The author of a bestseller billed as a “memoir” of a former “child soldier” may face thousands of dollars in penalties
By Janice Harayda
For years reporters have faulted the accuracy of some of the claims made by Ishmael Beah in his bestseller, A Long Way Gone. Now the Internal Revenue Service has faulted Beah’s fund-raising arm, the Ishmael Beah Foundation (IBF), for failing to comply with tax regulations.
The Internal Revenue Service revoked the tax-exempt status of the foundation after the IBF failed to file the required IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ for three years in a row, according to Guidestar, a leading provider of information on charities. Guidestar warns potential donors: “This organization’s exempt status was automatically revoked by the IRS for failure to file a Form 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, or 990-PF for 3 consecutive years. Further investigation and due diligence are warranted.” The IBF could face penalties of up to $10,000 per return ($50,000 if the IRS considers it a large organization) or up to 5 percent of its gross receipts per year, if the foundation hasn’t already paid such fines.
Guidestar’s comment that the foundation needs “further investigation” isn’t likely to surprise anyone who has followed closely the story of A Long Way Gone, a bestseller said to have sold at least 700,000 copies since the Sarah Crichton Books published it in 2007. Sarah Crichton bills Beah’s book as a “memoir” by someone who spent more than two years as a “child solider” after being forced at the age of 13 to join the Sierra Leone army during its civil war with the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
But some of Beah’s most important claims faced challenges from The Australian in Sydney, the Village Voice in New York, Sierra Eye in Sierra Leone, and other media. The questions raised by the book or news reports on it include:
Was Beah a “child soldier” and, if so, for how long? Beah says he fled his village and joined his government’s army after attacks occurred in his region in 1993. The attacks actually took place in 1995, the Australian learned from published reports and interviews in Sierra Leone. That would mean Beah was a soldier for much less time than he says. “Instead of being a child soldier for two years from the age of 13 he may for instance have been one for two months at 15, which at that time would have been too old to be technically considered a ‘child soldier’ under UN provisions outlawing the use of under-age combatants,” reporters for the Australian said. (The use of children under the age of 18 as soldiers was generally outlawed in 2002, when a multinational treaty raised the previous standard of 15 years set by the Geneva Conventions.)
Did Beah fabricate or embellish events? In a dramatic scene in A Long Way Gone, Beah says that a fight killed six people at a UNICEF-run refugee camp in Freetown, Sierra Leone, after he arrived there as a refugee. UNICEF found no evidence that such a fight occurred, a spokesman told the Village Voice. Others have asked whether Beah sensationalized his story to please reporters, human rights activists, his editor, or Laura Simms, a professional storyteller whom he calls his “adoptive mother.” Those who have had questions include Neil Boothby, a distinguished scholar on children and war at Columbia University. “My take on this from the beginning was: There was some kind of exaggeration,” Boothby told Graham Rayman of the Village Voice. “I’ve seen it over and over.” Children of war, he said, “are encouraged to tell the sensational stories.” Residents of Sierra Leone further challenged Beah’s accounts a Sierra Eye magazine article called “A Long Way Gone Is a Long Way From Truth” republished in the Concord Times of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere. The Concord Times article requires a subscription, but One-Minute Book Reviews summarized some of the main points.
Are Beah’s parents and brothers alive? In A Long Way Gone Beah says that his parents and two brothers are dead, but his story leaves open the possibility that they may be alive. On the evidence of the book, he believes his parents are dead because he was told by by one man that they were in a house that burned down. When he went to investigate the blaze, he saw “heaps of ashes” but “no solid form of a body inside” in the charred dwelling. This account leaves open the possibility that his parents escaped from the house or that his sole informant was wrong and that they weren’t there at all. And since the publication of A Long Way Gone unconfirmed rumors have circulated that at least one of his brothers may be alive.
Did Beah use composite characters or pass off other child soldiers’ experiences as his own? Beah refused to answer when Rayman of the Village Voice asked if he had used composites or passed off other child soldiers’ experiences as his own. If he wasn’t pretending to have had others’ experiences, why not just say “no”?
Anyone who wants answers to such questions gained another way to ask them last fall. Ishmael Beah (@IshmaelBeah) joined Twitter in October and said tweet to his followers: “I am still trying to figure out what to post! Maybe I should ask you, what it is that you would like me to post on here?” Beah might start by explaining why he didn’t file tax returns for three years. He might also answer the question: How can we trust anything in him book when we can’t trust him to meet one of the fundamental responsibilities of every resident of the United States?
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the book columnist for Glamour. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.