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In this week’s Voice cover story, “Boy Soldier of Fortune,” Graham Rayman examines the still-simmering controversy surrounding inconsistencies in “Long Way Gone,” Ishmael Beah’s celebrated memoir of his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone.
Beah’s account of his journey from drug-addled killing machine to Oberlin-educated memoirist and de facto spokesman for child soldiers was first called into question by the Sydney-based The Australian, which questioned its timeline and two central anecdotes.
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.
UNICEF, which did not respond in time for print deadlines, now says it cannot confirm Beah’s account of the brawl that left six dead.
“According to our preliminary investigation, while there were fatal incidents in camps, we are unable to provide independent confirmation that the incident took place,” Geoffrey Keele, a UNICEF spokesman said in an emailed statement.
But while the deadly brawl could not be confirmed, it is still UNICEF’s “view that Ishmael’s book “Long Way Gone” is a credible account of the tragedy of recruitment of children into armed groups, told by one who undoubtedly experienced this abuse firsthand,” Keele said.