Ishmael starts his story from his age of ten. He remembers that the concept of war was something abstract and alien to his mind. He with his friends: Junior, Talloi and Mohamed were playing like any other children since Ishmael was eight, singing and dancing to rap music they learned from Americans in Mobimbi. The new rap songs were a huge event for them and they watched the TV together to remember them and then recite. They even tried to dress as rappers and use their slang.
Two years after, in January of 1993, Ishmael, Junior and Talloi travel to the town of Mattru Jong to take part in the local talent show. The boys reach Mattru Jong and meet their other friends: Gibrilla, Kaloko and Khalilou, staying at Khalilou’s house. But the next morning he runs back home from school saying that their native village, Mogbwemo, was attacked by the rebel forces and now they move to Mattru Jong. Soon the refugees from Mogbwemo start to arrive, but Ishmael’s family isn’t among them. Ishmael asks the survivors, but they say they were too frightened and everyone saved their own lives. Ishmael, Junior and Talloi make a plan of returning back and searching for their families.
On their way back, they see the horrors of war: refugees, women and kids searching for each other and stray dogs feasting on bodies. Ishmael sees the whole tracks filled with corpses and blood dripping from them. Finally, the boys understand that they wouldn’t make it to Mogbwemo and return to Mattru Jong to wait. Ishmael starts seeing the nightmares that haunt him since that time: he sees himself carrying mutilating bodies to the local cemetery and one of the bodies is his own.
Ishmael wakes up and it appears that he is in New York, he lives there for a month and is now having flashbacks of war. He starts remembering his past: robbing the village with his AK-47 to get ammo and food, killing the villagers including the kids of his age and then cheerfully giving high fives to his squadmates and sitting on the dead bodies to eat. These memories terrify Ishmael now and he tries to focus on daylight and his present, not the past.
He returns in his memories to Mattru Jong where the boys are still waiting for their relatives. But the latest news is dreadful: the nearest town of Sumbuya was also attacked by enemies and massacred. The messenger who brought the news has the letters RUF (Revolutionary United Front) carved on his living flesh. He laments that they are moving to Mattru Jong and wait to be greeted warmly. The townspeople run and hide, but when in ten days nothing happens they return to the town. Then the rebels attack. The boys manage to flee, walking for days hungry and exhausted, seeing pillaged villages and dead bodies. Starving, they have to return through all the dangers to the ruined Mattru Jong and search for provisions and their scarce money in the ruins of Khalilou’s house. But their money means nothing in the war time and in despair they chase a child carrying some corn and attack him, stealing the food. Later, the mother of the child brings them some more corn to feed them, but Ishmael feels neither remorse nor gratitude.
They are caught by the rebels. The boys are forced to watch the torturing of an elder man and laugh. They are shocked, because respect to the elders is the basic social norm they’ve learned. Later the rebels divide the group in halves, saying that now they have to kill each other. They bring the scared kids to the river bank, but suddenly the rebel squad is attacked and Ishmael with his friends manage to escape and head to the next village, deeply traumatized.
Several times the people think that they are also the squad of young rebels, so the boys have to hide in the bushes to avoid danger. They are captured again, by the village militia and brought to the village chief, who threatens to drown them if they don’t disclose the locations of the rebels. One of the boys finds a rap cassette and starts to play it. Luckily, one of the local boys recognizes them as participants of the talent show who were preparing their rap dance. When the boy names them, the chief’s suspicion vanishes and he offers the kids to stay in the village. They refuse, knowing that the rebels will attack soon, take some food and leave.
From a stranger woman they learn that the aunt Gibrilla found shelter in Kamator village and the boys go there, just to get a job during the planting season. They live there peacefully for three months, but then the rebels come to Kamator and the boys have to flee again. The villagers were caught by surprise during the evening prayer. The rebels burnt the local imam alive and started the massacre. In the fight the group is divided and Ishmael loses Junior to never see him again. Ishmael runs for his life, alone, then he finds Kalako and in the morning the two boys return to the burned village. For two weeks they hide with the rest of survivors, but waiting for a new attack is too much for Ishmael and he decides to go further alone, passing one burnt village after another and seeing even more terrors of war and dead and tortured people. He has to learn survival in the wild forest and recall everything he once heard from his grandfather, a herbalist. The loneliness is almost unbearable for the boy, but he tries to find peace in the sounds of nature around.
