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“There was peace in Sudan for the first three years of my life, but I cannot remember it.”

April 4, 2009   

Emmanuel Jal recently came to speak to a packed audience in Hamilton College’s Chapel. Emmanuel Jal was a child soldier in Sudan who was conscripted into one of the Southern Sudan rebel groups that waged war against the repressive Sudanese government. He was nine years old at the time; the rifle he was given to fight the government was taller than he was. Against all odds, he escaped the horror of war and went on to become a world-renowned musician who tells his story to try to help the thousands of African children who, at this very moment, are going through the same hell he went through.

His story was surreal, exhausting, and rushed (he said it would have taken a week to fully relate it).  I have not yet been able to wrap my head around the nightmare and beauty of it. So I will just tell you what he told us.

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Jal was born in a small village in Southern Sudan. His father was a government policeman and his mother a nurse and part-time teacher. When the Second Sudanese Civil War broke out, the surrounding countryside began to be attacked by raiders. At the age when most American children enter pre-school, Jal had seen houses torched and innocent people murdered. He and his family fled from village to village to try to escape the violence.

He remembered fragments of joy. A lamb that would never get tired of butting heads with him. A gigantic rodent that snared a chicken’s head in its enormous rectum and went running, the chicken flapping in a desperate attempt to escape. He and his little sister playing and laughing until their sides hurt.

As his family tried to reach an Ethiopian refugee camp, Arabic government soldiers stole their food. They berated Jal’s African family, saying the Southern rebellion would fail and the blacks would remain slaves as God intended them to be. When the family tried to stop them, the soldiers beat his uncle and mother. Jal bit the ankle of one of the soldiers and was beaten into unconsciousness.

A “seed” of hate was planted in his heart against all Arabs and Muslims.

Upon reaching the refugee camps, he and thousands of other children were conscripted into the black Southern rebel groups because, as Jal put it, “many kids there were so bitter, they wanted to know what happened to them. And we all wanted revenge.” These child armies engaged in unbelievably brutal fighting against the mechanized Sudanese army. They were shot by snipers. They were strafed by armored gunships. They were bombed by planes they couldn’t even see.

Jal and his comrades were driven on by hate, “I didn’t have a life as a child. In five years as a fighting boy, what was in my heart was to kill as many Muslims as possible.” Jal recalled his anguish when he realized that most of the enemies he was fighting were black militias hired by the government. Jal said that when he found enemies he, “cut them.” Jal became physically distressed when he tried to elaborate on this point.

As the war dragged on, Jal’s child army suffered severe attrition from casualties, disease and starvation. One night, his comrades woke Jal and told him to follow them away from the camp. Jal realized something was up when they didn’t stop to collect ammunition to go into battle. When they were far away from the camp, Jal’s comrades told him that they were escaping, and they didn’t tell him because he had a big mouth and would have told everyone and gotten them shot by their commanders.

They escaped into the bombed out wastelands of Southern Sudan, making for international aid camps at the Sudan-Kenyan border. They starved and were forced to drink their own urine as they passed through deserts, which burned Jal’s throat. One of his friends was maimed by a landmine. Some children were driven mad by the deprivation. One asked where God was in all of this, and when no one could answer, he hung himself. Jal recalled feeling his sanity waver when no one could explain to him how the nylon of his pack was sewed together.  

As starvation became critical, Jal recalled that his friends began to smell like meat. When one child expired, they rigged his body with explosives and set it out, hoping to kill the hyenas that came to eat his body. The hyenas set off the trap, but somehow escaped unharmed. Jal walked out to the charred remains. He was on the verge of death, and knew that some of the older boys had already resorted to cannibalism. But Jal still felt something good within him. He prayed to God to save him so that he could live his life knowing that, at the absolute abyss, he was able to pull back and maintain his humanity. He prayed throughout the night and morning. As he felt his last strength leaving him, a crow landed within a few feet of him. Jal was able to shoot it and eat it.

He made it to a UNICEF camp and was later smuggled by an aid worker to Kenya, where he received shelter and education. The singing and hip-hop of Nairobi’s streets helped mend his tattered soul and inspired him to tell the world about what had happened to him in Sudan, and what is still happening to children just like him.

At the end of his speech, Jal played a track for us written in honor of Emma McCune, the aid worker who had saved him. It was a spirited song, and Jal urged us all to dance. We awkwardly shuffled in the tightly packed pews and clapped to the beat which was anemically sent through the Chapel’s underpowered speakers.

But Jal didn’t care. He flung himself around the stage, spinning wildly. Arms, legs and dreadlocks whirled with reckless abandon. He laughed and laughed and laughed.