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Australian Counters: Ishmael Beah & FSG “Seriously Misrepresent” Facts

ishmael-beah.jpgIn response to Ishmael Beah‘s insistence his memoir is true, through a press release distributed yesterday afternoon by his publishers at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the reporters who originally questioned Beah’s accuracy, Peter Wilson and Shelley Gare, have issued a statement of their own, standing by their article for The Australian and accusing Beah of compounding what they describe as the factual inaccuracies in his memoir, A Long Way Gone, with “several further errors of fact” that “seriously misrepresent The Australian’s reporting over the last week.” They stand by the sources they cited in their original articles, and refute the ones Beah and his editor, Sarah Crichton, have lined up in his defense—most notably, where the release states that Crichton spoke to a man who said, “I told [Wilson] emphatically—emphatically—that Ishmael’s accounts are accurate and correct,” the two reporters say Leslie Mboka actually told them something quite different:

“…he had no idea about the veracity of Beah’s version of the original attacks in his home region as Mboka had not been there and had not known Beah at the time. Instead Mboka noted that Beah ‘was a young child who had been through terrible things so he could easily have got things mixed up.’”

In short, the reporters say, “Crichton has not named any witnesses who can support Beah’s claim that the invasion of Mattru Jong that he describes in detail happened in 1993 rather than in 1995, when many witnesses say that same attack happened.” (Crichton has informed Michael Cader that “I have seen their reply to our statement. But we stand by our statement, and have no further comment.”) While the truth about what happened to Beah in Sierra Leone in the mid=’90s and just when it happened is obviously going to take some sorting out, Beah’s allegation that Gare and Wilson “published my adoptive mother’s address, so she now receives ugly threats” is, as the reporters point out, incorrect. The coverage published online did identify the website for Laura Simms, which does list an address for her Broadway studio, but did not include that address. Although it’s entirely possible that “address” in this case could be synonymous with “URL,” and that Beah’s referring to “ugly threats” via email. UPDATE: Jeff Seroy, FSG’s publicity and marketing VP, calls to confirm that this assessment is accurate.

The full statement from Wilson and Gare follows.

“Author Ishmael Beah and his publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux have attempted to refute the disclosure by Australia’s national daily newspaper, The Australian, of major factual errors in his best-selling book A Long Way Gone.

“But that statement issued by them on Tuesday, January 22, which has appeared on several websites, contains several further errors of fact and does not acknowledge that Beah’s account of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone is seriously flawed.

The Australian has reported that it found several authoritative adult witnesses in the town of Mattru Jong, including its acting paramount chief Sylvester Basopan Goba and school principal Mr Abdul Barry who confirm that the attacks on that town and the surrounding region that Beah claims took place in January 1993 actually happened in January 1995. Their statements are backed up by several independently-published historical accounts which are available on the internet for anybody who researches the matter.

“That means Beah was a refugee and then child soldier for a combined period of one year, not the three years that he describes in his book. Instead of being a child soldier for two years from the age of 13 he may for instance have been one for two months at 15, which at that time would have been too old to be technically considered a ‘child soldier’ under UN provisions outlawing the use of under-age combatants.

The Australian has believed that those inaccuracies were a result of Beah’s memory being impaired by the trauma, drugs and extreme youth he describes in his book but the latest statement by Beah, who is now 27, and his publisher Sarah Crichton of Farrar, Straus & Giroux seriously misrepresent The Australian‘s reporting over the last week.

1. Beah’s statement declares that The Australian has “published my adoptive mother’s address, so she now receives ugly threats.” The Australian did not and would not publish the address of his adoptive mother, Laura Simms. Instead it named her website, www.laurasimms.com, through which she promotes her work as a storyteller.

2. Beah has challenged one of the Mattru Jong witnesses quoted by The Australian, Mr Barry, who was a teacher and boarding master at the Centennial Secondary School when Beah went there in the early 1990s. Beah said that Barry “claims to have been the head of the school I attended when I was young… (when in fact) the principal of my school was Mr. Sidiki Brahima.” The Australian actually reported on January 21 that Barry was the boarding school master when Beah attended the school and was not promoted to principal until 2002, long after Beah had left. Beah says he does not know Barry, who has taught at the school since 1979. Barry is adamant that he knows Beah well, identifying him from a photograph and accurately recalling his brother’s name and his parents’ home towns.

3. Beah claims The Australian interviewed a former social worker in Freetown, Mr Leslie Mboka but “his testimony did not appear in The Australian’s reporting.” Mr Mboka was indeed quoted by The Australian on January 21. Beah’s publisher Sarah Crichton says Mboka told her: “I told (The Australian) everything that Ishmael wrote is accurate and completely factual.” In fact, Mboka told The Australian—and the newspaper reported— that he believed Beah had accurately recorded those events which Mboka had personally witnessed in Freetown in 1996. Mboka further told the newspaper that he had no idea about the veracity of Beah’s version of the original attacks in his home region as Mboka had not been there and had not known Beah at the time. Instead Mboka noted that Beah “was a young child who had been through terrible things so he could easily have got things mixed up.”

4. In Beah’s statement, Crichton also quoted Alusine Kamara, a former director of one of the Freetown rehabilitation camps where Beah was sent in 1996, as saying: “I have known Ishmael since he was a soldier and he came to our center. I have read his book, and I have no doubt that what he says is true.” In fact, like Mboka, Kamara did not know Beah at the time of the attack on Mattru Jong. Crichton has not named any witnesses who can support Beah’s claim that the invasion of Mattru Jong that he describes in detail happened in 1993 rather than in 1995, when many witnesses say that same attack happened.

5. Beah said in his statement that: “The Australian, presumably, is basing their defamation of me on reports that the Sierra Rutile Mine (in his hometown) was closed down by rebels in 1995. But there were rebels in my region, my village, and my life in 1993. They attacked throughout 1993 and 1994 before closing down the mine.” The Australian did not base its reports on the fact that the mine was invaded in 1995. The most definitive evidence is his first-hand account of witnessing the rebel invasion and occupation of Mattru Jong, which was not invaded until 1995. In his account he accurately described the route of the attack (which caught the townspeople by surprise), the fact that a Catholic priest was first sent into the town with a warning, the fact that soldiers defending the town left just before the attack, and the fact that the rebels accidentally left open an escape route from the town on a single footpath through a swamp. All of those events happened in 1995, not 1993. While The Australian confirmed that information with interviews in Mattru Jong, all those details are available on the internet.

The Australian has insisted throughout its coverage that it believes that Beah suffered a terrible ordeal during his country’s civil war. However a book sold to hundreds of thousands of readers as non-fiction should accurately recount that ordeal.”

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