This book graphically portrays the horrific ordeal of innocents caught in the crossfire of rebel factions in civil war-torn West Africa. Hordes of people leave their homes and are relentlessly pursued by the rebels, in this case a group called Mata Mata, the cause narrated by 16-year old Johnny Mad Dog. While marching his "men" from place to place and killing so-called traitors indiscriminately, the young men loot and rape with impunity, proud of their manly prowess and totally oblivious to those they destroy.
With youthful hubris, Johnny Mad Dog considers himself an intellectual, but his arrogance far exceeds his native intelligence, as brutal a character as any seasoned veteran. He rationalizes his actions, spouting policy in rejecting "the previous government and its leader, enemies of the people and democracy, a genocidal regime... I think that's what we'd been told to say."
In sharp contrast, the 16-year old Laokole leaves her shabby hut with her brother and legless mother in a wheelbarrow, the children taking turns pushing. Along the way, the brother, Fofo is separated from his sister and mother. The mother's legs are a casualty of the last rebel rampage, when her husband was shot. Laokole thinks about the futility of their plight, danger at every turn, even "why a woman should limit the number of her own children: because the fewer children you had, the more easily you could flee in times of war and looting." Nowhere is safe in this chaotic world, turned upside-down by the rebels, soldiers, bandits, all interchangeable, young and old pursued, "for no one is too old to flee death". Everyone carries their most prized possessions, for Laokole and Fofo it is their mother.
By contrasting the lives of the two teenagers, Johnny Mad Dog and Laokole, the author paints a stunning picture of depravity vs. courage. Laokole is the voice of humanity, while Johnny Mad Dog is corrupted by power, depraved by senseless murders, excusing his own brutality: "I know, I know, my kind heart is going to get me in serious trouble." In alternating chapters, the girl and the young man maneuver through the unremitting violence that is total chaos. The carnage is everywhere, death stalking the streets with each fetish-wearing youth with a rifle in his hands.
The refugees look for their story to be told on the television, but nothing is mentioned on American TV. The European stations have some coverage, "images I've seen a thousand times on programs about Rwanda, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Central African Republic and eastern Zaire". Africa is seen on the screen as a vast refugee camp, "the ragged, wandering hordes." This painful, but important novel gives voice to the massacre of innocents, over 10, 000 deaths, half a million displaced persons and refugees, a humanitarian catastrophe. "How can you have hope in a country when the road to power is littered with corpses?" The haunting voice of this young woman tells the story of millions, abandoned to their fate. When will the world respond to this genocidal nightmare? Luan Gaines/2005.