken from them.  What is happening is that UNICEF is "liberating" boy soldiers and taking them to a rehabilitation center.

Unfortunately, there, both rebel boy soldiers and government boy soldiers are housed together and fights break out and several boys are maimed while others are killed, so they are separated.  Then Ishmael undergoes a very long rehabilitation that first must include withdrawal from all the drugs.  They take to sneaking off to Freetown and wandering the big city.  They steal supplies from the center and sell them on the black market.  Always they are told "None of this is your fault."  Over and over by every staff member, they are told that, no matter what they do.  At first, the words make them very angry.  They loved being soldiers and consider this "sissy life".  Gradually some like Ishmael see things could be different.  His family is dead but an uncle with several children is found alive and living in Freetown.  The uncle begins to visit him every week and finally he goes home with him.

After that, Ishmael is visited by a man from the rehab center who asks he fill out forms and compete to go to New York and speak to the UN about child soldiers.  He doesn't think he will be chosen but he is and makes the long journey to America with many other children.  He is shocked by how cold it is in NY city and also surprised the streets are not full of violence, as he had imagined from listening to American rap music.  He has an emotional time at the convention, meeting children from many other countries, many of whom are returning to terribly unsafe conditions.  He meets a NY woman who has been crucial in arranging this conference and works hard to try to stop children from being abducted into soldiering.

Once he is back at Freetown with his uncle's family, the war comes to Freetown, both rebels and government soldiers have joined together now, to mainly loot and kill.  There is nowhere safe.  His uncle dies.  His aunt is too frightened to know what to do, to save her children.  Ishmael faces serious repercussions if he is recognized as a former soldier for the government.  He decides to try to make it out to Guinee.  He rides a bus so far, then all the passengers hide along the road, to wait for another bus.  Bribes must be paid at every turn.  Ishmael has called the only person he feels can save him--the American woman who tries to stop child soldiering.  She has offered him sanctuary with her, if he can make it to New York.

Ishmael makes it out.  Few ever do.  He wrote the book when 26 years old.  He moved to New York when he was 18 from Freetown, Sierra Leone, Africa.

This is a graphic book about how people in war torn corrupt countries live and die, how their peaceful and normal lives are disrupted by people of violence, on both sides of a conflict and how both sides are really the same, that violence is violence, whether one is carrying one flag or another flag and how violence destroys and does not build.

The UNICEF rehabilitation camps were long suffering.  Boys who attacked staff or other boys were still told "None of this is your fault."  Some came out of the camps completely changed back into the people they were before they were swept up into the awful violence, but many never changed or were taken back into the violence.  Maybe we need more forgiveness here, of our own young, swept into violence due to unavoidable circumstance and the nature of the adults surrounding them.

Our damaged soldiers, returning home with memories they cannot bear, maybe we should be telling them, over and over again "None of this is your fault."

The book paints a disturbing picture of violence and drugs and corruption and its affects on everyday people and on children.  It makes me want to kiss the ground of America.  We can't let such violence take over here.  Violence destroys.  It does not build up.  Violence should be resorted to only in the most dangerous of self-defense situations.  Violence should not be celebrated.

Boys and men seem genetically routed to fight.  In the genes, as one would say.  You only have to see so many big male cats squaring off to know this.  Testosterone is a dangerous drug.  I've seen the news documentaries of young men headed off to war eager to face off with the enemy up close and fight and kill them.  Some love it even after seeing the horrors of death and suffering and watching friends die.  Then they're damaged and come home and want comforted.   

I read about one Viet Nam vet who signed up for another tour after his first and talked about how there was nothing like the thrill of hunting humans.  But then he was badly maimed and joined the anti war movement.

The military recruiter who used to live on the block introduced himself then said  he wanted to tell me straight up he loves war, just loves it, that there's nothing like it.  He wanted me to know that immediately.  He couldn't wait to be reassigned in a "hot" zone.

So there are these stories, of the horrors, the desires of many to stop it, but fighting seems to be in the nature of men.  How to mitigate that violence so as not to destroy the lives of those who want nothing to do with death, suffering and destruction.  How to deal with the consequences of those who once loved violence, then were damaged and now want compassion and support, even from those they have harmed?  I don't know.

I don't remember the book Forest People that well I read it so long ago.  It's about the pygmy culture.  I believe they had controlled war games, with other tribes that went on until one died.  If my memory serves me, I believe that is how they resolved the issue of male violence drive.  

Our culture mitigates male competitive, comparative violence somewhat through capitalism, competitions of every kind, sports.  If the middle eastern cultures and African nations offered healthier outlets for male competitive fighting urges like business competition and sports, would there be less violence and unrest?

Male violence in nature is simply evolution's way of ensuring the physically strongest males are left alive to mate and get the biggest territories.  It ensures the survival of the species!  Unfortunately, diseases like FIV in cats, caught and spread by the biggest baddest fighting males, have turned this time honored survival strategy on its head.  Now, the males most unlikely to fight are the ones most likely to survive.

And we as humans are unlikely to survive as a species with the development of weapons of mass destruction.  It no longer takes physical strength to fight.  You can push a button, build a bomb, make a vile of deadly chemicals, and kill massive numbers of "rivals".  The definition of strongest has certainly changed in our species too.  Violence is now an enemy of survival of the species.

Distant violence is probably safer as a means of controlling threats to our safety here--the likes of targeted drone strikes, missiles, bombs dropped from far away, can kill real threats without inflicting massive peripheral damage, on the enemy and on the psyche of the killer and those he or she encounters later.

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