After a month of survival in the forest Ishmael returns to the major road and meets a group of boys. Some of them are his former school friends, but after such a long period of loneliness Ishmael lacks social skills to communicate with them. He understands that being in a group is a huge risk, but the boy is fed up with being alone and accepts it. They travel for a long time, chased and attacked by the villagers, who all think at first they are rebels. Some of them actually care to ask the boys about themselves, finding that they are just children. Then they give them some food and shelter. They come to the village at the ocean coast, hoping to get some food, but it also looks abandoned, though intact. When the boys enter the village, the locals catch them, beat and rob, throwing away even without their shoes. The boys have to walk on very hot sand now and they all burn their feet. Finally they find a lonely hut and the man living there welcomes them and tends to their injuries, letting them stay until their feet heal.
After several days Ishmael asks the name of the hut owner, but he refuses to tell it, still caring for them and feeding them. But suddenly his mother comes to the hut, saying that the inhabitants of the hostile village are going to attack the hut. The boys are unable to run away and are captured for the second time. Ishmael again plays his cassette and amuses the villagers with his performance. The chief is entertained and, understanding that the children are harmless, lets them go. They continue to walk from one village to another. Some of them are abandoned, some are burned. Ishmael sinks deeper and deeper into depression, missing his family, seeing so many deaths and feeling like a bit of his own soul dies with every dead body he sees. In one village they participate in a festival and perform, getting lots of dried meat as payment. But the next morning they realize that the meat was eaten by the stray dog at night. They argue a lot about it, blaming each other, but decide to move on, just not letting it happen anymore. The boys suddenly realize that they were very close to killing and eating the dog instead that horrifies them. At the evenings the boys share their stories of pre-war life and survival. Their names are Musa, Alhaji, Kanei, Jumah, Moriba and Saidu. They graphically depict the scenes of gory murders, multiple rapes and tortures. Ishmael starts to understand why they aren’t talking like any other children in group: they try to protect their own consciousness from that horror.
They walk further, learning how to hunt the small prey and sleep in shifts to guard the camp. They also tell stories from their peaceful lives to cheer each other up. When it’s Ishmael turn he tells about his name-giving ritual. An exhausted crow falls dead before them and they all agree it is a bad sign, but still eat it. This day Saidu falls ill. He can barely walk. The boys transport him to the nearest village that is shockingly lively and prosperous. The people are feasting and dancing and there is a bazaar on the main square. The boys ask for a day of rest and they are given food and shelter. Ishmael, with the rest of the boys, receives the news about his family: Junior has been here. He is so happy he can’t sleep and he is the only one to witness Saidu’s death at night. The boys bury their comrade and give him the last honors before leaving the village in a quest for their families.
They approach the village which their families headed to. They meet a fellow banana trader, Gasemu and help him to transport his goods to the village. When they are almost near it, they hear gunshots and screams and hide. When it becomes quiet again, they rush to the village to find it burnt down and the bodies scarred beyond recognition everywhere. Gasemu shows Ishmael the hut of his family, it is burnt also, but there are no bodies inside. In despair and anger Ishmael attacks Gasemu and the fight starts between the other boys. Suddenly they hear the voices of rebels, cease the fight and hide together. The rebels recall their killings with satisfaction, but the boys can’t understand if they killed everyone or some of the villagers escaped. The gunfight starts again and the boys with Gasemu retreat to the forest. They are spotted and have to run under fire. When they stop, they see that Gasemu covered them and now is wounded multiple times. The boys carry him further, but soon the banana trader dies.
