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A Long Way Gone

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The Australian Stands By Its Coverage of Beah

-- Publishers Weekly, 1/23/2008 1:39:00 PM

The Australian has issued a response to Ishmael Beah’s defense of his memoir, A Long Way Gone. Reporters Peter Wilson and Shelley Gare are standing by their original article, and maintain that Beah’s statement, released yesterday through his publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux, contains further factual errors.


Here’s their statement:


PRESS STATEMENT - January 23, 2007


Author Ishmael Beah and his publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux have attempted to refute the disclosure by Australia's national daily newspaper, The Australian, of major factual errors in his best-selling book "A Long Way Gone."


But that statement issued by them on Tuesday, January 22, which has appeared on several websites, contains several further errors of fact and does not acknowledge that Beah's account of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone is seriously flawed.


The Australian has reported that it found several authoritative adult witnesses in the town of Mattru Jong, including its acting paramount chief Sylvester Basopan Goba and school principal Mr Abdul Barry who confirm that the attacks on that town and the surrounding region that Beah claims took place in January 1993 actually happened in January 1995. Their statements are backed up by several independently-published historical accounts which are available on the internet for anybody who researches the matter.


That means Beah was a refugee and then child soldier for a combined period of one year, not the three years that he describes in his book. 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.


The Australian has believed that those inaccuracies were a result of Beah's memory being impaired by the trauma, drugs and extreme youth he describes in his book but the latest statement by Beah, who is now 27, and his publisher Sarah Crichton of Farrar, Straus & Giroux seriously misrepresent The Australian's reporting over the last week.


1. Beah's statement declares that The Australian has "published my adoptive mother's address, so she now receives ugly threats." The Australian did not and would not publish the address of his adoptive mother, Laura Simms. Instead it named her website, http://www.laurasimms.com <http://www.laurasimms.com/> , through which she promotes her work as a storyteller.


2. Beah has challenged one of the Mattru Jong witnesses quoted by The Australian, Mr Barry, who was a teacher and boarding master at the Centennial Secondary School when Beah went there in the early 1990s. Beah said that Barry "claims to have been the head of the school I attended when I was young... (when in fact) the principal of my school was Mr. Sidiki Brahima." The Australian actually reported on January 21 that Barry was the boarding school master when Beah attended the school and was not promoted to principal until 2002, long after Beah had left. Beah says he does not know Barry, who has taught at the school since 1979. Barry is adamant that he knows Beah well, identifying him from a photograph and accurately recalling his brother's name and his parents' home towns.


3. Beah claims The Australian interviewed a former social worker in Freetown, Mr Leslie Mboka but "his testimony did not appear in The Australian's reporting." Mr Mboka was indeed quoted by The Australian on January 21. Beah's publisher Sarah Crichton says Mboka told her: "I told (The Australian) everything that Ishmael wrote is accurate and completely factual." In fact, Mboka told The Australian--and the newspaper reported--that he believed Beah had accurately recorded those events which Mboka had personally witnessed in Freetown in 1996. Mboka further told the newspaper that he had no idea about the veracity of Beah's version of the original attacks in his home region as Mboka had not been there and had not known Beah at the time. Instead Mboka noted that Beah ``was a young child who had been through terrible things so he could easily have got things mixed up''.


4. In Beah's statement, Crichton also quoted Alusine Kamara, a former director of one of the Freetown rehabilitation camps where Beah was sent in 1996, as saying: "I have known Ishmael since he was a soldier and he came to our center. I have read his book, and I have no doubt that what he says is true." In fact, like Mboka, Kamara did not know Beah at the time of the attack on Mattru Jong. Crichton has not named any witnesses who can support Beah's claim that the invasion of Mattru Jong that he describes in detail happened in 1993 rather than in 1995, when many witnesses say that same attack happened.


5. Beah said in his statement that: "The Australian, presumably, is basing their defamation of me on reports that the Sierra Rutile Mine (in his hometown) was closed down by rebels in 1995. But there were rebels in my region, my village, and my life in 1993. They attacked throughout 1993 and 1994 before closing down the mine." The Australian did not base its reports on the fact that the mine was invaded in 1995. The most definitive evidence is his first-hand account of witnessing the rebel invasion and occupation of Mattru Jong, which was not invaded until 1995. In his account he accurately described the route of the attack (which caught the townspeople by surprise), the fact that a Catholic priest was first sent into the town with a warning, the fact that soldiers defending the town left just before the attack, and the fact that the rebels accidentally left open an escape route from the town on a single footpath through a swamp. All of those events happened in 1995, not 1993. While The Australian confirmed that information with interviews in Mattru Jong, all those details are available on the internet.


