Boy Soldier of Fortune

A celebrated memoir threatens to blow into a million little pieces

Ishmael Beah, the author of a powerful memoir about his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, may have made one major tactical mistake in writing his book. Explaining why he was able to remember his horrific experiences in such detail, Beah wrote that he has a photographic memory that allows him to "indelibly" recall the events in his life. So once critics, over the course of the last two months, began to raise questions about the validity of certain events described in his book, the 27-year-old author, who now lives in Brooklyn, had less room to maneuver than if he'd simply said he'd done his best to remember things as accurately as possible.

That book, A Long Way Gone (published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux), has not only sold 700,000 copies and captured a coveted endorsement from the Starbucks coffee chain; it has made Beah an international celebrity, and brought the whole ugly issue of child soldiers into the public consciousness. The book is scheduled to come out in paperback in August, and it is a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Beah writes about his village being attacked in 1993, about his parents being killed, and how he was forced to wander the country as a refugee until he was absorbed into an army unit, where he became a ruthless, drug-addled killing machine. The story ends with his rescue, his transfer into a UNICEF refugee camp, and his eventual emigration to the United States, where he attended a private high school in Manhattan. He then went off to Oberlin College, where the work he did in writing classes eventually became the manuscript for his book. Since its publication, he has become a kind of unofficial spokesman on the plight of child soldiers, working with UNICEF and Human Rights Watch, and giving lectures here and overseas.

Out of the depths of the suffering descibed in the book, Beah's story goes, he emerged a transformed and redeemed person, and one who was looking forward to a considerably brighter future than his former comrades in Sierra Leone.

In January, however, the Sydney-based newspaper The Australian began a series of articles documenting discrepancies in the timeline of Beah's tale. The newspaper also called into question whether two of the central anecdotes had even happened at all.

In one instance, Beah describes in vivid detail a deadly brawl between two rival factions of child soldiers in a UNICEF-run camp in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown in January of 1996. Six teens died, Beah recalls—but The Australian could find no one in Freetown who could remember the incident, and no official report of the fight. Reporters who covered the civil war told The Australian that it would have gotten enormous attention at the time.

In the other instance, Beah opens his book with an account of the attack on his village of Mattru Jong, which forced him to flee into the countryside as a refugee. He claims the attack took place in January of 1993. But The Australian reports that the battle he describes took place in January of 1995, not 1993. The paper found school officials who remember Beah attending the local school in 1993 and 1994, and said there were school records to confirm it.

This is significant, because Beah claims that he was wandering the countryside and then fighting in the army during this period.

The Australian also spoke with Kabba Williams, a former child soldier himself. Now a student and activist in Sierra Leone, Williams agreed that Beah was a soldier, but only in 1995. Williams added that he has difficulty recalling the details of his own ordeal.

But for all the work these Australian reporters have done on the scene in West Africa, only the barest details of their investigation have made the American papers. When The New York Times broke the news that another memoir, Love and Consequences—the tale of a white woman's experiences growing up in a black gang in Los Angeles—was a fabrication, the newspaper aggressively went after its author, Margaret Seltzer, and her publishers with multiple stories that only seemed to reflect how badly the Times had been duped in an earlier lifestyle feature on Seltzer.

The Times heavily promoted A Long Way Gone as well, running an extended excerpt from Beah's book in its Sunday magazine last year. But for some reason, the paper has printed only a couple of paragraphs about the questions concerning its veracity.

"The story is very hard to verify, because he rarely puts a date with a place with a name," said Peter Wilson, the Australian reporter who did the legwork in Sierra Leone that raised the central questions about the book. Wilson said that he sent a list of 20 questions on matters of basic fact to Beah's publisher, among them a request for the full name of at least one child soldier with whom Beah had served. Wilson has yet to receive a direct response to any those questions. "If he would answer some of these questions, it would clear everything up," Wilson said. "Why not just deal with them?"

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