War Child: A Child Soldier's Story

War Child: A Child Soldier's Story

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by Emmanuel Jal
     
 

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In the mid-1980s, Emmanuel Jal was a seven year old Sudanese boy, living in a small 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. Then, on one terrible day, Jal was

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Overview

In the mid-1980s, Emmanuel Jal was a seven year old Sudanese boy, living in a small 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. Then, 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, and fought through two separate civil wars over nearly a decade.
But, 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

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, he spends little time explaining the complex root causes of the conflicts in which he fought; readers seeking greater historical and political background may prefer Daoud Hari's The Translator. Similar in subject to Ishmael Beah's best-selling A Long Way Gone, Jal's moving memoir is recommended for all larger public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ10/15/08.]
—Ingrid Levin

Kirkus Reviews
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 documentaryabout his life make for a happy ending. Searing portrait of a war-torn youth turned community advocate and role model. First printing of 100,000. Agent: Ivan Mulcahy/Mulcahy & Viney
From the Publisher

“Disturbing and visceral...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.” —Library Journal

“Frank, unsparing...[A] searing portrait of a war-torn youth turned community advocate and role model.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Powerful...[an] intense personal story.” —Booklist

“There's no glamour here, no pitched battles, only unimaginable misery... Utterly grounded, specific and real... You'll come away from this book loving Emmanuel Jal.” —Washington Post

“Fast-paced...stark...a provocative challenge.” —The New York Times

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429918756
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
02/03/2009
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
272
File size:
418 KB

Read an Excerpt

War Child

A Child Soldier's Story


By Emmanuel Jal, Megan Lloyd Davies

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2009 Emmanuel Jal and Megan Lloyd Davies
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-1875-6


CHAPTER 1

My stomach felt empty as the truck crawled along. We'd been traveling since sunrise on a dusty road, and I wanted a taste of the tahnia hidden in a box beside me. The sugary paste made of sesame was my favorite to eat with kisra bread. I looked down.

"Jal," my mother said with a smile. "You must wait until we stop and then we will eat."

"Yes, Mamma," I replied.

I looked up at the sky. I wished it were night again and the blackness was filled with fat silver stars and the shining moon. Each night when we lay down on the ground beside the truck to sleep, my older sister, Nyakouth, and I would search for pictures above or listen to the stories Mamma told us as she fed our younger sister, Nyaruach, and baby brothers, Marna and Miri.

"To night we know the fox is on duty in the sky because there are so many stars," Mamma said. "That's because the stars are like cows — the big fat ones are bulls and the smaller ones are their babies. They are safe when the fox is looking after them because he doesn't eat them.

"But on nights when there are fewer stars in the sky, then we know the hyena is on duty and he has eaten all the cows."

I looked up at the sky again. I was glad the fox was on duty.

But today there was nothing to see except the sun above and the savanna grass rushing past. We'd left our home a few days before in a convoy of trucks and were going to stay with our grandmother in the south. My aunt Nyagai, who lived with us, was also on the truck, and my grandmother had sent our uncle John to take us to her. I hadn't met him before but was happy when he told us that we'd soon see our father. I hadn't seen Babba for a long time.

"You'll grow big and strong with your grandmother," Uncle John said. "Maybe you'll even be able to wrestle lions and one day become a warrior."

I shivered when he told me that. I longed to grow as big as my father.

I stared down again at the box beside me. How long would it be before we stopped to eat? Looking up, I saw staring at me the eyes of one of four men who'd also bought places on the truck. I felt strange. He and his friends were Arabs. I knew that because they looked different to us — their skin was lighter and they wore white scarves on their heads — and they were also Muslim, whereas we went to a Christian church. I also knew they didn't like being on the truck with us. The man looked at me angrily whenever my eyes met his, and his friends spoke softly to each other as they stared at us while the truck crawled along the roads to the south. We had to go slowly in case we were attacked by the Sudan People's Liberation Army — rebels who ate people and stole children. They had killed many Arabs and government troops.

The man's eyes slid from my face along the line of my family as he started talking to his friends about the war.

"The SPLA and their Christian followers will fail in their fight," he said loudly. "They will remain slaves beneath us just as they are meant to be."

I felt Mamma tense beside me.

"Their resistance is worth nothing," the man continued. "We will conquer them. It's Allah's will that they are slaves."

Mamma turned to Uncle John. "The best way to fight is to keep quiet," she said softly.

Uncle John said nothing as the men carried on talking, and I didn't listen either. The only thing that spoke to me was my stomach.

I looked down once more at the box that held our food. It was gone. I turned my head to see the Arabs eating tahnia.

"Is that ours, Mamma?" I whispered.

Uncle John glanced up as Mamma lowered her eyes to where the box had been sitting beside me, before lifting them to the men. She looked sad.

"We have to get it back," Uncle John said. "It's all we've got."

Mamma turned to him. "No. There's no need to fight over food."

But the men were glaring at her as she spoke.

"Keep quiet, woman," one hissed.

Anger snapped sharp in the air. No one spoke.

