At the very end of the book, Ishmael wraps up his entire experience of being a child soldier with an underlying comparison of his life and a tale that one of his friend’s grandfather had told him and all the other kids in the village. The story goes as follows:
“‘There was a hunter who went into the bush to kill a monkey. He had looked for only a few minutes when he saw a monkey sitting comfortably in the branch of a low tree. The monkey didn’t pay him any attention, not even when his footsteps on the dried leaves rose and fell as he neared. When he was close enough and behind a tree where he could clearly see the monkey, he raised his rifle and aimed. Just when he was about to pull the trigger, the monkey spoke: ‘If you shoot me, your mother will die, and if you don’t, your father will die.’ The monkey resumed its position, chewing its food, and every so often scratched its head or the side of its belly.”
Then the storyteller would confront the kids with a question: “What would you do if you were the hunter?”
Ishmael talks about how the kids tried to be clever and come up with some sort of a way so they could avoid harming anyone as if the story were a trick question, but the storyteller would reject any of the alternative answers they would come up with. When it was his turn to respond, Ishmael said he needed to think about it, but that wasn’t a worthy answer either.
Looking back at the same story, Ishmael finally was able to decide whether or not to shoot the monkey. He came to the conclusion that “if I were the hunter, I would shoot the monkey so that it would no longer have the chance to put other hunters in the same predicament.”
This final part of the book shows just how much of an effect the war has had on Ishmael’s life. After having fought first hand on the field and having experienced inhumane things no one should ever have to experience, Ishmael has decided that he would rather put his family and himself in danger or at risk, just to save the lives of many other hunters who would’ve confronted the same situation. Ishmael would prefer suffering once, himself, rather than having a lot more victims suffer the same consequence.
Recalling traces of his ripped past, Ishmael can only strike up memories that took place during the war, those before seem to have vanished from his head. Many of those imprinted memories morph together to form nightmares that penetrate his sanity constantly.
During the time he served as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, he quickly adapted to the severe demands that came from the Lieutenant and became tough through practice and exposure. After two years of nonstop fighting, Ishmael became what he had once feared as a little boy.
“My nickname was ‘Green Snake’ because I would situate myself in the most advantageous and sneaky position and would take out a whole village from under the tiniest shrub without being noticed. The Lieutenant gave me the name. He said, ‘You don’t look dangerous, but you are, and you blend with nature like a green snake, deceptive and deadly when you want to be.’ I was happy with my name, and on every raid, I made sure I did as my name required.” (pg. 144)
This quote shows us how the Lieutenant had awarded Ishmael with a nickname which tightened their bond a little more and indicated that Ishmael was a worthy soldier, and finally was recognized by someone who seemed to care. The Lieutenant kind of became his father figure, as his true father illy-supported his shattered family and was the reason for the brutal divorce with Ishmael and Junior’s beloved mother and younger brother, as well.
As the Lieutenant would compliment him for his agility as a boy and tactful thinking, Ishmael had accepted his fate and done everything he could to not let his “father” down in disappointment. He had to make sure he “did as (his) name required,” every time he went on a raid with other boys. I noticed that even though Ishmael was afraid to admit it, he liked the fact that he had established a mutual friendship with the Lieutenant, finally feeling like he belonged in some place. He made Ishmael feel invincible, as if he could run away from death, and gave him the perseverance he needed to survive until the end. I wonder if the Lieutenant realized how much it must’ve hurt Ishmael when he “let go” of him and allowed UNICEFF to take him away from the newly founded “home” he was integrated into.
As I progressively read through this book, I truly begin to realize how much harm and suffering memories of wartime can bring to an individual, especially to one of such young age. Ishmael lost everyone: first his family, his divorced parents, and brothers, then his close friends and now even those who fought alongside him including the Lieutenant. Having been situated in a rehabilitation center, he must feel like an alien, vulnerable and alone, apart from some other boys who’ve been through a similar storyline. Having been torn apart so many times before, he faces trust issues and isolates himself from others who just want to help.
This tough stage of his childhood during wartime has set up a concrete barrier, impossible to trespass beyond the dreadful phase of battle and bloodshed. Trying to fish for memories before those is hopeless, for the only way to get a glimpse of life before the war is to travel back to the nightmarish past he’s afraid of to this day.
