Does Best-Seller Bend the Facts?

Former child soldier's story under fire over his account of war.

Jan. 25, 2008 — -- The book, gripping in its tale of a drug-addicted child soldier who lost his family in war-torn Sierra Leone, has captivated hundreds of thousands of readers around the world.

Ishmael Beah, the author of the best-selling "A Long Way Gone," has become an international celebrity lauded for his resilience and bravery, and was recently appointed a Unicef Advocate for Children Affected by War.

But new claims that Beah may have distorted accounts of his time as a child soldier threaten to dim his star and tarnish the message of the book.

An Australian newspaper, The Weekend Australian, recently reported that Beah's ordeal may have lasted only two or three months, not the three years he claimed in the book, and that his chronology of events in the civil war are flawed.

Beah and his publisher, Farrar Straus and Giroux, fired back with a strongly worded statement, quoting Sierra Leoneans who back up his account, and accusing his critics of defamation.

The story of the 27-year-old writer and his skeptics, a tangled tale of good intentions, wounded pride and scars of war, has enough drama to fill another book.

It all began when Peta Lloyd, a bookseller in western Australia, received copies of the book last July and raved about it to her husband, Bob Lloyd. She encouraged him to take it along with him on the long flight to his new job as the general manager of a mine in Sierra Leone.

When he read the book, Lloyd realized he was heading to the same mine where Beah's father used to work.

Soon after arriving, Lloyd claimed that one of his employees, a laboratory assistant, told him that he was Ishmael's father and that he wanted to contact his son. He also claimed that his mineworkers disagreed with various elements of the book, especially a crucial date that marks Beah's induction as a child soldier, according to the Australian.

Lloyd reached out to the book's publisher and Beah's adoptive mother, Laura Simms, to inform them about this apparent miracle of finding the father alive but says he met with a dismissive and hostile attitude.

Simms, a New York storyteller and activist, says that she and Beah wrote a list of questions that only Beah's father would be able to answer and sent them to Lloyd, along with a request for photographs. Beah, who is on a book tour in Europe, was not available for comment.

When Lloyd sent back the responses, Simms says Beah realized that the man was not his father, adding that the experience was unnerving for both of them.

"I was somewhat distressed," she told "To open that door up for Ishmael, this little tiny hope that somehow his family had survived and then to close that door made me feel kind of ill."

Distressed by the reaction he received and with tensions simmering between both camps, Lloyd went to the media, and reporters from The Australian traveled to Sierra Leone to look into the truth of Beah's account.

The crux of the resulting story was that Beah describes a rebel attack on his native village as taking place in 1993 when several authoritative sources put the date of the attack as 1995. Since Beah was chosen for rehabilitation by Unicef in January 1996, his time as a child soldier would have lasted less than a year, according to The Australian's timeline.

Peter Wilson, a reporter for The Australian, traveled to Sierra Leone and said not a single person corroborated Beah's timeline of events.

"To go to this village and ask the locals, 'Are you sure you were attacked in 1995 and not 1993?' That's like going to Times Square and asking people if they're sure that 9/11 happened in 2001," Wilson said. "Everyone looked at me like I was an idiot for raising the question."

Wilson insisted that his reporting was not an attack on Beah and the obvious trauma of the young man's experience but rather an attempt to expose Beah's publishers and handlers for allowing the book to be published as nonfiction.

"The fact that they're still passing this off as nonfiction -- are there no standards?" he asked. "This is a matter of him gradually exaggerating the story at every step of the way and his handlers encouraging him. They should have protected him from himself. They wanted to believe it."

The reporter added that he has was surprised by the hostile reaction to his reporting.

"I feel like I'm shooting Bambi," he said. "For me, it's just about the truth."

In his statement, Beah writes: "The Australian, presumably, is basing their defamation of me on reports that the Sierra Rutile mine was closed down by rebels in 1995. But there were rebels in the region, my village and my life in 1993. They attacked throughout 1993 and 1994 before closing down the mine."

Beah also cited the accounts of several others who "who bear witness to the truth of my story," including Leslie Mboka, his former counselor at the rehabilitation center and Alusine Kamara, the former director of the center.

Mboka, who is currently the national chairman of the Campaign for Just Mining in Sierra Leone, has been a strong critic of Lloyd's mine, Sierra Rutile, accusing the company of exploiting workers and environmental degradation. The company's parent company did not return an e-mail seeking comment.

Kamara, who says that he does not doubt the truth of Beah's account, now acknowledges that there may be some factual inaccuracies in the book, attributing them to Beah's post-war trauma.

"We all make mistakes, and for a little boy who was seen too much, it can happen," he told "One month is even too much. If you are talking about close to one year, that is extremely long. I am not a professional psychologist, but we all know that post-war trauma can cause a lot of pain and effects.

Kamara says that he only knows Beah from this time at the center, and that he discouraged boys there from talking about their experiences in the war.

"He was a very talented boy," Kamara said, "very good at organizing other boys. I kind of relied on him to help contain the other boys when they got out of hand."

He believes that any factual inaccuracies do not detract from the larger message of the book.

"The message of the story is what's important," he said. "It's gone a long way to highlight our plight in the wars, and I'm grateful for that."

In his statement, Beah also says that The New York Times interviewed Mboka as part of its fact-checking routine when it published excerpts of the book in the Times Magazine in January 2007.

That may not help Beah's case, since the Times actually uncovered some discrepancies in the book.

"The fact-checking, as often happens, turned up a few discrepancies that were resolved without undermining the plausibility of his account," wrote a Times spokeswoman in an e-mail, without going into further detail.

Asked whether publisher Farrar Straus and Giroux had vetted the book, publisher Sarah Crichton e-mailed in response: "We did indeed corroborate the fact that Ishmael Beah had been a child soldier, had experienced the kinds of experiences he was writing about, had been orphaned. We spoke with people in Sierra Leone, people who had been involved in his rehabilitation, at the United Nations."

Simms, Beah's adoptive mother, was adamant that his account is accurate.

"I knew this was not fraudulent," she said. ""The last thing that Ishmael would want is to lie about what he cannot forget."

Simms questioned the motives of Lloyd, since he runs a mining company in a country whose natural resources have caused instability and civil war.

"There are people who, when people do well in the world, want to bring them down," she said. "They are going fishing to stir up something."

Any factual inaccuracies would be hard to excuse, said Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, who appeared on the infamous Oprah Winfrey program in which the talk-show host shamed author James Frey.

"Why say it's three years if that's not true?" asked Clark. "If your claim is that three months was a devastating experience, then let it stand. Once you're telling me that it's three years, then you're telling me that I can't trust anything else in the book."

While expressing sympathy with Simms' argument that Beah was obviously unable to carry a calendar with him during his ordeal, Clark felt the controversy could detract from the message of the book.

"If these events turn out to be seriously exaggerated, then of course it's going to undercut the authority of the work."

As for Beah, he does not seem to be letting the controversy get to him.

Simms said that the experience has been emotionally draining but added, "He is doing well. He has this incredible resilience and equanimity."