One-Minute Book Reviews

March 27, 2008

UNICEF Can’t Confirm Beah’s Claims About Camp Deaths

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:47 pm
Tags: , , , ,

A Long Way Gone has taken another hit. In a recent article in the Village Voice, Graham Rayman raised fresh questions about the book that Ishmael Beah calls a memoir of his years in the army of Sierra Leone, although neither Beah nor his publisher has provided proof that he was ever a child soldier. One disputed scene in A Long Way Gone was first challenged in The Australian:

“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 didn’t respond to a request for a comment in time for the print deadlines for the Voice. But the United Nations agency said later that it can’t confirm Beah’s account of the fight that left six dead. In a Voice blog, Michael Clancy quoted UNICEF spokesman Geoffrey Keele as saying:

“According to our preliminary investigation, while there were fatal incidents in camps, we are unable to provide independent confirmation that the incident took place”

UNICEF still sees A Long Way Gone as “a credible account of the tragedy of recruitment of children into armed groups, told by one who undoubtedly experienced this abuse firsthand,” Keele said. But apparently UNICEF can’t provide proof that Beah was ever a soldier, either. And at this point, the agency is hardly unbiased: Just before The Australian first challenged the credibility of the A Long Way Gone, UNICEF named Beah its advocate for children affected by war. So any admission of doubt about the book would reflect as badly on the agency as on the author.

If UNICEF sees A Long Way Gone as “credible,” you have to wonder what it would find too far-fetched to believe, given that the book brims with passages like this one quoted in the comments on Rayman’s story:

“Beah admits to many viewings of the Rambo movies, and it echoes in lines like this: ‘First we had to get rid of the attackers in the trees, which we did by spraying bullets into the branches to make the rebels fall off them. Those who didn’t immediately die we shot before they landed on the ground.’ “

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. The obvious question must be voiced:

    How? How is it that no one checked the veracity of this work?

    So many opportunities for verification–so little accomplished. HOW?

    Comment by ggelliott — March 27, 2008 @ 10:50 pm | Reply

  2. These are my questions, EXACTLY. Why aren’t you an editor? You might have saved me (and others) a lot of frustration …

    The other question is: Why do Beah and his editors keep standing by a story that is so full of holes like this one?

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 27, 2008 @ 11:12 pm | Reply

  3. The scary thing is, there’ll be more memoirsworthshit coming down the pike soon. Trust me.

    Leaving me no choice but to write a guide for editors, agents and publishers called, “How to Spot a ConMan writer or ConWoman Writer or ConChild Writer When You See One.” Some pre-released examples, that may hopefully halt projects in the making now:

    Number one, if I tell you I was raised by crocodiles in the Amazon River, feel free to check with my siblings. Just watch your step.

    Number two If I tell you I attempted to commit suicide by sabotaging my own bungee chord but still managed to survive a ten thousand foot fall, please by all means make the jump and see for yourself.

    Number three If I tell you that at the tender age of nine months I knew how to assemble an AK47 Assault rifle, could knock down a baby bottle from fifty feet away, and was subsequently recruited by the mafia by the age of two, leaving a trail of bodies by the age of seven, please by all means check with my familia.

    And be sure to check out my follow up book for agents, editors and publishers called, “The Idiot’s guide to successfully negotiating the minefield you created by taking on a memoir that reeked of FRAUD.”

    Comment by mickoshay — March 28, 2008 @ 9:16 am | Reply

  4. I believe the saddest thing about all this is that, if you combine this thread with your other one regarding book reviews, one can see a commonality with regards to the futures of books/publishing/readers.

    So one more question: Why are those charged with the responsibility of ensuring a healthy future for the industry the same individuals and organizations that are furthering its deterioration?

    The worms in the apples are threatening the whole tree.

    Comment by ggelliott — March 28, 2008 @ 9:25 am | Reply

  5. But of course the question is rhetorical, for the answer is obvious.


    Comment by ggelliott — March 28, 2008 @ 9:41 am | Reply

  6. GG: You are so right that the thread runs through more than one post (and in even more ways than you’ve suggested).

    We maybe seeing more questionable memoirs partly because publishers know that most book-review editors don’t have the space or time to give many books that close scrutiny that they deserve. So publishers can spin their books however they like through their marketing … and they may get lucky and not get caught.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 28, 2008 @ 10:23 am | Reply

  7. Can’t help but wonder…what other notable examples are there of fraudulent works? Is there a list somewhere?

    I guess that could be an interesting contest–uncover those that until now have not been caught.

    Comment by ggelliott — March 28, 2008 @ 7:34 pm | Reply

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