Child Soldier's Long Way Home

Ishmael Beah wears the scars of Sierra Leone's civil war as his own.

In what was once the poorest country on earth, the 11-year civil war threw the lives of Sierra Leone's citizens into chaos. Tens of thousands were killed, well over a third of the population fled the country and fighting on the front lines were soldiers hardly tall enough to carry their AK-47s. An estimated 10,000 children were forced to serve as soldiers during the war.

Ishmael Beah was one of them.

"I think you cease to be a child immediately, because you have to learn how to be an adult," he told "Nightline" co-anchor Cynthia McFadden.

The 27-year-old recently traveled home to Sierra Leone with an ABC News camera. The return was bittersweet. Beah's memories of home are laced with conflict: the happy times before the war, the violence and loss after. Beah lost his entire family in the war and was forced to serve in the army for a period of what he says was two years.

"It became a kind of bloodlust and madness, to the point that we emulated the leaders," he said. "When the lieutenant or corporal caught a prisoner and slit their throat or something like that, all the young people talked about it and say we want to do that, we want to be like that."

Last year Beah wrote a bestselling book of his experience and his story of survival called "A Long Way Gone." But in the past few months questions have been raised about whether that story is entirely true.

While no one has claimed that Beah was not a child soldier in Sierra Leone, journalists at "The Australian" and "The Village Voice" question whether Beah was in fact a soldier for two years, suggesting it is more likely he served for a matter of months.

"They are simply wrong," Beah told McFadden, speaking about the controversy for the first time. "First of all, I am the last person who has any bravado about war. Why would I want to say I was in the war longer than I was? I actually don't like speaking about the war. I knew I was doing this to help other people. There's no way I would do anything to jeopardize that, because I'm writing the book for the benefit of so many people."

Some of the questions center around the dates and timing of some events and stories in Beah's book. He says, "I don't think it's possible that I made a mistake," and maintains that he served in the army for two years.

"What happened to me, it was impossible it could have happened in three months. The kind of trauma that it did to me. How long it took me to recover. There were psychologists who determined how traumatized I was."

'Everything Changed'

Before the trauma of war found him, Beah was just another innocent child.

"In the short time of it, [my childhood] was absolutely beautiful. Simple, but beautiful. I grew up in the very remote part of Sierra Leone and I didn't have electricity or tap water. But there was very strong sense of community and care for each other, you know. I went swimming and I played soccer. I went to school and I was interested in Shakespeare…things like that. "

The civil war in Sierra Leone began on the southern border with Liberia in 1991, but it wasn't until two years later that Beah says the war arrived at his doorstep. He was away from home the day the rebels attacked his village. As he and his friends walked home to try to find survivors they ran into the crowds of people fleeing.

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