Boy Soldier of Fortune?


Ishmael Beah
I had the rare opportunity of interviewing writer and former child soldier Ishmael Beah for The AFRican Online. It's been about a year since the release of his gripping memoir, A Long Way Gone, about his conscription into the army as a teenager in the Sierra Leonean Civil War.

The book is a rare first-person account of the horrors experienced by child soldiers and of the long road to rehabilitation. It leaves one with the kind of hope for humanity that can only come from encountering a wise soul and gifted author.

Now that Beah's an international celebrity, with a shot at the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, his memoir has come under scrutiny. He cites his "photographic memory" as the reason for why he was able to remember so much of his experience, even given his drugged state, as soldiers were given copious amounts of marijuana and brown-brown, a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder. But several media outlets have raised questions about the validity of certain events, which are disputed by outside sources.

Some say that Ishmael must be exaggerating his experience, noting the unlikelihood that one boy soldier could experience the worst of the worst of war. People also say that Beah's characters, if named at all, are not called by their full names and so are difficult to track down to corroborate his story.

How anybody can venture into villages decimated by war on a fact-checking mission is beyond me. The way I see it, there are a lot of things that go on, war included, that people would find difficult to believe. And I think that the Western media are ill-equipped for telling these and other AFRican stories. They aren't perfect or neat, can't be corroborated by newspaper articles or TV broadcasts. And even if they could be, it would still be an imperfect means of establishing the truth of what really happened.

I think it's utterly contradictory that the Western media, if concerned about matters of truth, are not leading the charge against the Bush administration for lying in order to lead the nation into a war that has cost over 4,000 lives and counting. The lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have been proven and yet there is some collective amnesia about that fact, a willingness to forget or deny the truth.

I can't say for sure if everything Ishmael writes is true, but there is an honesty and openness in him that I just have to believe in. I think if he gets in the habit of explaining, justifying, and authenticating himself for other people, he begins an endless game of chasing his own shadow. He knows where he's been, what he's seen, and he stands by it wholeheartedly, which is all he can really do. And I'll believe him until somebody proves otherwise.

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