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

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Ishmael says, “My squad is my family, my gun is my provider, and protector, and my rule is to kill or be killed.” His childhood has gone by without his knowing and it seems as if his heart has frozen. However, everything is about to change in January 1996. He is fifteen years old.

He, Alhaji, Kanai, and twenty members of his squad leave one morning for Bauya, a small town a day’s walk away. They are excited to see Jumah, who is stationed there. Ishmael is also looking forward to seeing the lieutenant who might find some time to talk about Shakespeare. They find Jumah sitting in a hammock on the verandah of a cement house. His face seems older and he no longer nods nervously as he talks. Later that night, they gather in the yard at the center of town where it is a social event for the commanders to mingle with everyone else. Ishmael is amazed at his lieutenant who has managed to stay alive even after most of his commander friends have been killed. He recites some of Macbeth for Ishmael, but doesn’t stay to talk. Nonetheless, they all salute him and sing the national anthem in his honor.

The next day, Jumah leaves on a raid. An hour later, a strange truck enters the village with the letters of UNICEF on its side. They men inside the truck, including two foreigners, sits down on the verandah of the lieutenant’s house and talk to him for a long time. After that, all the boys are called together to form a line before the lieutenant’s house. He tells them that he is proud of their service to their country, but that now their work there is done and he must send them off. They then go along the line and choose certain boys, including Ishmael and Kanei. However, Alhaji is not chosen, because he is older. Ishmael hides a bayonet and a grenade in his pants and wonders like the other boys why the lieutenant has decided to give them up. He becomes even further angry and anxious when he has his rifle taken from him. He has had it for all this time and has never been parted from it. The chosen boys are led to the UNICEF truck which is guarded by MPs – city soldiers who have clean uniforms and have never been to war. Ishmael just continues to boil with anger. Nothing makes sense.

They ride in the UNICEF truck for hours and go through many checkpoints. Throughout the ride, Ishmael is amazed by the city soldiers who have no clue as to what’s really happening in the bushes in the entire country. Soon, Ishmael becomes aware that they are in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, but he still doesn’t know why. They enter a fenced-in compound that has several rows of houses whose verandas are filled with boys their age. They are taken to one of these houses and given beds and clean clothes. This is followed with bowls of rice that they gobble down. New boys soon enter the kitchen and Ishmael knows they are real soldiers, because he can smell the forest on them.

At this point, the boys begin looking for anyone who might have drugs. Then, Alhaji asks where the new boys are from. These ones take offense at the question. When they become belligerent, Ishmael takes out his grenade and asks the question again. This time they get an answer and also learn that the new boys are soldiers and not rebels. None of them know why their commanders had let them go. Ishmael turns to the kitchen worker and demands in a threatening manner if he knows why their commanders gave them up, but the man knows nothing. They decide to ask the other boys sitting on the veranda, but, unfortunately, their questions elicit belligerent responses. These boys are rebels and soon, threats break out as well as hidden bayonets. Ishmael thinks that “perhaps the naïve foreigners thought that removing them from the war would lessen their hatred for the RUF. It hadn’t crossed their minds that a change of environment wouldn’t immediately make them normal boys; they are dangerous and brainwashed to kill.” It turns into an all out fight to the death between the two factions. When the MPs and two nationals who had brought them there try to break it up, the boys pounce on them. It takes many more MPs to quell the battle and when it’s over, there are six dead and several wounded. However, the boys praise each other for their lethal behavior. They needed the violence to cheer them after a whole day of boring traveling and contemplation about why their superiors had let them go.

After this event, Ishmael and his friends are taken to Benin House, another rehabilitation center away from the rest of the city. That night, Ishmael begins to experience withdrawal from the drugs. He walks back and forth on the verandah and once again, his head begins to hurt.


Obviously, UNICEF has stepped into the war with the intent of rehabilitating these child warriors. Unfortunately, it’s just as obvious that they are brainwashed to kill and making them normal boys again will be a terribly difficult task.

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