Summary and Analysis Chapter 21



Ishmael returns to his Uncle's home in Freetown and begins the school year. The students know that he was a boy soldier and fear that he'll snap at any moment and hurt them, so they sit apart and refuse to speak to Ishmael and Mohamed. Ishmael begins calling Mohamed his brother so that neither of them have to explain their past.

On May 25, 1997, violence breaks out in the capital. Ishmael wakes to gunfire and fears the return of civil war. He writes that he doubts he could live through the violence again. By nightfall, the civilian government has been overthrown by a coup collaboration involving the RUF and the military, also called the "Sobels." They begin blowing up bank vaults for money and raiding markets and homes for supplies. People are killed by stray bullets. The schools and universities are occupied, so Ishmael and his cousins remain inside their home. One afternoon, Ishmael and Mohamed risk going into town to buy food and are swept up in a mob protest. Gunmen open fire on the crowded market and many civilians are killed. Ishmael and Mohamed hide in a nearby ditch until nightfall. For the next five months gunmen rule the streets, looting, raping, and killing people. Ishmael has escaped the war only to have the war find him.

Uncle Tommy falls ill one night, and there are no pharmacies or hospitals open to take him to. He declines quickly and dies in Ishmael's arms. Ishmael realizes he must escape the war and the chaos or he'll be pulled back into soldiering again. He calls Laura and asks if he can come to New York and live with her. She agrees to help. Ishmael escapes the country illegally and makes a harrowing journey to the Sierra Leone embassy in Guinea, where he is given shelter as a war refugee.


Ishmael's true transformation is revealed when he finds himself in the middle of the mob of civilian protestors and must restrain his anger. He feels his soldiering self boiling inside, but he knows that, as a civilian, if he commits acts of violence, he'll be punished. He deplores the violence in the streets that he used to embrace.

Ishmael's journey out of Sierra Leone ends with a metaphor of the impossible choices faced by people in times of war. At the embassy in Guinea, Ishmael listens to a mother retell a familiar story of a hunter who has to decide whether to kill a monkey and risk his father's or his mother's death. There is no right answer. Either way, people die. Ishmael's story concludes with his metaphorical decision to kill the monkey so that future hunters don't face the same dilemma. As it relates to war-torn Sierra Leone, Ishmael would risk his own family if it meant future families wouldn't have to make the same choice.