A Long Way Gone is the true story of Ishmael Beah, who becomes an unwilling boy soldier during a civil war in Sierra Leone. When he is twelve years old, Beah's village is attacked while he is away performing in a rap group with friends. Among the confusion, violence, and uncertainty of the war, Ishmael, his brother, and his friends wander from village to village in search of food and shelter. Their day-to-day existence is a struggle of survival, and the boys find themselves committing acts they would never have believed themselves capable of, such as stealing food from children.
Eventually, Ishmael is conscripted as a soldier by the army and he becomes the very thing he feared: a killing machine capable of horrible violence. The army becomes his family and he is brainwashed into believing that each rebel death may avenge his own family's slaughter. The boy soldiers become addicted to cocaine, marijuana, and "brown brown," which give them the courage to fight and the ability to repress their emotions in times of war. Ishmael continues to soldier fiercely until his Lieutenant turns the boy soldiers over to UNICEF.
Ishmael is taken to a rehabilitation center, where he struggles to understand his past and to imagine a future. The love and compassion he finds at the center from a nurse named Esther opens up an understanding and forgiveness within himself. Ishmael is welcomed by his extended family in Freetown and is again saved by their support and kindness.
Ishmael is invited along with other children of war to New York City to tell his story to the United Nations. He learns that others like him have suffered and survived. He meets Laura Simms, a storyteller and his future foster mom, and sees the importance of sharing his experience with the world in hopes of preventing such horrors from happening to other children.
After Ishmael returns to Freetown, Sierra Leone, a coup by the RUF and the military ousts the civilian government, and the war Ishmael has been avoiding catches up with him. After his uncle's death, Ishmael flees Sierra Leone for neighboring Guinea and eventually makes his way to his new life in the United States.