They continue walking, but soon are captured by the military. The soldiers are more humane then the rebels and they just put the boys to work together with other orphans and lost kids. It looks almost like a normal life, the children have free time and are allowed to play after they finish tending to crops and washing dishes, but Ishmael starts to suffer severe headaches in addition to his nightmares. But after some weeks this village is also attacked by rebels and sieged. The military commander says that anyone who wants to stay in the village has to help them defend it. Leaving village means being caught by rebels, so the boys enlist as the soldiers, are given the weapons and uniform and their own clothes and possessions (including rap cassettes) are burned, to Ishmael’s anger and disappointment. They start their training with bayonets and AK-47, the boys also undergo psychological training, learning that killing rebels isn’t a sin, but justice for what they have done with their families. Though, the child soldiers are still given time to play.
Before their first fight all the soldiers are given white “energy” pills - the drugs that numb their fear and compassion to the enemy. Ishmael is engaged into his first fight and kills a man. Musa and Josiah, his friends, are lethally wounded and perish before his eyes. Angered with their deaths, Ishmael fights viciously to avenge them. Later he with the rest of the soldiers takes the uniform off the enemies to re-use it and Ishmael notices that they wear jewelry they stole from raided villages. Ishmael feels relatively normal after the fight and manages to sleep, but when the drug wears off he sees nightmares again, suddenly waking up and starting shooting at imaginary rebels. The lieutenant rushes in, calms him down and gives him more pills. From then on Ishmael becomes addicted. He also uses marijuana to relax after the battles and snorts “brown brown” - cocaine mixed with gunpowder. Ishmael suffers from insomnia, but doesn’t feel any fatigue due to drugs, and spends free time watching military movies. Soon he sees that the soldiers are not much better than rebels: they raid rebel camps for supplies, ammo and drugs and where there are no rebel camps around the average villages are also fine. The soldiers also forcefully enlist the villagers to join their ranks, justifying their actions by saying that they are trying to protect the majority and need aid from the civilians, while rebels kill and raid just for their own pleasure. Ishmael soon feels that it is okay to kill and torture the rebels.
Once he and other young recruits are called to the competition. Each one is given a prisoner and the task to slit his throat in the best way and the shortest amount of time. Ishmael wins and is granted the rank of junior lieutenant. He celebrates his victory with his squad abusing drugs and watching Rambo movies. Now he believes that the army is his family and home and killing is fun, though hard work. His thoughts are simplified by constant stress and drugs and he doesn’t care either about his family or about his morals.
When he turns fifteen, Ishmael meets a UNICEF mission determined to take the children away from the war zone. They demand from the lieutenant to free them and he releases his soldiers, saying that the new families and lives are waiting for them, comforting them with the thought that they have served their country enough and it is more of an honorary retirement. The kids are taken to the capital of Sierra Leone and now are living in a clean dormitory and eating tasty food. At first, they behave more like wild animals, eating everything they can and fighting with the child soldiers from other squads for hierarchy. The situation gets worse when their new roommates appear to be from RUF. The adult caretakers try to stop the fight, but one of the former army soldiers, Mambu, steals a gun and shoots six rebels before he can be calmed down.
After that incident the remaining children are transferred to a rehabilitation center in Benin Home. They can’t understand what is happening: the center is too good to be a prison or some kind of punishment. Many of them, including Ishmael, start to suffer from drug withdrawal. Ishmael again starts to have his migraines. The boys continue to wreak havoc, attacking adults, stealing the food, searching the hospital for drugs, fighting each other and the locals just for the amusement and sleeping outside instead of cozy beds. Once they break a window and Ishmael cuts himself and bleeds so severely that he crawls to the hospital to steal bandages. But one of the nurses asks him to let her help and treats his wound. Ishmael’s drug withdrawal makes him feel so bad that he has to stay in the hospital for some days more and warm up to the nurse. With time the safe space and the patience of the adults makes boys recall who they were before. The traumatic memories, suppressed before, start to haunt them and they react violently, but to their surprise the adults keep telling them that it isn’t their fault, and everything is still fine. The boys are encouraged to behave properly, for example for attending school they are rewarded with a permission to spend weekends in the city. But Ishmael, Mambu and Alhaji decide to cheat and sell their school things to get money for a bus ride to the city. They like studying but it is hard to them after their drug addictions, PTSD and missed months of schooling, so they are upset and decide to get to the city in their own way.
