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‘I am here to make a difference for those who have no voice’

Hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal, a former child solider, raps for peace in Sudan


HONG KONG ― Barely 10, he was conscripted to kill anyone he saw ― any man, woman or child.

For many years he saw homes burn down, men being beaten to death, hundreds of rolling dead bodies being pecked by vultures and fought hard against unbearable hunger that reached a point where human flesh smelled like meat ― all too much for a boy his age.

Emmanuel Jal was one of the thousands of Sudanese child soldiers during the deadly two-decade-long war between the southern and northern Sudanese regions, which obliterated more than 2.2 million lives and displaced more than 4 million.

“Everyone was interested (in being a child soldier). No one was forced. Imagine if somebody destroyed your home. You don’t need to be convinced to do something. Everyone, including kids, wanted to hate whoever did it for doing it,” Jal told The Korea Herald.

After giving an inspiring talk at the “Make a Difference” forum organized by the Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture at Kwai Tsing Theater in Hong Kong last weekend, the child-soldier-turned-hip-hop artist sat down with The Korea Herald to reveal his story. 
Emmanuel Jal makes a peace sign in front of Kwai Tsing Theater in Hong Kong, wherethe “Make a Difference” forum was held last weekend. (Park Min-young/The Korea Herald)
Emmanuel Jal makes a peace sign in front of Kwai Tsing Theater in Hong Kong, wherethe “Make a Difference” forum was held last weekend. (Park Min-young/The Korea Herald)

‘I wanted to kill as many adults, Muslims as possible. I was so bitter.’

“If you surrender, they will say God gave you to them and cut your head off anyway. If you submit, you are going to end up as slaves. So, you have to protect your life and fight,” said Jal.

“When you kill someone, at that time, you celebrate and enjoy having done revenge. But that lasts only five minutes. Human life is nothing to run away from. Though there are some people who get used to it and keep on doing it.”

His village burned down, his mother died and his aunt was raped in front of his eyes. He was sent off to Ethiopia by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army rebel movement where he was told he would go to “school,” but was soon trained and sent back to Sudan as a child soldier carrying an AK-47 which was even taller than him. Everything was like hell during the war but, said Jal, the hardest time was when he was tempted to eat his friend. 
Emmanuel Jal as a child (in the middle, lifting up his yellow shirt) at the Pinyudo refugee camp in Ethiopia  (Captured from the documentary film “Warchild”)
Emmanuel Jal as a child (in the middle, lifting up his yellow shirt) at the Pinyudo refugee camp in Ethiopia  (Captured from the documentary film “Warchild”)

There was absolutely nothing to eat ― no snails, no vultures, nothing. Starving, he gazed down at his friend who was dying next to him and thought about eating him. He said to his friend, “I will eat you tomorrow” and kept his eyes on him through the night. Thankfully, though, a bird flew over Jal’s head, a savior for both boys, the next morning. Jal shot it and ate it instead.

“That was my lowest point, when I wanted to eat my fellow human being. But now it became my strength, a form of inspiration. Everyone has some part of their own story that actually inspires them and gives them a message not to give up.”

Young Jal was a very intelligent boy who took the role as the spokesperson of the child soldiers. He was interviewed many times by different media and those video clips were later added to the full-length documentary on his life titled “Warchild,” which was released in 2008 and won 12 prestigious film awards worldwide.

Grown into a man, a hip-hop artist and activist, Jal was granted a chance to fly to Sudan in 2007 for the shooting of the documentary. That was his first return after about two decades. He finally reunited with his family and found out his exact birth date ― Dec. 31, 1979. Before then, he could only guess his age.

His dramatic life change was only possible thanks to Emma McCune, a British aid worker who saved him from the war by “smuggling” him to Kenya. By distracting other soldiers with her charming smile and words, she made time for young Jal to slip onto her plane.

“Why she picked me, I don’t know. But maybe, it was because of my mom. I believe my mom is in heaven so she can watch over her son,” said Jal.