“That night, as I sat on the verandah listening to some of the boys discuss the volleyball game I had missed, I tried to think about my childhood days, but it was impossible, as I began getting flashbacks of the first time I slit a man’s throat. The scene kept surfacing in my memory like lightning on a dark rainy night, and each time it happened, I heard a sharp cry in my head that made my spine hurt.” (pg 161)
This quote above made me realize how lucky many of us are to not have witnessed horrifying events like these as a kid, events that prohibit us to look back at our childhood and associate it with comfort and happiness.I’m aware that this is something that happens still to this day to hundreds of helpless children and I wish I could do something about it. I can’t even start to imagine how sensitive and paranoid I would’ve turned out to be if that ever occurred in my life. I feel like no matter how much rehabilitation someone is exposed to, they will never fully recover, as the era of war has already sucked the life out of them.
“The scene kept surfacing in my memory like lightning on a dark rainy night, and each time it happened, I heard a sharp cry in my head that made my spine hurt.” The simile in the quote also allows the reading to merely understand what it must be like to have your memories attack you instead of sooth you. The comparison gives us an image of how drastic and shocking it is to have permanent memories, that should only be permitted to be projected in fake Hollywood war movies and not in real life occasions, come alive as a reminder of one’s childhood.
“A Long Way Gone” is a compilation of memoirs written by Ishmael Beah that portrays his childhood that was exchanged for life-threatening wars he fought in as a child soldier in the African country, Sierra Leonne. Haven taken out his family and friends along the way, Ishmael had fled from the rebels for what seemed like forever, hoping to someday find a safe haven, but his fear turned into anger as he sought revenge and agreed on fighting back with force. Scarred by all the blood he had spilled and pain he had inflicted on others, Ishmael’s rehabilitation process is sluggish and the hope of restoring his childhood is close to impossible.
When Ishmael was first recruited by the soldiers to become a fighter, he was nothing but a 13-year-old boy without a choice. Having joined the team, Ishmael bravely set foot into something he’d certainly regret in the future.
“‘It seems that all of you have two things in common,’ the soldier said after he had finished testing all of us. ‘You are afraid of looking a man in the eye and afraid of holding a gun. Your hands tremble as if the gun is pointed at your head.’ He walked up and down the line for a bit and continued: ‘This gun’ – he held the AK-47 high up – ‘will soon belong to you, so you better learn not to be afraid of it.'”
In this quote, the Lieutenant is lecturing the boys on their first most important lesson; the gun is theirs and they must create a brother-like bond with it to survive and must learn not to be afraid of it. Inflicting demeaning words towards their fragile mentalities, the Lieutenant declared how weak they were and was straight to the point, brutal, almost. I was surprised when the Lieutenant just handed over the AK-47s as if he were giving out treats to the boys because these lethal weapons aren’t toys, yet he seemed to dismiss that idea. I am disturbed by the fact that the children were obviously frightened by these mechanical, monstrous weapons, but that the soldiers still treated them like trained men, expecting them to just buff up and get the hang of things before their time came to fight.
I wonder if the boys really knew at that point that they had to prepare for the worst. They couldn’t have even imagined what suffering they were about to go through. It also bothered me how the Lieutenant knew what these boys were about to witness, yet he acted like they would just be able to shrug it all off as if they could be trained to become immune to this appalling war. Despite all the drugs they took in and marijuana they smoked, I knew that the memories of the Warfield would never leave their side, haunting them like an evil spirit for the rest of their lives.
I’ll never begin to understand what Ishmael really went through during this awful time period, but what I can take away from this is that their childhoods were snatched from them, blindly, without them even having noticed.
My glossy, stickerless guitar
sits in the corner of my room,
begging to be picked up
every now and then.
Last summer I fell in love with this
With its slick strings, waiting patiently to be
touched, picked, plucked by my
agile fingers, naive to the unknown chords.
Its melodious vibrations,
acoustic, rusty aftertaste,
take me back to my childhood
When my dad lulled us to sleep,
humming songs I still adore to this day.
hollow like one’s chest, empty, but with
strings like a tongue, allowing it to speak
a language all can hear
but only some can understand.
Lines engraved into fingertips,
printed, stamped as evidence of having played for
hours off end.
Pure notes, rich with passion
produced by memorized patterns.
A false note, repeat; again.
G, C, Em, D…
practice, practice, practice…
My glossy, stickerless guitar,
still sitting there in my room.
