Study Guide: A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah: Book Summary

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One Sunday morning, the corporal gives them the day off. He says, “If you are religious, I mean a Christian, worship your Lord today, because you might not have another chance.” The boys go to the square and play soccer and later go to the river to swim. Then, the corporal suddenly appears and calls them back. In the square, they are told to quickly service their guns and then to pack up ammunition, nit taking too much so they can run fast. Some of the boys continue to laugh and play, thinking this is just more training. However, Ishmael begins to shake, because he knows this is the real thing. The lieutenant has them all stand up for inspection and then hands them all green head ties, telling them, “If you see anyone without a head tie of this color or a helmet like mine, shoot him.” They then sit down on the ground to wait, their thoughts wandering into their own feelings. Sheku and Josiah sit close to Ishmael, their eyes watery and dull, and all he can do is rub their heads in reassurance.

A soldier comes by with a plastic bag with some kind of white capsules that every one of the boys is told to take to “boost their energy.” They are given no food or water, because they are supposed to come back that evening and they need the room for ammunition. Water will be readily available in streams in the forest. They then rise and set off into the clearing and then the forest. Ishmael hears a baby crying uncontrollably as they leave as if he knows what lies ahead of them.

Ishmael has never been afraid to go anywhere as much as he is afraid to go on this military raid. However, he moves on through the bushes with the rest, until he comes to the edge of a swamp where the group sets up an ambush. Tears begin rolling down Ishmael’s cheeks as they wait for the rebels to appear, and yet he is not crying. Then, the swamp begins to shake as the rebels appear. The lieutenant orders an RPG to be fired, but the commander of the rebels hears the sound and orders a retreat. As a result, they only kill a few of the rebels. This is followed by an exchange of gunfire from both sides, but Ishmael is unable to shoot. Everything seems turned upside down, and he clutches a tree with one hand. He feels like he is falling into some sort of nightmare while blood hits his face. He has his mouth open when it happens and even tastes the blood. Then, he hears Josiah scream and cry for his mother in the most painfully piercing voice Ishmael has ever hear. Bodies begin to pile on top of each other as Ishmael searches for the little boy. When he finds him, he realizes that an RPG had blown him into the air, and the child had landed on top of a tree stump. He crawls to the boy and looks into his eyes until the light goes out of them and he dies. He pulls the body from the tree stump and sees that Josiah’s backbone had been shattered. He stands there in agony himself as he looks at the little boy.

Then, from somewhere near, Ishmael hears a voice screaming for him to get down and shoot. Ishmael turns toward the voice and sees Musa, his friend and the storyteller, lying on the ground with blood on his head and his hands too relaxed. It is too much for Ishmael. Everything is covered in blood, so he raises his gun and begins pulling the trigger. He kills one man, and he is reminded of all the massacres he has seen in this war, and he begins to shoot in rage. He shoots everything that moves until they are ordered to retreat to set up another strategy. They take the guns and ammunition from the bodies of the dead and leave them there in the forest. To Ishmael, it is as if the forest has taken on a life of its own, as if it has trapped the injured souls that have departed from the dead. The branches of the tress look as if they are holding hands and bowing in prayer.

They set up another ambush and damage another rebel group badly. The rest of the rebels run off and the soldiers are unable to catch them. They take the guns and ammunition from the rebel body. Ishmael is not afraid of these bodies. He despises them and kicks them. The rebels are all wearing jewelry and watches they have stolen from civilians and one boy wears a Tupac Shakur tee shirt with blood soaking his hair. The shirt says, “All eyes on me.”

When they arrive in the village, they are silent and begin cleaning and oiling their own guns and the ones they have taken from the rebels. Ishmael feels nothing but a void in his head and when he dozes off and dreams that, as he finds Josiah’s body, a rebel soldier comes to stand over him and holds a rifle barrel to his head. The nightmare makes him begin shooting 30 round of his ammunition in the tent. The corporal and the lieutenant come in and throw water on his face and give him another white capsule. Ishmael can’t sleep the rest of the night or the rest of the week. They go out in ambushes two more times that week, but Ishmael has no problem firing his gun.


In this chapter, Ishmael has his first taste of war as a soldier. It is ugly and mind numbing. But he learns to put the the fears and the blood and the screams behind him and shoot his rifle.

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