During the therapy Ishmael tells about the incredibly cruel raid, where he and his friend Altai massacred the whole village by themselves only. They got the honorable nicknames for that deed and Ishmael became Green Snake, because he was cunning and able to hide anywhere. He was very proud of being Green Snake, but now he understands that the snake represents something evil and treacherous, both in mythology and religion. But the real breakthrough in his therapy happens when the kind nurse, a woman named Esther, buys him a new cassette player and rap cassettes. Ishmael has another anger outburst but then he starts listening and it becomes easier for him to remember and tell Esther about his childhood and time in army. He tells the nurse that once he was wounded and the doctor had to pull away the bullets without anesthesia: Ishmael used cocaine to cope with the pain. The lieutenant told him to kill the enemies who shot at him and avenge himself. Ishmael tells it with pride, but Esther starts crying of horror and sympathy and the angered teenager throws a player at her. But after some time she brings it back using the music as a reward for their talks. Esther also presents a notebook to him, encouraging to write his own rap songs. Ishmael tries but migraines return every time he makes an effort.
The authorities from UNICEF come to examine the hospital and the boys make a performance for them. Ishmael decides to recite a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s play and also sings rap and dances. His acting is so remarkable that the authorities ask him to make a presentation at the rehabilitation center for them. Ishmael gives them an improvised speech about the necessity of rehabilitation and says that the boys are brave and strong enough to walk this long way back to themselves and leave the war behind, if they are helped properly.
The personnel of the center keep searching for the boy’s family. Finally, they find Uncle Tommy - a distant Ishmael’s relative he doesn’t know. Tommy comes to take Ishmael home and treats him very warmly, welcoming him to the family like his own son. At first, Tommy comes to see Ishmael every weekend to gain his trust and the boy soon warms up to him. Finally, Tommy takes Ishmael home. At first everyone is having a hard time adjusting to each other (for Ishmael it is twice as difficult, because he forgot the concept of the family love). He spends a lot of time alone and prefers not to talk if the talk can be avoided. His older cousin, a girl named Allie, asks him out to the disco. He meets the girl there and they start a relationship that ends up as soon as the girl learns about his past. After several attempts with other girls that end the same way, he stops trying, feeling that it is okay for him to be alone.
After some time, a caretaker from the centre named Leslie comes to see Ishmael and offers him to join the delegation of the kids who are going to New York to tell their stories. Ishmael isn’t prepared very good, but his story is so impressive that the interviewers decide to take him anyway. Ishmael is both terrified by the cold of New York and amazed by its size. He likes wandering around, looking at people and seeing something new. The real New York appears to be drastically different from the image from rap songs. He talks with the other delegates on the conference, realizing that the wars take their childhood too and it happens all over the world. They discuss the ways to end the wars and aid those affected by them. Ishmael befriends an adult woman from New York, Laura Simms, who teaches them to share their feelings through music.
After the conference Ishmael returns to Freetown to Uncle Tommy and goes back to school. But at school he faces the new troubles: the other children are afraid of the boy soldiers - him and Mohamed - and refuse to speak to them or ever sit nearby. Ishmael calls Mohamed his brother to avoid extra questions.
In May of 1997 Ishmael wakes up hearing the sounds of gunfire. He is afraid that the war started again and thinks that he would not survive another returning to the army. At night the government was overthrown by RUF that united with the remains of the army. They raid the city, robbing banks, apartments and stores and killing random people. The schools and universities are dangerous, so Uncle Tommy asks his family to stay at home, the boys escape one evening to steal some food, but they get caught in a crossfire and Ishmael barely escapes.
After several days Uncle Tommy falls ill and all the pharmacies and hospitals are occupied by the RUF. Despite all Ishmael’s care Uncle Tommy dies right before his eyes. Ishmael realizes that he needs to get out of here as soon as possible. He contacts Laura and asks her to take him back to New York. Laura agrees and they make a plan. Ishmael slips through the border and makes his way to the Sierra Leone embassy, asking there for shelter as a war refugee.