For four years and six months, Emma took care of Jal in Kenya until she was killed in a car accident in 1993. She put him into a school there and taught him more than she could have imagined.

“I learned so much from her because she wasn’t judging me. She showed me a lot of love. That is what you need to give to someone who needs to change. I didn’t realize that then and was always getting into trouble. But now, I can appreciate her through songs about how amazing she was,” said Jal.

Jal was baptized many times and was given many names. But because Emmanuel is the most similar name to Emma, Jal chose that. The name means “God is with us.” He hopes to follow her steps to help others who are wounded by wars.

‘Now I put my fight into music’

While attending school in Nairobi, he debuted as a musician with his first single “Gua,” which means “peace” in Nuer, a tribal language of southern Sudan, hoping to raise money for kids in his home country to go to school. 
Emmanuel Jal casts a ballot in the southern Sudan independence referendum on Jan. 9 in Sudan (Benedicte Kurzen)
Emmanuel Jal casts a ballot in the southern Sudan independence referendum on Jan. 9 in Sudan (Benedicte Kurzen)

The album was a hit in the region. Jal is now an internationally acclaimed musician with three studio albums and is currently working on the fourth, “See Me Mama,” which will be released this year.

“Music is for people who are going through so much pain. Music is the only thing that speaks to your life and your soul. It is your life, a universal language and a pain killer for me,” he said.

He is also an activist and the author of his autobiography also titled “Warchild.” He is in demand as a speaker and has addressed the U.N., U.S. Congress and many more governments and organizations.

His latest single, “We Want Peace,” calls for peace, protection and justice in southern Sudan and urged people to vote in the southern Sudan independence referendum which took place from Jan. 9 to 15.

Celebrities and high-profile figures interested in bringing peace to the African country, such as George Clooney, Alicia Keys, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, appear in the song’s music video.

The result of the referendum looks hopeful for the people of southern Sudan ― almost 99 percent of Southern Sudanese who cast ballots voted for independence, according to the latest updates on the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission’s website. The official result will be out by Sunday.

“The violence is broken out now. But the people in the north are really worried about letting the South go. But why are you worried about them now if you have been treating them like that for so many years?” Jal asked.

The people who put the country in such a mess are the ideologues and the extremists, said Jal.

“Making an African state into an Islamic state and an Arabic state does not make sense. If you have a government that favors one side, it is not a government for everybody. The (Sudanese) government only puts Muslims first, and all others second.

“They smuggle out natural resources to countries that show interest. For example, China is interested in oil in the southern Sudan region. But the government, instead of using the Chinese money to develop the country, it buys arms to kill people,” he said.

“I don’t blame any foreigners that are buying anything in Africa. They are businessmen. But the responsibility is ours. Why not use the money they gave us to invest in development and build roads?”

Soon after his first visit to Sudan in a long time, he started his own charity organization called Gua Africa. It aims to build schools, provide scholarships for Sudanese war survivors in refugee camps and sponsor education for children in the most deprived slum areas in Nairobi.

The organization recently reached the target amount of $220,000 needed to complete the first phase of an education center in Leer, Jal’s hometown in Sudan. Jal skipped breakfast and lunch for 662 days to raise the fund. It was as part of the organization’s “Lose to Win” campaign, in which you lose something everyday, like a meal or a cup of coffee, and send that amount of money to the organization so that children in need can win.

Jal is now getting ready to devote himself to fundraising for phase two: building 100 libraries in Sudan.

“School provides education to enlighten the children. It gives them ways to invent for themselves and provide ways for them to live. When you are educated, you can be in a better place to protect yourself,” said Jal.

It is because, although those living in relatively more peaceful places in the world rarely realize it, wars are never too far away, said Jal.

“War is always near. Peace is what we need to protect, because war would rob us of everything.”

By Park Min-young (claire@heraldcorp.com)
(Korea Herald correspondent)
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