This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

A Long Way Gone (Review and further discussion)

Author:Ishmael Beah
New York City, 1998
My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.
“Why did you leave Sierra Leone?”
“Because there is a war.”
“Did you witness some of the fighting?”
“Everyone in the country did.”
“You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”
“Yes, all the time.”
I smile a little.
“You should tell us about it sometime.”
“Yes, sometime.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote a poem called “Child Soldier” and posted it online on Multiply and Orkut. My Orkut friend Subodh Khanolkar read that poem and replied with news of a book, which he highly recommended – the memoirs of a former child soldier named Ishmael Beah.

The tragic story of the great continent of Africa is so well known that repeating it endlessly will just be telling a well-known tale again – it would not benefit anybody. But even among Africa’s blood-soaked recent history, the Sierra Leonean civil war stands out for its savagery.

It was a war where the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front of Foday Sankoh chopped off people’s limbs for fun, where wholesale murder was the order of the day, where the violence – though on a lesser scale than the Rwandan genocide – was even more gruesome and revolting. It was a war where boys who had the misfortune to be captured were immediately recruited and pressed into service – on one side or the other.

Ishmael Beah was an aspiring rapper, all of twelve years old, who, along with his brother and friends, took a walk to another town because they wanted to take part in a talent contest – just in time to escape a rebel attack on their own hometown. Fleeing before repeated and murderous rebel attacks, they were to escape many brushes with death, finding help from various unlikely characters in their attempt to trek through the jungle out of the danger zone, their rap skills saving their lives more than once. Captured by the rebels, they managed to avoid both recruitment and execution; but finally, Beah, separated from his elder brother Junior, wandered alone through the forest until he joined another group of young stragglers. Arriving only just too late to be caught up in a rebel attack that finally killed his parents and brother, Beah ended up being recruited as a child soldier – by the Sierra Leonean Army, which was supposedly protecting the people from the rebels. Hopped up constantly on drugs, his violent instincts honed to a knife’s edge, Beah spent the next couple of years in the jungle, killing anyone he was ordered to kill, and taking a great deal of pleasure in killing – when he bothered to think about it at all.

“Rescued” by the United Nations, Beah, along with many other child soldiers from both sides, underwent long “reconditioning” at a camp in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, where he and his companions stole, fought, ran amok, and finally knuckled down to some kind of civilisation. Finally, he was returned to what remained of his family – an estranged brother of his father’s, who took him in as his own son. Beah, articulate, intelligent, and – despite his violent history - personable, beat out stiff competition from city boys (who, in one of the many moving scenes from the book, laughed at him because he didn’t know what an elevator was) to go to the Untied Nations in New York and speak at a conference on children around the world affected by war and disaster. He returned from there having made friends from around the world – just in time for Sierra Leone to fall apart in military coup, total anarchy, and brutality of a level that he had not encountered before. Terrified of being found and killed by his own former comrades-in-arms for “deserting” them, Beah somehow bribed his way to Guinea in the west. It is there we leave him at the end of the book, musing on the future and unanswerable questions.

The book is quite pitiless in its ruthless description of violence and mayhem – Beah neither asks for pity nor hands it out. His descriptions are clinical, cool, and sometimes leavened with dry humour, as when he describes his uncle’s refusing to believe he actually had got a visa to visit New York. He doesn’t flinch from describing how his “training’ included hacking at banana trees to teach him and his colleagues how to get their anger to a pitch so they could learn how to kill human beings, or how, when his squad ambushed and killed all of a RUF squad comprising other children, they sat on the corpses and ate their (the dead rebels') food while the blood “leaked from the bullet holes onto the ground”. Beah speaks, too, about how his force would – just like the rebels they were fighting – attack and kill civilians and destroy their villages so that they could steal their food and supplies, so that this became a major part of their war, and how they were always provided with drugs to keep them addicted and to keep them going.

One wonders at the mental resilience that allowed this violence-crazed, drugged multiple killer to return to the real world and the humanity that allowed him to write this book. There are basically two Beahs – the first, that automaton of the middle of the book; and the second, the sensitive child and the sensitive teenager of the beginning and the end of the book. How the one changed to the other and back again is the real story of the book.

And – yes – the credit for that isn’t Beah’s alone. Mostly, it goes to the wonderful volunteers at the rehab centre, who never, ever, gave up on their wards and led them – kicking and screaming – back towards the light. Without even any religious sermons!

A wonderful, deeply moving book. I only wish it had been a little longer. 


I feel I owe some of you an apology.

In these web-pages, a few days ago, in an article on child soldiers, I’d mentioned a book by a former Sierra Leonean child soldier; A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah. I’d reviewed it too, once, when I’d first read it, and given it five stars.

