Literature for Children and Youths

Ishmael Beah

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A Long Way Gone
A Long Way Gone
Ishmael Beah
Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah is born on November 23rd 1980, in Mattru Jong Bonthe District, Sierra Leone. Ishmeal is a former Sierra Leone child soldier.

A Long Way GoneA Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is a book written by Ishmael Beah in 2007 about his experiences as a boy soldier.

Plot Summary

The book starts in January 1993, Sierra Leone, when a twelve-year old Ishmael Beah, his older brother and some friends leave their native village of Mattru Jong in the Moyamba District to attend a talent show in a neighboring village a few days away. While there, however, the group learns that their home has been attacked by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). It is from here that the young boys become entangled in a long process of fleeing war violence; being captured by rebel forces and wary villagers alike; as well as trying to find and be reunited with their families. Eventually, Beah becomes separated from the group during an RUF attack and he wanders by himself for a while, spending a few weeks hiding in a jungle before encountering another young group of boys whom he recognizes as being friends from Mogbwemo. He joins this group and they go about much as before, continually wandering and surviving until they reach the town of Yele in the Bonthe District, which has been converted to use as a military base by the Sierra Leonean government army. It is here with the town being surrounded by RUF fighters that Beah, his friends and many other refugees are forcibly conscripted by the army to fight. With the help of drugs, war movies, fellow soldiers and combat violence, Beah becomes a mindless killer before being released from the army to UNICEF a few years later in January 1996 at the age of fifteen. Beah is taken to a shelter in the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown, where he and several other child soldiers are to be rehabilitated. However, the children cause much trouble for the volunteer staffers at the facility, with Beah experiencing symptoms of drug withdrawal as well as troubling memories of his time as a child soldier. Despite the violence caused by the children, one of the staffers, Nurse Esther, becomes interested in Beah, learning about his childhood love of rap music and purchasing him a rap cassette and Walkman when she takes Beah and his friend Alhaji to the city. It is through this connection and his numerous counseling experiences with Esther that Beah eventually turns away from his violent self and starts to heal from his mental wounds. Eventually, Beah becomes adopted by one of his uncles in the city and settles down with him and his family on the outskirts of Freetown. It is during this time that Beah is chosen to speak to the UN in New York about his experiences as a child soldier and the other problems plaguing his country.While at the UN meeting in New York Beah met several other children who were also experiencing problems in their countries. There were 57 children present at the meeting and each of them told their story to the UN. He also meets Laura Simms, a storyteller chaperone to Beah and his future foster mother.However in 1998 when Beah returns to Sierra Leone, Freetown is invaded by a combination of the RUF and the Sierra Leonean government army, causing many civilian deaths including the passing away of his uncle. Alone, Beah decides to get in contact with Laura, then he escapes Sierra Leone and crosses the border into Guinea, where he eventually makes his way to the United States and his new life abroad.[1]

Awards and Recognition

"A Long Way Gone" was nominated for a Quill Award in the Best Debut Author category for 2006.

Credibility dispute

In 2008, The Australian reported that aspects of Beah's account of his life story did not match other evidence. The report claimed that Beah's village was destroyed in 1995 rather than 1993, and that given the more compressed time frame, he could not have been a soldier for more than a couple of months, rather than the years that he describes in his book.[2] He would also have been aged 15 when he became a soldier, rather than 13. Questions were also raised about Beah's description of a battle between child soldiers at a UNICEF camp, in which 6 people were said to have been killed. Witnesses interviewed by The Australian said that such an event in a UNICEF camp would have drawn significant attention in Sierre Leone, but no independent verification of such a battle could be obtained. Investigations by other publications also failed to discover other evidence of such a battle, and UNICEF, while supportive of Beah in general, also said that it had not been able to verify this aspect of his story.[3] The Australian's claims were subsequently denied in a statement issued by Beah, in which he called into question the reliability of the sources quoted. The statement also cited the fact that during the early stages of its research, the newspaper had investigated the possibility that Beah's father was still alive, a possibility that was based on mistaken identity by an Australian mining engineer. The Australian's published articles stated that they had established that the man in question was not Beah's father.
Beah's adoptive mother also reaffirmed her belief in the validity of the dates, quoting two Sierra Leonean sources who corroborated the chronology of events given in his book.[4] However, the publisher amended this statement after The Australian objected that it seriously misrepresented the newspaper's report. The source cited by the publisher, Mr. Leslie Mboka, National Chairman of the Campaign for Just Mining, was in fact quoted by The Australian. The newspaper quoted him as saying that Beah "was a young child who had been through terrible things so he could easily have got things mixed up." Mr. Mboka, when subsequently contacted by the publisher, reported to them that he had vigorously supported Beah's chronology when interviewed by The Australian, and had challenged the paper for bias. However, Mr. Mboka had not met Beah until after the disputed events had taken place, and so was unable to provide firsthand verification of his account.[5] The other correction involved the newspaper's publication, not of Beah's foster-mother's address but of her publicly listed website address; hate mail had indeed been received, but via the Internet. While the publisher made note of these, it stood by the accuracy of the book.[6]
The dispute over Beah's credibility arose at a time when the exposure of some "fictional" memoirs, such as Margaret Selzer's account of growing up in a Los Angeles crime gang[7] and James Frey's account of drug addiction had led to debate over the nature of the genre. The controversy was followed up in international publications including the British Sunday Times,[8] Slate,[9] and the Village Voice.[10] Beah had claimed to have a "photographic memory" which enabled him to have perfect recall of the events he described, leaving him "less room to maneuver" than if he allowed room for human error.[11] However, some of his defenders as well as his critics allowed for the possibility that his account was not entirely accurate, stating that the main point was that he had drawn attention to an issue that was of vital importance. Possible explanations for any inaccuracies include the trauma of war as experienced by a young child, the drug use described in his account, and the possibility that Beah was tacitly encouraged by outsiders to compile stories from multiple sources into a singular autobiographical account.
Neil Boothby, an academic who has undertaken extensive research into children and war, said that while all of the atrocities described by Beah have occurred at various points, it would be highly unusual for one child to have experienced them all. Boothby criticised the mentality that provided attention only to those with the most horrific stories to tell, thus encouraging exaggeration. "I've seen it over and over. Whether by psychologists or journalists, they are encouraged to tell the sensational stories...The system is set up to reward sensational stories. We all need to look at why does something have to be so horrific before we open our eyes and ears and hearts?"[12]
Mr Beah has made a vigorous response to the charges leveled against him in The Australian. His comments and self defence can be found at:


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