"Give us our food back," Uncle John said slowly. "We have children to feed. You have more than enough."

The men looked even angrier as he spoke.

"And who are you to talk to me?" one shouted.

Suddenly he got to his feet, and without a word his friends stood up beside him. Moving as one, they rushed at Uncle John and started beating him as I shrank back into my seat. I could hear Nyaruach crying as she held on to Nyakouth.

"Stop," Mamma cried as she stood up. "We don't need the tahnia. It's yours. Leave him alone."

But the men didn't listen and blood ran from Uncle John's nose as he was beaten. Again and again the fists flew into his face and body as Mamma tried to pull him away. But she wasn't strong enough, and suddenly I saw a hand lift into the air curl into a fist as it punched toward her mouth. My stomach twisted as she fell beside me. I felt sick.

I threw myself toward a leg. I would bite it to the bone, anything to stop these men hurting Mamma. But as I sank my teeth into the soft flesh, I felt a hand tighten around the back of my neck. I was dragged to my feet. The hand was so strong, so powerful. I couldn't move, couldn't hear. It felt as if a giant were swinging me through the air in his fingers. I wanted to breathe but my throat was too tight. I could not take in any air. Looking down, I saw a wet stain spread across the front of my shorts as darkness exploded in my eyes. Everything went black.


Looking back, I can see that the seed of hate was sown inside me that day. Until then I hadn't understood what was happening around me — why the people called Arabs seemed to hate people like my family, why they were richer than us, why police beat men and women on the street, or why Mamma was so silent and sad so much of the time. But the day an Arab raised his hand to my mother was the day that set me on a path to hatred. I was too young to give the feeling a name, but each time I thought of what the man and his kind had done, I felt my stomach twist and my heart beat faster.

There was peace in Sudan for the first three years of my life, but I cannot remember it. All I knew was a war that grew as I did. I was born in a village called Tonj in southern Sudan, but my parents moved farther north with my father's job as a policeman. The area where we lived was loyal to the Muslim government of the country and home to African Arabs descended from invaders from centuries before, their skin lighter than that of my parents, who, like most people from southern Sudan, were pure African. My father was a member of the proud Nuer tribe and my mother was half Dinka, half Nuer. War between the north and south, Islam and Christianity, had long been waged, and there were also conflicts between the hundreds of tribes who lived in Sudan. But when another civil war broke out in 1983, the Dinka and Nuer, who were traditional enemies, joined forces with other tribes such as the Shilluk, Murle, Nubians, and those from Equatoria. Their rebel movement was called the Sudan People's Liberation Army — the SPLA.

The war, which was to bleed the very heart of my country for decades, wasn't purely tribal or religious. At its heart was money — in particular the oil that lay hidden beneath the lands of the south and from which the northern government wanted to profit. Dollars were the prize, and the best way to get them was to drive those who claimed the land from their homes. Sharia law was introduced, and the government armed one tribe against another. Burning villages and dropping bombs from the sky, they would stop at nothing to get what they wanted as the displacement of a people became its destruction.

But I knew nothing of this as a child, and my first memories are of a happier time. My father, Simon, was a policeman and we lived in a house made of bricks, with bodyguards to protect it and a Land Rover parked outside. I remember staring up at Babba, in his green uniform with a gold eagle on his shoulder and red stripes below, as we walked to see his friends. I was wearing an army uniform he had bought me and felt so proud. Not only was he an important man, but the six scars running across his forehead told me he was a warrior who, like all Nuer boys, had become a man the moment the marks were cut bone deep into his skin. From then on he couldn't run for his life if war or a lion came to his village — attackers must kill every Nuer man before reaching their women and children.

My mother, Angelina, was beautiful with skin the color of coffee beans, white teeth, and dimples in her cheeks. Trained as a nurse, she was a Christian and taught me right from wrong from the moment I was old enough to understand. My big sister, Nyakouth, and I never forgot the day when we took some sugar mixed with milk powder from the small tin box where Mamma kept it.

"Did you eat some?" she asked.

We looked at her and remembered dipping our fingers into the magic whiteness and feeling it curl thickly over our teeth.

"No," said Nyakouth.

"No," I repeated.

But my mother stared at the ground beside my feet and I looked down to see sugar trickling out of a hole in my pocket.

"You must never lie," she said sternly, and later that day Babba made us run around the house again and again in punishment.

Mamma worked for a few hours a day but the rest of the time was at home teaching Nyakouth and me some English, our ABCD, and Arabic. Soon our sister, Nyaruach, was born and later my brothers, Marna and Miri. Although Mamma smiled, laughed, and cuddled us, I always felt she was sad, just as I sensed that the only day she was truly happy was Sunday, because then she went to church.

Each week she would wake early and make us porridge made of sorghum grain before putting on our "Sunday best." Then we'd leave Babba sleeping and go to Mamma's Protestant church, where she'd sit us down before walking up to take her place in the choir. I enjoyed going to church — the people, drumming, and prayers — but most of all I liked seeing my mother happy as she sang. Her face would light up as the music filled her, and I knew that for just a moment she had forgotten whatever made her sad. I learned to love the music because it made her happy and so it made me happy.

