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War Child

A Child Soldier's Story

Emmanuel Jal

St. Martin's Griffin

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ISBN10: 0312602979
ISBN13: 9780312602970

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272 Pages



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In the mid-1980s, Emmanuel Jal was a seven-year-old boy living in a small Sudanese village with his parents, aunts, uncles, and siblings. But as Sudan's civil war moved closer—with the Islamic government seizing tribal lands for water, oil, and other resources—Jal's family moved again and again, seeking peace. Ultimately, the family could not outrun the war. On one terrible day, Jal was separated from his mother, and later learned she had been killed; his father Simon rose to become a powerful commander in the Christian Sudanese Liberation Army, fighting for the freedom of Sudan. Soon, Jal was conscripted into that army, one of 10,000 child soldiers who fought through two separate civil wars that lasted nearly a decade.

As an orphaned soldier, Jal marched through miles of desert toward Ethiopia, past the bones of adults and children who had fallen on the trek; witnessing the deaths of friends and family members; killing soldiers with a gun he could barely lift; starving to the point of near-cannibalism; and coming to the edge of suicide.

Remarkably, Jal survived. And his life began to change when he was adopted by a British aid worker. He began the journey that would lead him to change his name and to music: recording and releasing his own album, which produced the number one hip-hop single in Kenya, and from there went on to perform with Moby, Bono, Peter Gabriel, and other international music stars.

Shocking, inspiring, and finally hopeful, War Child is a memoir by a unique young man, who is determined to tell his story and in so doing bring peace to his homeland.


Praise for War Child

"Emmanuel Jal is not sure how old he is, but he sets his tentative birthday in 1980, dating the rest of his life from there. He was born in southern Sudan, where the population is mostly black. His father, a clandestine official in the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), is a policeman and a member of the Nuer tribe. His mother is half-Nuer, half-Dinka and a practicing Christian. The first three years of his life are peaceful, and then war breaks out. Sudan's Arab population, Muslims from the northern part of the country, hate the blacks from the south, who are often Christian. The conflict, then, is regional, religious, racial . . . Jal's earliest memories are of Arabs beating his mother . . . [he] gets used to bombings, shootings, fire, rape. Then his father leads an SPLA movement to send hundreds of village boys to school in Ethiopia to be educated. 'Ethiopia is a good place,' he tells parents who have gathered on a river bank to say goodbye to their children . . . They board a ship, supervised by soldiers; soon the ship sinks . . . he's been abandoned by his family, and he begins his life as a 'lost boy' . . . he and another large band of children walk for days without food and water . . . When the boys reach Ethiopia, it turns out to be an enormous refugee camp called Pinyudu, where the food has run out and hundreds of people are starving to death . . . Jal sickens enough to make it into the hospital, where he gets some tea and biscuits and kindness; then it's back out into the camp with its polio and cholera and protein-deficiency disease. Remember, this is a little kid, not even 10 years old, all alone. Hatred, by now, is the only thing that sustains him, hatred for his father, who so brutally double-crossed him, hatred for the Arabs, who he presumes are responsible for this war. There's no glamour here, no pitched battles, only unimaginable misery. Finally, after about two years in the camp, he's recruited into the SPLA, and his real troubles begin. He's beaten and tortured in every possible fashion . . . When he finally does get to kill a few Arabs, he feels no sense of triumph, just sadness. They're human, too, it seems. A couple of miracles happen. Jal sees a vision of Jesus, who advises him against cannibalism. His best friend has died during the night, and lies, still warm, beside him. Jal is perishing with hunger. How bad could it be to take a few bites out of his friend just to stay alive? Jesus talks him out of it. But can the vision be real? What does turn out to be real is that he's singled out by a prominent English aid worker who takes him into her own home. He ends up in Nairobi . . . He pursues his education in fits and starts. He's ashamed of his appearance and his bad grades. Humans have invented so many different ways to be awful to one another! Still, we know there is a happy ending; otherwise, there wouldn't be this book. Jal becomes a believing Christian and gospel singer. He sets up an organization to help lost boys, but he's broke a lot of the time—a star in Kenya, maybe, but unknown on the larger stage. He's often tired and sad and lonely, but in War Child he succeeds in making this crazy war and all its ramifications utterly grounded, specific and real. Recently, he has been the subject of a documentary film, and his music has been featured in movies and TV shows, even though he reports he still has spent more than a few nights sleeping on London park benches. You'll come away from this book loving Emmanuel Jal. He might even prod you into a good deed or two."—Carolyn See, The Washington Post Book World

