Former boy soldier stands by memoir

Ishmael Beah, who wrote a best-selling memoir about his time as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, is defending himself against reports that his account is inaccurate.

Ishmael Beah, who wrote a best-selling memoir about his time as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, is defending himself against reports that his account is inaccurate.

Beah, author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, became the poster boy for UNICEF's work with children after the publication of his book and has been an international spokesmen for human rights.

But The Australian newspaper has written a series of articles questioning his memories of life as a child soldier.

After speaking to residents of Mattru Jong, a part of Sierra Leone close to Beah's home village, the Melbourne-based newspaper claims he may have spent as little as three months as a child soldier, rather than the two years he writes about.

In another report Thursday, the Australian quotes aid workers who say there are no records of a battle Beah describes happening while he was in an officially supervised camp in Freetown.

Beah's book describes UNICEF officials and local government soldiers putting child soldiers from the two sides of the nation's civil war in one camp, resulting in a battle among the boys that left six people dead.

Beah, now 27, based his book on memories of his life from 1993, when he was driven from his home by an attack by rebels, to 1996 when he was rescued by UNICEF.

However, Australian Bob Lloyd, who works in Sierra Leone, reported that local residents remember Beah attending school in the region in 1993 and 1994.

"I have tried to think deeply about this," said Beah, who is now UNICEF's Advocate for Children Affected by War. He was speaking from London.

"And my memory only gives me 1993 and nothing more. And that's what I stand by."

In A Long Way Gone, Beah describes wandering homeless with other boys after being separated from his family at age 12 and then being conscripted into a government army for two years. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1998.

Beah is open about admitting that he is relying on his own memory of the time and that he was often under the influence of drugs during this period.

It is also difficult to verify the accuracy of the account, as Sierra Leone's ongoing civil war has led to the destruction of school records, contemporary newspaper accounts and most other documentation that would back up or negate Beah's story.

More than 700,000 copies sold 

Local residents do recall rebel strikes in 1993 and over the ensuing two years, until most people were driven from the area by the violence in 1995.

Beah's story has been so compelling his book sold more than 700,000 copies worldwide.

Reviewers have noted the perils of a memoir written 10 years later by a man whose life has undergone a complete reversal of fortune.

"Who of us in our 20s could accurately summon up our day-by-day lives as preteens?" William Boyd wrote in the New York Times.

"As you read A Long Way Gone, the details allow you to distinguish precise recall from autobiographical blur," Boyd wrote.

Last November, Beah presented the Common Ground Lifetime Achievement Award to retired Canadian lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire for his work to draw attention to human rights violations in Africa.

With files from the Associated Press