In 1991 a vicious civil war overtook Sierra Leone, the country in which he was living. At the age of 13, he was forced to become a child soldier. According to Beah's account, he fought for almost three years before being rescued by UNICEF. Beah fought both during the war and after its conclusion. In 1997, he fled Freetown due to the increasing violence and found his way to New York City, where he lived with Laura Simms, his foster mother. In New York City, Beah attended the United Nations International School. After high school, he enrolled at Oberlin College and graduated in 2004 with a degree in Politics.
During his time in the Sierra Leonean government army, Beah says he killed "too many people to count." He and other soldiers smoked marijuana and sniffed amphetamines and "brown-brown", a mix of cocaine and gunpowder. He blames the addictions and the brainwashing for his violence and cites them and the pressures of the army as reasons for his inability to escape on his own: "If you left, it was as good as being dead."
During a February 14, 2007 appearance on The Daily Show, Beah said that he believed that returning to civilized society was more difficult than the act of becoming a child soldier, saying that dehumanizing children is a relatively easy task. Rescued in 1996 by a coalition of UNICEF and NGOs, he found the transition difficult. He and his fellow child soldiers fought frequently. He credits one volunteer, Nurse Esther, with having the patience and compassion required to bring him through the difficult period. She recognized his interest in American rap music and reggae since he was a kid, gave him a Walkman and a Bob Marley cassette, and employed music as his bridge to his past, prior to the violence. Slowly, he accepted her assurances that "it's not your fault."
Living in Freetown with an uncle, he went to school and was invited to speak in 1996 at the UN in New York. When Freetown was overrun by the joined forces of the rebels (RUF or Revolutionary United Front) and Army of Sierra Leone in 1997 (the Army of Sierra Leone was originally fighting against the RUF), he contacted Laura Simms, whom he had met the year before, and made his way to the United States.
"If I choose to feel guilty for what I have done, I will want to be dead myself," Beah said. "I live knowing that I have been given a second life, and I just try to have fun, and be happy and live it the best I can."
While at college in Oberlin, Beah pursued advocacy work against the abuse of children during wartime. He spoke at the UN and met with leaders including Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.
Beah currently works for the Human Rights Watch Children’s Division Advisory Committee, lives in Brooklyn, and is considering attending graduate school.
He has served as the keynote speaker for several events, including the Global Young Leaders Conference 2007 (July 15-26 session), Oberlin College's 175th convocation ceremony, and the 2008 College Conference in Montreat, North Carolina.
The 29-year-old recently traveled home to Sierra Leone with an ABC News camera, a return that he describes as bittersweet. "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." Child Soldier's Long Way Home -- ABC News
On March 19th, 2010, he visited Beck Middle School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and spoke about his experiences.
A Long Way Gone was nominated for a Quill Award in the Best Debut Author category for 2007.Time magazine's Lev Grossman named it one of the Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2007, ranking it at #3, and praising it as "painfully sharp", and its ability to take "takes readers behind the dead eyes of the child-soldier in a way no other writer has." He was last seen at the Miami Book Fair International presenting this book.
In 2008, The Australian reported that aspects of Beah's account of his life story did not match other evidence. The report claimed that Beah's village was destroyed in 1995 rather than 1993, and that given the more compressed time frame, he could not have been a soldier for more than a couple of months, rather than the years that he describes in his book. Twist in the tale of a child soldier | The Australian He would also have been aged 15 when he became a soldier, rather than 13. Questions were also raised about Beah's description of a battle between child soldiers at a UNICEF camp, in which 6 people were said to have been killed. Witnesses interviewed by The Australian said that such an event in a UNICEF camp would have drawn significant attention in Sierre Leone, but no independent verification of such a battle could be obtained. Investigations by other publications also failed to discover other evidence of such a battle, and UNICEF, while supportive of Beah in general, also said that it had not been able to verify this aspect of his story. village voice > blogs > Runnin' Scared > UNICEF Cannot Confirm Beah's Camp Brawl ClaimThe Australian's claims were subsequently denied in a statement issued by Beah, in which he called into question the reliability of the sources quoted. The statement also cited the fact that during the early stages of its research, the newspaper had investigated the possibility that Beah's father was still alive, a possibility that was based on mistaken identity by an Australian mining engineer. The Australian's published articles stated that they had established that the man in question was not Beah's father.
Beah's adoptive mother also reaffirmed her belief in the validity of the dates, quoting two Sierra Leonean sources who corroborated the chronology of events given in his book. Ishmael Beah Takes Public Stand - 1/21/2008 - Publishers Weekly However, the publisher amended this statement after The Australian objected that it seriously misrepresented the newspaper's report. The source cited by the publisher, Mr. Leslie Mboka, National Chairman of the Campaign for Just Mining, was in fact quoted by The Australian. The newspaper quoted him as saying that Beah "was a young child who had been through terrible things so he could easily have got things mixed up." Mr. Mboka, when subsequently contacted by the publisher, reported to them that he had vigorously supported Beah's chronology when interviewed by The Australian, and had challenged the paper for bias. However, Mr. Mboka had not met Beah until after the disputed events had taken place, and so was unable to provide firsthand verification of his account. village voice > news > Boy Soldier of Fortune by Graham Rayman The other correction involved the newspaper's publication, not of Beah's foster-mother's address but of her publicly listed website address; hate mail had indeed been received, but via the Internet. While the publisher made note of these, it stood by the accuracy of the book. The Book Standard is closed
The dispute over Beah's credibility arose at a time when the exposure of some "fictional" memoirs, such as Margaret Seltzer's account of growing up in a Los Angeles crime gang Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction - New York Times and James Frey's account of drug addiction had led to debate over the nature of the genre. The controversy was followed up in international publications including the British Sunday Times, Bryan Appleyard's full account of his interview with Ishmael Beah - Times Online Slate, The feud over Ishmael Beah's child-soldier memoir, A Long Way Gone. - By Gabriel Sherman - Slate Magazine and the Village Voice. village voice > news > Boy Soldier of Fortune by Graham Rayman Beah had claimed to have a "photographic memory" which enabled him to have perfect recall of the events he described, leaving him "less room to maneuver" than if he allowed room for human error. village voice > news > Boy Soldier of Fortune by Graham Rayman However, some of his defenders as well as his critics allowed for the possibility that his account was not entirely accurate, stating that the main point was that he had drawn attention to an issue that was of vital importance. Possible explanations for any inaccuracies include the trauma of war as experienced by a young child, the drug use described in his account, and the possibility that Beah was tacitly encouraged by outsiders to compile stories from multiple sources into a singular autobiographical account.
Neil Boothby, an academic who has undertaken extensive research into children and war, said that while all of the atrocities described by Beah have occurred at various points, it would be highly unusual for one child to have experienced them all. Boothby criticised the mentality that provided attention only to those with the most horrific stories to tell, thus encouraging exaggeration. "I've seen it over and over. Whether by psychologists or journalists, they are encouraged to tell the sensational stories...The system is set up to reward sensational stories. We all need to look at why does something have to be so horrific before we open our eyes and ears and hearts?" village voice > news > Boy Soldier of Fortune by Graham Rayman
Mr Beah has made a vigorous response to the charges leveled against him in The Australian. A press statement refuting these allegations may be found at