"Barely pages into Emmanuel Jal's fast-paced memoir about growing up amid modern African warfare, the reader is brought up short by the following sentence: 'There was peace in Sudan for the first three years of my life, but I cannot remember it.' It is the first of many stark, declarative statements about a human condition of cruelty and wretchedness that afflicts the lives of countless young people in distant African lands, people whose stories we are unaccustomed to hearing. Mr. Jal's tale, of a lengthy and devastating civil war between northern and southern Sudan (not the conflict in Darfur, more familiar to readers today), begins in the mid-1980s when he is somewhere around the age of 7—though he is not altogether sure because he inhabits a world where time is marked by seasons, including one for hunger, rather than calendars . . . Some of the book's most interesting . . . From Biafra to Rwanda, and now Darfur itself, the West has a long tradition of reducing them to good-versus-evil stories bereft not just of nuance but also of politics, history and complexity . . . In one recollection, the young Emmanuel, at the time he thinks he is being sent to school, astutely wonders why the Western aid workers are 'nowhere to be found except in food lines or the hospital.' A few pages later he says that 'while the khawajas'—a local expression for whites—'thought they ran the camp, it was the S.P.L.A. who were really in charge.' These words amount to a provocative challenge to the myth of the beneficent and powerful Western humanitarian worker whose impact is thought exclusively good. Too often in African conflicts these workers' presence has amounted to unacknowledged collusion. Mr. Jal's narrative makes another important point . . . As horrible as civil conflicts are, often their collateral damage is worse. After lusting for vengeance against the Arabs, the boys' first 'battle' is a murderous raid against an Ethiopian village. The next combat is against the Ethiopian state, whose army evicts the rebels."—Howard W. French, The New York Times

"Emmanuel Jal's profound memoir War Child, about his life as a boy and child soldier in Sudan's civil war in the mid-1980s . . . are worthy additions to the understanding of war and its catastrophic effects on children and societies where such bloodshed occurs . . . [War Child] provide[s] us with the necessary human contexts so that throughout the horror and destruction of places and human life, we do not forget that these sufferings are happening to human beings who, in the midst of such inhumanity, manage to remain hopeful, and for some, survive. . . Emmanuel Jal's memoir offers another human face for child soldiers, an experience that may seem far-fetched to many, but believable if we allow ourselves to see the humanity of others. His journey has brought us to see intimately what war does to children, families and societies, and the struggle to recover and—more important—the strength and resilience of children. The question is whether children used in wars are lost, or if it is our inaction that makes them lost. Jal's story is also an invitation to the power of music, the power of finding meaning in a shattered life. Although I celebrate Jal's survival, I am heartbroken about the possibility of refocusing lives such as his, lives that can add to and deepen our understanding of the power of goodness and the human spirit."—Ishmael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

