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” blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2008/03/unicef_cannot_c.php
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.