Knobs polished white,
strings tightened against its frame.
So serene yet with such potential…
We were strolling down my neighborhood, hand-in-hand, silhouettes traced against the grainy stone beneath my purple Converse and his blue Vans. His jeans were far too hot to wear, yet he wore them all the time. The same ones with the torn up knees, from when he fell off his skateboard. The skateboard he held firmly in his other hand.
The sun was now almost gone, the moon tucking him under the covers, after a long day of shining bright. Street lights replaced the warm glow with a cold glare, making the night seem a lot colder than it really was. We kept walking, exchanging giggles and smiles. Oh, how I had missed him.
The blue lights were bright, but her eyes were blinding. Like a cat, she prowled through the night, her silver-gray eyes cutting through the dark like headlights. She led me down two streets, up another and guided me to the right. All in the same neighborhood.
I hadn’t seen her in years, even though we face timed very often. But being here, in person, was a whole different feeling. The eerie lights illuminated her hazel locks that rippled and twisted in the gentle breeze. She was shorter than I remembered. Or maybe I just grew. Our pace was steady, like our heartbeats, as we walked to the field of grass she’s mentioned a few times too often. That’s all she talked about, honestly. She said she needed to show me something here.
She gave my hand a quick squeeze as she came to a halt by my side. But I’m just glad we’re here together again. Oh, how I had missed her.
I felt his heat radiate from his body and transfer into mine, like a warm blanket on a chilly night, as he wrapped his arm around my shoulder. We’ve been best friends since kindergarten, and have never wanted to be more than that. I wonder if it’s different now.
Carefully I untangled myself from his soothing grasp and pulled him onto the infinite field of grass.
Her delicate fingers tugged on mine, gesturing me to follow her path.
I’ve known her my whole life and she was always the one to guide the way. She taught me what adventure really was. What “to dare” meant. To risk. To trust. Freedom, oh she made me fall in love with it. Without her, I wouldn’t know what it is to be alive.
Two whole years I’ve been waiting to be reunited. I’ve been dreaming of bringing him here. Showing him my little hideout I’ve used as a refuge all these years.
We ran, cheeks chilled by the autumn wind. The grass around us whistled and rustled creating a pleasant harmony, humming until it numbed our eyes. The familiar scent of pine. Refreshing like a cup of bittersweet tea. Almost there.
I had dropped my skateboard behind me, wondering if I’ll ever go back again. We trespassed the boundaries of the sidewalk, into the unexplored field. A field so large it could easily swallow us whole, leaving no trace but our footprints behind, hidden by the shrubs. We sliced through the darkest night. She held my hand. I held hers.
Almost there, just a few more meters. I subtly slowed my pace as I turned around to face him, still walking backward, placing every step with ease. I reached out for his hands and held on to them firmly, still guiding him with me. Like two dancers, we seemed to swirl around each other in the pitch dark. A few more steps.
She seemed confident. When was she not? But I knew something was about to happen.
And that’s when it did. She spread out her arms and twirled as if she was a serene tornado. From everywhere, millions of tiny light bulbs sparked and drifted into the air. Billions of mini hot-air balloons rose up and up. Swarms of what looked like stars, cuddled us, brushing across our arms and faces.
Not knowing what to do, I just stood there, watching her.
Her eyes were now warm like caramel, enlighted by the clouds of fireflies filling the air. Her hair looked like rivers of gold, flowing down the side of her face, neck, shoulders. And her smile. Oh, her smile. Twinkled with pride. With joy. It flashed happiness and admitted the painful ache of how much she had missed me. Begging me to never let go.
This was what she was dying to show me, and now I know why.
For a second I thought I caught a glimpse of curiosity in her eyes. Like a trick of the light, it flickered on suddenly and went out just as fast. Might’ve just been my imagination. But if it wasn’t, I knew she had more to show me. I wonder if she’ll show me the world some day.
How bizarre the night had been. Peculiar. Like a cliche dream, but deep inside I knew it was all true and that this would just be the first of many nights with him by my side.
Every night I dream
Of seeing him someday.
I miss him.
The words taste bitter on my lips
An ache that’ll never
Slip away from my heart.
The past stuck in a loop,
On repeat, as I’m
Lost in memory.
He’s taller now,
Brown locks, frizzy on his head
Now and then
Rustled by the pristine air.
