In this graphic portrayal of innocents caught in the crossfire of rebel factions in civil war-torn West Africa, hordes of terrified people leave their homes on foot, relentlessly pursued by the rebels - in this case a group called Mata Mata, their cause narrated by sixteen-year old Johnny Mad Dog.
While marching his quasi-soldiers from place to place and indiscriminately killing so-called traitors, the young men loot and rape with impunity, proud of their manly prowess, oblivious to those they destroy. The carnage is everywhere, death stalking the streets with each fetish-wearing youth with a rifle in his hands.
Johnny Mad Dog postures as an intellectual, but his arrogance far exceeds his native intelligence. He is as brutal as any seasoned veteran, rationalizing the random violence, spouting policy about "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, sixteen-year old Laokole leaves the family 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. Laokole considers the futility of her plight, 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 world turned upside-down by the rebels, soldiers and bandits, all interchangeable, young and old run to ground: "no one is too old to flee death." Everyone carries their most prized possessions; for Laokole and Fofo it is their mother.
In alternating chapters, Laokole and Johnny Mad Dog maneuver through the unremitting destruction that is total chaos. By contrasting the lives of the two teenagers, the author paints a stunning picture of depravity versus 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."
The refugees hope their plight will be covered in the media, that somewhere in the world someone will care, but nothing is mentioned on American TV. The European stations report briefly, “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 ten thousand 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 haunting tale of millions abandoned to their fate. Will the world respond to this genocidal nightmare?