The problem is that Mr Beah turns out to be, at the least, a seriously confused young man, and at the worst, a fraud.

Before telling any more of the fraud itself, let’s just go over Mr Beah’s story. According to him, his village, Mogbwemo, as well as his mother’s village, and the neighbouring town of Mattru Jong, were captured by Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in January 1993. Beah, then twelve, escaped with some of his friends, and by dint of long walking, luck and a talent for rap music, managed to evade the rebels long enough to reach a town hundreds of kilometres away where he and the others were conscripted by the government of Sierra Leone and made into child soldiers. Beah fought as a child soldier for two years until rescued by the UNICEF in January 1996. Subsequently he visited the US as a Sierra Leonean representative at an international child rights conference. When the civil war reached the capital, Freetown, in 1998, he escaped to the US and lives there now with his adopted “mother”, a professional storyteller, and is now a speaker much in demand at various “inspirational events” and the like.

All this is all very much the story of a brave and honest young man not afraid of confronting his own past and of admitting what he had done, of killing prisoners and taking drugs and eating while sitting on the corpse of an enemy soldier, and of being redeemed by caring and good people in the world outside. It is the story of a young man who has made himself a better person for that and found a new life where he can do the maximum good to everyone, child soldiers included.

Only, sad to say, it’s all bunk. And, as I’m going to expose here, very transparent bunk.

One of the many remarkable things about Beah’s story is how it fell apart. In 2007, an Australian mining engineer called Bob Lloyd had just got a job as manager of a mine in Sierra Leone. His wife had presented him with a copy of A Long Way Gone, and Lloyd was astonished to discover a man he thought to be Beah’s father (whom Beah had reported killed by the rebels in his book) working in the mine. He was doubly astonished when miners told him the mine had been attacked in January 1995, not 1993 as described in Beah’s book.

Elated by the prospect of reuniting father and son, Lloyd emailed Beah’s publishers, distributors and agent  – only to be met with hostility. When he sent photographs of the man he thought to be Beah’s father to his adoptive mother, Laura Simms, he received a cold and accusatory reply ending with this sentence: “We are deeply concerned that this issue not go further than you, and Sarah (Crichton, Beah’s editor) and myself."

Strange, strange, strange, Lloyd thought.

He contacted an Australian TV programme called Enough Rope which had recently featured Beah, as well as the newspaper The Australian. The paper conducted an investigation that proved that the man in the mine wasn’t actually Beah’s father, but more like a cousin of his father: Lloyd had been confused by the intricate web of African tribe relationships. But the confusion over the dates remained; and it was a very serious confusion indeed.

For, you see, if Beah’s account is to be taken seriously, he was a wanderer through 1993 (after his village was attacked) and a child soldier in 1994 and 1995; it’s certainly true that he was in a UNICEF refugee camp in 1996. But if his village was attacked in 1995, and every single survivor account says that is so, then he could not have possibly been a child soldier for more than a couple of months – if at all.

For a guy who has made an entire life for himself from a book where he said all that he said, it is slightly important then what the dates are.

More parts of the story began unravelling: Beah’s school records turned up, proving that he had been at school in 1994 and 1995. His school principal confirmed that he had, indeed, been a student. The principal remembered him well because the boy had been sickly and small for his age and his mother had asked the principal to take special care of him. And, yes, the attack had been in 1995, when Beah was 14 going on 15.

All very, very interesting.

Not one of Beah’s fellow child soldiers, the members of his unit (which was never named anywhere in the book) could be found. Other child soldiers, including the best known of all, Kabba Williams, who was conscripted at the ripe old age of six years, all scorned Beah’s story.The people who helped him “recover” at the UNICEF camp said there had never been a fight in the camp between two groups of ex-child soldiers, an incident much highlighted in Beah’s book, in which six kids were killed.

By now you’d think the people who helped Beah write his book (his editor, the aforementioned Sarah Crichton, sat with him virtually every day for a year, which seems to be above and beyond the call of editorial duty to me), publish it, distribute it and so on, should have realised something was seriously amiss and taken some steps to ask Beah for the truth. You’d think so. You’d be wrong.

What happened instead was a counteroffensive by the “Beah Camp” as we ought to call it, comprising Beah himself, his agent Ira Silverberg, his “mother” Simms, Crichton, Beah’s publisher HarperCollins, and sundry supporters in the media who had clambered on his bandwagon. I’m not going to go into the details of that here; if you want them, check this site. All I’ll mention is that the same Beah who had once claimed a “photographic memory” to explain away his incredible recalling of the exact wording of decades old conversations now says drugs had so addled his mind that he might have possibly confused some dates. Go reconcile those two statements if you can.