The Australian has insisted throughout its coverage that it believes that Beah suffered a terrible ordeal during his country's civil war. However a book sold to hundreds of thousands of readers as non-fiction should accurately recount that ordeal.




Peter Wilson and Shelley Gare, reporters


It appears that an A Million Little Pieces-type scandal has rocked the bestselling autobiography of a teen soldier in Sierra Leone. I haven't read the book yet, but I do have it on my bookshelves. Has anyone read it? Any strong feelings about the news?

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More on this story -


Child soldier questions Beah's tale

Peter Wilson, Europe correspondent | January 25, 2008

The Australian


A PROMINENT former child soldier in Sierra Leone has rejected elements of Ishmael Beah's account of his time fighting the civil war.


Kabba Williams, a university student and human rights activist who has attended international conferences to speak on behalf of child soldiers, said in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, that he believed Beah had been a child soldier only in 1995, not for the two years he claims.


Mr Williams, who was recruited by murderous rebels in 1991, did not meet Beah during the war but has been a lobbyist for former child soldiers, including many from the later waves of fighters that included Beah.


"A lot of my colleagues say he was involved in the fighting but not in the way he expressed in his book," said Mr Williams, who has exchanged emails with Beah about working together for child soldiers.


In his memoir, A Long Way Gone, Beah claims he spent almost all of 1993 wandering the country with other boys after his home region was attacked and that he then spent the next two years fighting for the army, from the age of 13 to 15.


"That is not true ... 1995 was the period when Ishmael got involved in the conflict," Mr Williams told The Australian in a telephone interview yesterday.


Beah wrote that his three-year ordeal began when he fled the January 1993 invasion of the town of Mattru Jong, when he was 12, but prominent adult witnesses in that town have told The Australian the invasion he describes happened two years later. Those witnesses, including the acting paramount chief of the county and the current principal of Beah's secondary school, were adamant the town was only invaded in January 1995.


Beah and his publisher have stood by the accuracy of the book.


Mr Williams said he was not surprised by what he believed were the inaccuracies in Beah's account because the traumatic adolescence of the child soldiers meant "a lot of us do not know our own childhoods".


Mr Williams, for instance, does not know his own age. He believes he was somewhere between six and nine when the rebels took him in 1991 and thinks he is about 24 now. He is uncertain of the time line of his own ordeal, which included years labouring and then fighting for the rebels followed by a period fighting for the army.


"We were fed drugs all the time and we were very, very young ... when you lose your family there is nobody to tell you things like your age," he said.


Beah, according to his own account, spent at least 10 months wandering between villages before reaching the relative safety of the village of Yele in Bonthe district, only to be recruited by the soldiers occupying the town.


A map that has appeared at the front of Beah's book in its many reprints -- more than 650,000 copies are in print and a new soft-back edition is about to be released in Europe -- shows that trek as a winding, 1000km route between Mattru Jong and Yele, about 450km to the southwest.


But the map is deeply flawed. In fact, Yele is just 6km southwest of Mattru Jong. One problem is the incorrect scale of the map. Cartographer Jeffrey L. Ward told The Australian it had been his mistake and that he had corrected it for later editions. The other mistake, which has not been corrected and is more difficult to understand, is that Yele is incorrectly located on the map. It is wrongly placed in the neighbouring district of Pujehun, making it look much further from Mattru Jong than it is.


Beah writes that after leaving the village of Kamator he headed west towards the town of Bonthe before getting lost in a forest and then joining other boys to head for Yele. Locals gave them directions to Yele but they somehow reached the Atlantic Ocean and, after many more days' walking, ran into army troops, who took them downstream by boat to Yele.


When contacted by The Australian at his office in Maine yesterday, Mr Ward said he had based the map on information he received from publishing house Farrar Straus & Giroux.


"I believe what I was working from were notes or maybe a hand sketch but I can't remember -- it is a couple of years ago," he said.


The publisher had reviewed his work and did not ask for any corrections to the depiction of the long trek to Yele.


The book's publisher, Sarah Crichton, said yesterday she had not been involved in the creation of the map, which she said was put together by the cartographer and an assistant editor who had since left the company.

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