Memoirs of a Boy Soldier By Ishmael Beah

Farrar Straus Giroux. 229 pp. $22

Everyone in the world should read this book. Not just because it contains an amazing story, or because it's our moral, bleeding-heart duty, or because it's clearly written. We should read it to learn about the world and about what it means to be human. Ishmael Beah was born and spent his childhood in Sierra Leone as that sad but beautiful West African country was ravaged by a civil war that left some 50,000 dead between 1991 and 2002. He was a child soldier for a while, then, through extraordinary circumstances, was set free of that life. Like Melville's Ishmael, he has escaped to tell us this tale.

In January 1993, when Ishmael was 12, he left home for a couple of days with two other boys to participate in a talent show in a village 16 miles away. The kids were hip-hop fanatics and, like a zillion other guys across the world, had formed their own group. They'd seen their first hip-hop video -- the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," Beah tells us -- on a huge television in Mobimbi, "a quarter where the foreigners who worked for the same American company as my father lived." They spent the night with Ishmael's grandmother in a village about halfway to their destination, then continued on their way through the bush -- dancing, singing, fooling around. Again they spent a night, then waited around through the day for the talent show to begin. Then someone came with the news: "The rebels had attacked Mogbwemo, our home. School had been canceled until further notice. We stopped what we were doing."

The war had already been going on for a couple of years, playing out in the countryside, a few villages at a time, but to the kids it hadn't been real. Now, terrified and bewildered, they made their way back to Ishmael's grandmother's village, only to find it deserted, except for dead and dying people. The safe world of their childhood was gone.

Some readers may be familiar with Sierra Leone thanks to the work of the tremendously talented Aminatta Forna, who last year came out with "Ancestor Stones," a fictionalized account of a modernized expat woman who returns to her grandfather's village in Sierra Leone after the civil war. Through the eyes of surviving female relatives, she describes the systematic destruction, over a couple of centuries, of an imperfect but functioning society, ripped apart first by proselytizing Christians and Muslims, then colonized by the British, exploited by mining interests, and torn and torn again by increasingly thuggish political factions. The country now would seem to be wrecked. Sierra Leone has among the lowest average incomes in the world; the life expectancy for men is 38 years, and for women, 42. But a Web site, Sweet Salone, run by a chatty and perky girl, shows another side to the place -- a country of tiny farms, close families and lush green jungle, a beautiful, mysterious land capable of being Heaven or Hell.

The boys, soon enough, find themselves in Hell. They travel trails by night, in perpetual fear of who might find them. They steal food and endure terrible hardship. They join up with other lost boys and, after encountering death on every side, finally come to a sizable settlement, Yele, "a village that was occupied by the military. It was a big village with more than ten houses. . . . In the beginning, it seemed that we had finally found safety . . . . All that darkened the mood of the village was the sight of orphaned children. There were over thirty boys between the ages of seven and sixteen. I was one of them."

The inevitable occurs: Yele is surrounded, and the boys are recruited to fight the rebels. At the age of 13, Ishmael is given an AK-47, plied with marijuana, pills and "brown brown," a combination of cocaine and gunpowder. He and his friends listen to insane speeches: "We are not like the rebels, those riffraffs who kill people for no reason," says one lieutenant. "We kill them for the good and betterment of this country." At night, back in camp, they watch Sylvester Stallone in "Rambo" over and over and emulate his moves. By day, they kill and kill and kill without mercy since they have been told, rightly enough, that the rebels are the ones who have killed their families. The boys suffer from wounds, headaches, nightmares, fear of death.

Then something astonishing happens. In January 1996, when he's 15, a UNICEF truck drives up to the village where Ishmael is quartered. The lieutenant selects 15 of his child soldiers without explanation and tells them to give up their weapons. "I am very proud to have served my country with you boys," the officer says. "But your work here is done, and I must send you off. These men will put you in school and find you another life."

Then the saddest, scariest part of Beah's story begins. Placed in the care of fervent do-gooders, child soldiers who had fought for the rebels and the military are taken to Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, and put in the same dorm. They immediately begin killing each other. MPs who try to restore order are disarmed, and their guns are used in the slaughter. After that first battle, the boys undergo an agonizing withdrawal from drugs. They are supposed to be undergoing rehabilitation, but the war is coming closer to the capital. The country is drowning in blood.

But another astonishing thing occurs. Ishmael is chosen to go to the United Nations in New York to speak about the trials of children in war. He goes, he speaks, he makes friends, he returns. By now, he is living with a kindly uncle, but the rebels have penetrated Freetown. Ishmael once again must hit the road and try to escape. That he succeeds is self-evident. He's in the United States now; he's graduated from college and written this book. His face smiles from the book jacket. He's only 26.

I don't think it's possible to "understand" this book. "A Long Way Gone" says something about human nature that we try, most of the time, to ignore. Humans can be murderous, and that doesn't pertain in any way to religion or politics or ideology. These boys, on either side, didn't have the foggiest idea of the reasons for their war. The proselytizers, colonists, foreign entrepreneurs, politicians, even cheesy moviemakers all played a part in it -- committing murder by proxy. The murder itself is ubiquitous. The faint good news in these pages is that if we're lucky, very lucky, we may be able to sneak out of this life without being either murderer or victim. But it's nothing to count on.

Sunday in Book World

· Nixon goes to China.

· Evolution goes to court.

· Pragmatists go to the Amazon.

· The Medusa goes to sea.

· And the Irish go to America.