But the older I got, the sadder the weekdays became. I heard my parents talking more about war and the SPLA.

"Who are the SPLA?" I'd ask Babba.

"They are fighting for freedom," he told me.

All Mamma would say was that God loved everyone equally — all the Dinka, all the Nuer, all the Arabs — and had sent his son to die for them.

"One day we will live peacefully together in heaven," she told Nyakouth and me.

We both knew there was no crying in heaven because angels protected you. I'd see them in my mind — some light brown, some dark black, and all with white or brown wings.

But as time went on and my parents got sadder, my father started to drink more. Where once he'd shared traditional alcohol with his friends on our veranda, he now drank alone as one by one they were arrested. Southerners were hated by the police, and the only thing that saved my father from arrest was his important job. Babba seemed more and more angry, and one night I heard my mother's cries at night as he beat her. I knew other men did the same, but I never thought Babba would hurt Mamma and it made me feel strange to see her swollen face the next morning. But I'd soon forgot about it as she laughed and smiled as on any other day, singing hymns as she walked through the house.

Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to Him belong
They are weak but He is strong.


As refugees started arriving in our town and our house filled up with aunties and uncles I'd never before met, my mother couldn't hide her tears anymore. I felt more and more scared. Aunt Nyagai was arrested and beaten by the police, and it seemed as if Mamma had to go to a funeral almost every night. When we woke up one morning to find Babba had gone, I was sure he was dead.

"He's had to go to another place to work," Mamma told us.

But I did not believe her, and when a policeman came a few days later to tell us that we had to leave our house, I was sure I was right.

We left our home that night with clothes and bedsheets stuffed into plastic bags and stayed with friends in their tukul — a traditional Sudanese house made of mud and grass. It was so different from our home — no electricity, just paraffin lamps, no cement on the floor, just earth — and I felt scared without Babba to look after us. Here all the adults spoke in whispers and we lived by a curfew. My mother had to wear a scarf to cover her head, was sometimes beaten when she tried to get to her church, and at night, when we lay on the floor as police raided tukuls nearby, she would soothe away the screams by cuddling us. Even the traditional African singing that I loved so much and accompanied every kind of celebration went silent. In Sudan there is music for everything — cultivation, harvesting, when the sky is clear at night, for sorrow, marriage, and birth. But soon the only song allowed was the Muslim call to prayers. I wondered why we weren't allowed to sing anymore. Some people still did, but they got into trouble if they were caught — grown-ups spoke of a marriage at which police opened fire and killed the bride and groom.

It was then that my uncle John arrived and told us we were going south — a place of safety where he promised I'd grow big and strong, see elephants, and drink as much milk as I wanted. We were going to stay with my grandmother in the southern town of Bantiu before moving on to a village nearby.

"It will be beautiful and green there," he told Nyakouth and me. "The trees are filled with fruit, the river is full of fish, and you'll be able to dance and sing whenever you want. Your father is there too and you will be able to see him."

I was so excited. I wanted to see lions and tall green grass, but most of all I wanted to see Babba.

CHAPTER 2

My grandmother was famous in Bantiu. Short, with white teeth and smiles in her eyes, she made the best illegal alcohol in town and produced three types — one for the poor, one for the middle class, and one for the rich. She was also clever and gave it free to musicians, who made up songs about her in thanks, which people would hear and then search out Nyapan Deng and her famous kong. In fact she was so well-known for it that my mother was named Nyakong — meaning "daughter of alcohol" — before she became a Christian and changed her name.

My grandmother lived with Uncle John, two of my aunts, and their husbands and children in a compound filled with tukuls. It was even more crowded when we arrived because my grandmother had taken in many children orphaned by the war. Other people did too — it is the Sudanese way. So each night we would all eat from a huge metal bowl, and sometimes there were fights if one of us took too much. Then we would settle down to sleep on the dirt floor. Around us were windows covered with wire mesh to allow smoke from the cooking fire to escape, and outside was a mango tree, goats, sheep, chickens, and a donkey for carrying things.

The area of Bantiu where alcohol was usually made had been shut down because it was strictly forbidden under sharia law. But my grandmother carried on making it secretly in her tukul because it earned her precious money to buy food and put Uncle John through school. So three times a week she would send my aunts off to collect wood, build a big fire, boil up crushed sorghum or simsim in a huge tank, and carefully collect the steam in a tube that ran into a gourd surrounded by cool water. Waragi was the highest-quality alcohol, and Grandmother Nyapan Deng made the best in Bantiu, which kept us well fed because of its high price. Even the top government commanders wanted only her waragi and closed their eyes to what she did as they sipped it.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from War Child by Emmanuel Jal, Megan Lloyd Davies. Copyright © 2009 Emmanuel Jal and Megan Lloyd Davies. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

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, Newsweek.com, 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.


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, Newsweek.com, 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.
Megan Davies contributed to War Child from St. Martin's Press.

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