A Long Way Gone

Accuracy dispute

In 2009, 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.[3] 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 Sierra 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.[4]

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.[5] However, the publisher amended this statement after The Australian objected that it seriously misrepresented the newspaper's report. The source cited by the publisher, 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." 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, Mboka had not met Beah until after the disputed events had taken place, and so was unable to provide firsthand verification of his account.[6] 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.[7]

The dispute over Beah's credibility arose at a time when the exposure of some "fictional" memoirs, such as Margaret Seltzer's account of growing up in a Los Angeles crime gang[8] 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,[9] Slate,[10] and the Village Voice.[6]

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 had allowed room for human error.[6] 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 criticized 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?"[6]

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