His eyes just a little deeper than mine, with
Depths I’m willing to dive into head-first.
Pools of hazel-brown
Sprinkled with emerald green leaves.
His warm touch
Around my shoulder,
Sparking a wave of goosebumps
Down my body, to my toes.
Oh, his smile…
Blinds me with affection.
I’ll always remember him the same.
A smile like my dad’s
Reconnecting the lines of our past.
How I wish for time to fly by, for once.
So I can break free
From these stiff chains
And discover the world by his side,
To guide each other to the stars,
Make our dreams come true.
But despite the temporary distance,
He’ll never leave my mind, for
Every night I dream
Of seeing him someday again.
Dear Jake Silverstein, Editor of New York Times Magazine;
I’ve been reading your previous week’s Magazine and saw that you were looking for someone to fill in a column. My name is Amaia van Dommelen, and I’m a vivid reader and full-time writer, as well as a true admirer of the New York Times Magazine. Over the past ten years, I’ve published dozens of books and poems, and I continue to update my blog every Tuesday.
A few days ago, I experienced the ferocious march in Charlottesville, first hand, from which I extracted my feelings and questions and converted them into an Open Letter to Liam. In this public letter, I was able to introduce a mixture of modern, controversial events with a little taste of storytelling. Writing to my classmate, Liam, I prove to others that stepping out of your comfort zone and putting your questions and doubts out into the public, you’re able to express your inner self and get things off your chest.
Want something modern, something unique, something fresh? My writing has uplifted thousands and I’ll promise you it will touch millions if I’m granted the slot in your magazine.
My open letter is approximately 570 words, perfect to replace the empty column in the September issue. I would gladly have a coffee with you to discuss this topic further. I am available Wednesday through Saturday from 1.00 pm – 5.00 pm.
I hope to hear from you soon!
Amaia van Dommelen
A few days ago I was sitting in my living room, sipping on hot chocolate, when I flicked on the TV to see the chaos that was building up five streets away from my own apartment.
I’m an American college student and I’m currently finishing my last year of studying. I live alone in my small yet cozy apartment, apart from my best friend who comes to visit now and then. My building is near a peaceful park where I go to jog and to pet dogs. Just like every Saturday I come home and make myself a mug of hot chocolate and proceed to turn on the television.
But when I turned on that TV, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Right here, in Charlottesville, Virginia, mobs of what seemed like angry people crowded the streets with lit torches and vicious expressions drawn on their faces. What was going on? At first, I thought it was a joke, a reenactment of some sort, but after literally standing there for about five minutes, I set my mug down and grabbed my scarf.
Rushing through the traffic, most likely caused by this march, I dodged and made my way to the indicated area on the television, where I was confronted by a crowd of people yelling at the top of their lungs.
As I mingled with the horde of bystanders, I watched the event in awe, but then it struck me. Out of the large crowd, I realized that a great amount of the unknown faces were still glowing with youth. Teenagers, younger than I, were marching alongside adults, yelling just as loud and ferocious.
And that made me wonder. Who are these teenagers? Did they decide to come here themselves? Why would children younger than me join in such a risky and violent protest? Do they know what they’re getting themselves into?
I keep watching, eyes moving from one face to the other. And that’s when I see you, Liam. In the center of the parade, you’re there, shouting phrases no one should ever be passionate about screaming aloud. Just like me, you’re in your last year of college and should have more than enough on your mind. Even though we’re not friends, I’ve seen your face so many times in the hallway. Weren’t you the one to run for student council president? Such an enthusiastic guy. Anyways, you march by, too focussed to even notice me in the crowd, staring with my mouth wide open. So why Liam? Why did you risk yourself and portray so much hate against others?
As much as I agree with activism and engagement, especially amongst us, the youth, I still don’t understand why all this energy and effort is gone to waste into something so destructive and harmful, whilst it could be going towards a more worthy objective; something worth our time and devotion.
That night I got home, disappointed and startled. Voices like yours played on repeat in my head and kept me up all night. And that’s when I knew I had to do something about it. I knew I had to transform my frustration into action.
First thing this morning, is when I wrote this letter and submitted it.
I know there are other people out there, others that feel the same way. I want other voices to be heard as well, voices like mine. If we stay quiet, only their side of the story will be heard. And expressing your thoughts to the public is the first step to change.
Amaia van Dommelen