There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Monday, April 30, 2007

Horror and redemption on the bus

When my son was young and saw something that frightened him, he would ask to watch a Winnie the Pooh movie in order to wash away the scary images. After reading "A Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah while riding to and from work on the bus, my next book will need to be the adult equivalent of a Pooh movie.

In January 1993, Ishmael Beah was 12 when he was separated from his parents during the Sierra Leone civil war. He wandered for more than a year with other displaced children, narrowly escaping death several times. Eventually he was impressed into service in the Sierra Leone army. He fought for more than two years in the jungles of the west African country. Then one day a UNICEF truck pulled into the village where his army unit was staying. Without explanation, Beah and 14 other boys were told by their commander to put their weapons on the ground and board the truck. Beah was 15 and he had become so immersed in fighting and killing that he couldn't imagine doing anything else. Roughly a third of the book tells of the heroic effort made to restore some measure of humanity to Beah and the other child soldiers. Recovery for Beah took two years.

The movie Blood Diamond involves the same period of Sierra Leone's civil war. Blood Diamond was hard enough to watch. I can't imagine a realistic movie about Beah's life -- the horror Beah witnessed, the brutal acts he committed as a child soldier, the ubiquitous cruelty.

Beah's memoir is riveting. Or it is heartbreaking. Or it is terrifying. Mostly it is inspirational. But it is decidedly not for the faint of heart.

Personally, I was impressed that UNICEF played a role in saving the child soldiers. My favorite football team (soccer for you Americans) is FCBarcelona. Unlike nearly every other major professional football side, Barcelona has never sold advertising space on its jerseys. Last year, Barcelona signed a five-year deal with UNICEF in which Barcelona pays UNICEF $1.9 million a year for the honor of having the UNICEF logo on its uniforms.

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