"Sudanese hip-hop musician and humanitarian recounts his time as a child soldier. In frank, unsparing detail, Jal details his experiences during the early 1980s, when the civil war 'grew as I did.' He treasured the limited time he spent with his mother while his father fought for freedom in the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). As his township in Bantiu devolved into a bullet-ridden war zone, Jal, his family and countless others traveled from one burned-out village to the next in search of food and shelter. Separated from his mother during a raid, Jal later heard she was dead. When soldiers from the SPLA came to take him to 'school' in Ethiopia, he did not protest. What he encountered when he arrived was an area decimated by famine, riddled with death and disease, and devoid of hope. Jal was at an SPLA military training camp, where he was 'educated' to become one of the 17,000 'Lost Boys of Sudan,' child soldiers. Carrying an AK-47 that was taller than he was, the boy learned to fight and soon was sent to war. He and other young soldiers killed countless Arabs, but savage conditions eventually forced them to defect. They finally reached the safe haven town of Waat, where Jal was adopted by a British aid worker. In Kenya, he went to school and began singing as therapy. Jal doesn't gloss over the fact that he emerged from his childhood scarred and angry, the trauma of his time in war rendering him uncertain of places and dates, even his own exact age. Since being thrust into the spotlight as a musician, he has focused his energies on projects aimed at war-torn communities like the ones in which he was raised. A touching reunion with his sister, a studio album and a 2008 documentary about his life make for a happy ending. Searing portrait of a war-torn youth turned community advocate and role model."—Kirkus Reviews

"As a young kid barely able to carry a gun, Jal, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, witnessed and perpetrated unspeakable brutality in his country's civil war, but he has not only found refuge in the U.S. but also become an international rap star for peace. His violent memories are graphically relayed in this powerful autobiography. At age 9, he smashed faces with machetes as his friend plunged a bayonet into an enemy's stomach. What is amazing in this story is how Jal has been able to let go of his rage. His family gone, he was adopted by a British aid worker, who took him to Kenya, where he struggled in school. But eventually, inspired by Gandhi, King, and Mandela, he turned to music and the idea of rapping for peace ('no tribalism, nepotism, and racism in my motherland'). And his songs climbed the charts. With the intense personal story, Jal also brings in political issues not confronted in other books about the Sudanese War, including the crucial role of oil ('black gold') in the ethnic conflict.Hazel Rochman, Booklist

"During his childhood, Sudanese hip-hop artist Jal was among the many young soldiers conscripted to fight for the Sudan People's Liberation Army in a series of civil wars that wracked his homeland starting in the mid-1980s. Jal presents a disturbing and visceral memoir of his tragic lost childhood, overflowing with nightmarish images of death, cruelty, horror, and violence. Jal survived attacks on his village, a long forced march to Ethiopia, a brutal indoctrination into soldierhood, close-combat battles, and a famine-plagued trek across a desert that few of his fellow travelers survived. Jal tells his story in spare, direct, and searing prose that leaves nothing to the imagination and offers a close-up view of the damage done to the psyches of children turned into warriors. Focused firmly on his own personal experiences . . . similar in subject to Ishmael Beah's best-selling A Long Way Gone, Jal's moving memoir is recommended."—Ingrid Levin, Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt

THE VILLAGERS' VOICES rose louder and louder as they sang. Drums
thudded to greet us: the family of Simon Jok, the SPLA commander
who protected this village and the ones around it. Everyone
seemed so happy and I was too as I stood next...

Listen to an Excerpt from the Audiobook

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About the author

Emmanuel Jal

EMMANUEL JAL lives in London. His music has been featured in the movie Blood Diamond, the documentary God Grew Tired of Us, and in three episodes of ER. He is a spokesman for Amnesty International and Oxfam, and has done work for Save the Children, UNICEF, World Food Programme, Christian Aid, and other charities, and has established his own charitable foundation, Gua Africa, to help former Sudanese child soldiers. He has been featured in Time Magazine, USA Today, the Washington Post,, and on NPR, CNN, Fox, MTV, and the BBC. A documentary about Jal's life, also called War Child, premiered to acclaim at the February 2008 Berlin Film Festival and the April 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. His first U.S. album War Child was released in May 2008.
Jal also plays one of the "lost boys" of Sudan in The Good Lie, released in October 2014 starring Reese Witherspoon.

© Nigel James,