In retrospect, speaking from my viewpoint, I find it incredible how ramshackle the whole story was. If Beah was a child soldier for only a couple of months, he would almost certainly still be learning to fire a gun at that stage and spend most of his time fetching and carrying, which was what most of those kids did most of the time anyway; and he’d never have had any of the experiences in combat he described, which is why he never mentions exact dates and units involved in those battles. Some of his account is so obviously exaggerated (like the time he was shot several times but carried on fighting) that it becomes incredible to believe that any one person could have had all those experiences and come alive out of them; like Papillon, Henri Charriere’s prison saga, once you know it’s fake, you notice where all the evasions and the exaggerations are. Hell, even the map he has in the book is wrong; the starting and end points of his year-long Long March turn out to be just six kilometres apart in the real world; in the book, and the map, the distance is many hundreds of kilometres.

So, it’s no longer surprising that Beah doesn’t name his commander and unit and fellow soldiers. It’s no longer surprising that the UNICEF has no knowledge of a fight in one of its own children’s camps – a fight serious enough to kill six kids. And to a world hooked on Hollywood where no African film is complete without a redeeming white American hero/ine, it’s no longer a surprise that Beah rapped his way to safety and that he found love and acceptance from white American redeemers in the shape of his “adoptive mother”. It’s a story made in Hollywood, as the Child Soldier Coalition points out whiledeclaring Beah to be an impostor.

So, why did Beah do it? Well...who is Beah? While other former child soldiers struggle to find acceptance in society and Kabba Williams (quite undoubtedly a child soldier, who fought for both sides in the war) almost didn’t get a Canadian visa for an international conference because he was a “suspected war criminal”, Beah is now an US resident and a well-known figure, virtually made for life. He can do pretty much as he chooses – just as long as he never acknowledges that his book is fiction. As long as he claims it to be the truth, as long as he claims anyone opposing his account is motivated by racism and/or envy, he can get away with it.

Of course, Beah isn’t alone. It’s evident that he was encouraged and abetted by his Camp, that in every case his account was embellished and exaggerated and the accounts of people Beah may have only known or heard of were embellished, exaggerated, and incorporated in their turn (as Beah’s own experiences) to produce his book. It was myth-making, not history.

So, why am I apologising to you? Why, indeed, am I getting worked up over what’s a – relatively speaking – minor piece of dishonesty? I believe the answer lies on two separate levels.

The first is the personal level. I’m not a military ignoramus; I’m one of those who weren’t taken in by Guy Sajer’s concocted Wehrmacht memoir, The Forgotten Soldier, for example, a book far more structured and less transparently false than this one, a book that took in some military historians. I find it both shameful and outrageous that I was taken in by this book – that, in fact, I suspended disbelief so completely that I failed to notice, or glossed over, the yawning discrepancies in it. I find it shameful that I advocated it to utterly blameless people and in effect lied to them; and I find it outrageous that I was lied to. This is why I am outraged and this is why I apologise.

The other part of the question is, does it really matter if Beah is embellishing his account – the dishonesty is all on a personal level, after all, not much more than copy-pasting an article and claiming it to be one’s own? Is it something that can be excused because he’s just exposing the truth of child soldiers to the world? All those things happened to someone, sometime, if not to Beah, didn't they?

I believe that this question can be again, answered on several levels. First, dishonesty is dishonesty, and it becomes more so when one makes a career out of it, and a lot of money besides. The Beah Camp is all complicit in this; they are frauds now, if they weren’t all along. When the evidence is presented them that Beah is lying, and they choose to ignore that evidence, they are frauds.

Then, by presenting himself as a de facto spokesman for child soldiers worldwide (and far more than Kabba Williams, it is Beah who’s a recognised figure), our Ishmael is in effect hijacking their tales, whether such tales are from Congo or Cambodia, Sri Lanka or Sudan. Once his own transparently false tale is exposed, everyone’s tale becomes doubtful by taint of association. Unfair, but that’s how these things go.

Thirdly, by reinforcing the notions of Hollywoodised salvation of poor victimised blacks, Beah is hiding the truth of the situation, where thousands of child soldiers (and child sex slaves, whom Beah doesn’t mention) can never re-integrate into society and live lives of drug abuse, poverty and crime. All this is a crime against people who have no voice, whose voices the Beah Camp has stolen.

Fourth, Beah’s account trivialises the very real sufferings of genuine child soldiers. Since Beah crammed his fictional experiences with cliches of child soldiering (except, notably, sex slavery) and stole the experiences of a large number of other ex-child soldiers, he appears to have suffered much more than they did. If you believe what he said he suffered, you can’t have that much sympathy for someone who was “only” made to cook and clean and carry weapons for rebels or sent into human wave attacks, and you wonder why those people can’t re-integrate into society while Beah did such a wonderful job of it.

And that is the other reason why I’m so angry over this.   

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