Posted by: Home Strange Home | June 5, 2009

Emmanuel Jal: War Child

Wednesday evening I had the pleasure of attending a performance and talk by Emmanuel Jal, the Sudanese former child solider who has become an internationally known rapper. He was interviewed by the writer and journalist William Shaw. Through spoken word, storytelling, and music, Emmanuel told his extraordinary story…

Emmanuel was born in 1980 in South Sudan. His mother was a nurse, his father was a policeman, and his grandmother illegally brewed alcohol which she sold in the village. His father joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). When Emmanuel was 7, his village was attacked by government loyalists and he witnessed his aunt being raped, his uncle and mother get beaten, and his village being burned. He recalls that the government soldiers took their food and called them abid, the Arabic world for slave.

During the attack, Emmanuel’s mother was killed and his father sent him away to Ethiopia “to be educated.” Under the promise that he would go to school in Ethiopia, Emmanuel joined other boys on a boat that would take them up the Nile. But the boat was so overloaded with kids that it sank and many of them drowned. They were attacked by hippos and snakes and those that survived had to eat raw fish. They walked back to where the boat had embarked, and Emmanuel was deeply saddened that his father was not there to greet him or bring him food.

With the boat gone, the boys had to trek to Ethiopia by foot instead, a long and perilous journey. By the time they arrived at a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where they joined a group of thousands of other children, there were only 16 boys remaining from the original group of nearly 400 that Emmanuel had departed with. In refugee camp, many children starved to death because they were given only raw food (dry rice and beans) and were too young to know how to cook them.

It is in these camps that Emmanuel and other boys were recruited by the SPLA to fight. Emmanuel was eager to join because of his bitterness and hatred against the Arabs and Muslims; he readily agreed to be trained by the commanders to kill the enemy. Emmanuel fought for several years, and in no small skirmishes; he was fighting in battles with tanks, rocket launchers, and helicopters, including the battle with the government at the town of Juba.

One day, he escaped from the SPLA with a group of other child soldiers. They had packed enough food for 1 month, but the journey ended up taking 3 months. When they ran out of food, they had to eat the roots of trees; some were poisoned and died. During one stage of the journey, they had to cross a very hot and dry area with no water and became extremely dehydrated. They were reduced to licking dew from the grass in the morning.

When they later reached a plain of dry, cracked ground, they were forced to drink their own urine. Several of the boys shot themselves out of desperation. Finally, after praying to the Gods under a great tree where they had sat down to die, it rained heavily. They reached a swampy area, where they shot birds and other animals and ate them. Some of the children had to resort to eating the flesh of their dead comrades.

At last they reached the town of Waat, where Emmanuel met Emma McCune, a British aid worker who rescued him from fighting as a soldier. He was only 11 years old. She smuggled him into Kenya, where he lived in Nairobi and could finally attend a real school. He started singing and rapping and became active in the community, forming an association of former South Sudanese child soldiers in Nairobi. He now has three albums (Gua, Ceasefire, and War Child) and has founded the charity Gua Africa, which seeks scholarships for ex-child soldiers and survivors of war.

Emmanuel shared his thoughts about the conflict in Sudan and the role of the international community in Africa. Emmanuel says he no longer feels hatred toward Arabs and Muslims and now counts many of them as friends. He feels more than one person is responsible for the war in Sudan; it is not just Omar al-Bashir, but also his army, and even more so the Chinese oil companies that continue to fund the Sudanese government. “Oil is killing us,” he says. He also believes that Sudan needs to move from sharia law to a secular state law, enable freedom of speech, allow for greater representation of non-Muslims in the government, and change the education system so children don’t have to choose between going to a Muslim or Christian school.

Emanuel holds a strong distaste for foreign aid, saying that “Aid cripples us and makes us beggars.” He believes that aid creates dependency and what Africa needs is not aid, but education. He is also very antagonistic toward the UN, questioning what it was formed for (“Only to protect the white people?”) and accusing them of being “the biggest gangsters we have.”

Emmanuel has just written “War Child: A Boy Soldier’s Story,” released earlier this month.

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