War Child: A Child Soldier's Story

Paperback | February 2, 2010

byEmmanuel JalContribution byMegan Lloyd Davies

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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 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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From the Publisher

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 ha...

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. H...

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War Child: A Child Soldier's Story
War Child: A Child Soldier's Story

Kobo ebook|Feb 3 2009

$10.99

Format:PaperbackDimensions:272 pages, 8.2 × 5.39 × 0.78 inPublished:February 2, 2010Publisher:St. Martin's PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0312602979

ISBN - 13:9780312602970

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THE VILLAGERS’ VOICES rose louder and louder as they sang. Drumsthudded to greet us: the family of Simon Jok, the SPLA commanderwho protected this village and the ones around it. Everyoneseemed so happy and I was too as I stood next to Babba—taller than I remembered,with a bigger belly now. He’d been treated like a king after arrivingearlier in the day, and he had shown us to the tukul we’d been givenas a home. We even had cows now, just as Mamma had said we would.They were black- and- white with big, curled horns. An elder, naked exceptfor beads around his waist and a necklace of ostrich eggs around his neck,stood in front of my family. Next to him was a riek—the altar found inevery home to make sacrifices to gods. Like many in the south, these villagerswere animists who believed in many gods and made sure a cow’s bloodtouched the riek whenever one was slaughtered to please them. The singinggot louder as an old woman tried to sprinkle water on us. “Please no, we are Christian,” Mamma said.“Jeeeeesus,” the woman crooned as she carried on sprinkling water.A bull tied with a leather rope stood in front of the riek. Its eyes rolledas the old man took a spear and stood in front of it. It knew what wasgoing to happen as well as I did and moved restlessly. The elder lifted hisspear and in one fast move sliced into the bull’s heart. I watched as it fellon its left side and blood spread slowly across the earth. It was a blessing.Later the elder would cut off the bull’s head and skin before handing meone of the testicles. It was burned on the fire and I had to eat it, but whilethe village boys loved the taste, I did not.“Come, Jal,” my father said after we had finished.We left Mamma, my sisters, and my brothers behind as we started walkingthrough the village with some soldiers. They were big and strong too,but I knew my father was the most important one. He had just come fromEthiopia, where he’d learned to be a lieutenant commander.“I am happy you are here where I can visit you,” Babba said as wewalked.So was I. It had taken so long to escape Bantiu. We’d had to turn backthat day on death route because a village was burning in the distance, andafter that it was always the same until Mamma made a new plan. The onlypeople the troops sometimes allowed to move in and out of the town werevillagers from outside Bantiu who came in to sell milk to the soldiers. Itwas dangerous but Mamma told us we were going to pretend to be withthem. I thought of the naked children and women who wore just a skinaround their middle. I didn’t want to be bare. But of course I had no choice,and soon Mamma, Aunt Nyagai, Nyakouth, Nyaruach, Miri, Marna, and Ihad melted into a group.My brothers, sisters, and I hated being without clothes and shoes, andMamma looked strange too. The sun was so hot as we walked that the earthburned us and we had to take turns standing on her feet. The moment ourturn came to an end, we’d step back onto the ground, and thorns would diginto our soft skin as the village children laughed. I turned my back on them.All I cared was that I was leaving Bantiu—and the war—behind.I looked up now at Babba as he spoke to me. “This is our land,” he said as he swung his arm in the air around him.“This is what we are fighting to protect because this is what the Arabs aretrying to take from us.“They want to change us, our way of life, and make us like them. But Iwill never let them do that.”Bending down, Babba put his arms around mine and lifted me into theair. Higher and higher I went until I could finally twist my legs around hisshoulders. I felt his hands holding firmly on to my legs as he stopped tospeak to a man.“This is my son,” Babba said as I sat silently looking down.I knew he would never let me fall.Babba left soon after to go back to the war, and I cried when he told mehe was going. He saw my tears and told me I was a man, a soldier, a warriornow.The village was as beautiful as I’d been told so long ago it would be.Tukuls lay in long lines near ours, and there were also bigger luaks, wherethe men slept with cows after the fire- red sun had sunk into the night. Thevillagers also had many sheep and goats, and the thing I liked most wasthat I could walk wherever I liked because it was safe.Soon I had learned not to wear clothes as I made friends with some ofthe village children who I entertained with stories of the city. I liked makingthem laugh as I told them about the black- and- white tele vi sion we’dhad—they didn’t understand that a box could show moving pictures. Butthere were also many things for me to learn. Village life in Sudan is traditional,and girls and boys have different jobs to do. While Nyakouth wastaught how to help in the kitchen and milk the cows, I learned how to drydung, which was then burned on fires to chase mosquitoes away. Nyaruachtried to help us, but she mostly made more trouble than she solved.Her name meant “talkative,” and she loved the sound of her voice evenmore than I did my own. Somehow Mamma always found out whenever Idid anything wrong, and I was sure it was because of Nyaruach and herbig mouth. I was glad that Nyakouth was quieter.Miri and Marna were still too young to work, and we, the older children,helped look after them. Of course, there was still time to play, andthe game I liked most was with a baby sheep I had made friends with.Staring at it seriously, I would drop to my knees and throw myself forwardas it butted its head against mine.“You will break your bones one day,” Nyakouth used to scold me whenshe heard the crack of our heads colliding.I didn’t listen because the sheep made me laugh too much to stop.Mamma was also busy. As well as feeding Miri and Marna her milk,she looked after the many people who arrived to see her. Injured soldierscame who needed their wounds dressed with old pieces of bedsheets, andMamma also had some needles, which she boiled again and again, to lookafter them. Villagers also arrived at our tukul—some wanting the fruit ofthe neem tree, which Mamma boiled to treat malaria, while others askedfor the salt- and- sugar drink she made for those weak with diarrhea.Although the war was far from us now, we still had to learn to followrules. Soon after we arrived, Mamma was beaten with a stick by angrySPLA soldiers. Villagers were supposed to leave out food and milk to feedthe rebels, and she hadn’t known. What they didn’t realize was that whengovernment soldiers came to watch the bush with binoculars, the villagersalso gave them milk. But Mamma quickly learned what she had to do, andBabba sent us a soldier called Gatluak to look after us so we were safeagain.I loved life in the village. Watching the ostriches and buffalo in thebush, learning to use the ashes of cow dung and sticks to brush my teeth,and dyeing my hair red using the bark of the luor tree. I also liked havingGatluak with us because he played with me often. But most of all I wasglad to have left the war behind.On a clear morning, we were all outside. Nyakouth was milking a cow andI was bringing the others outside so I could sweep up the dung in the luak.But really I just wanted to keep laughing at what I’d seen earlier. There isan animal in Sudan called a jeer, which is about the size of a large cat.Earlier one had come out of the bush and fallen asleep in the grass nearour house—or so we’d thought. The jeer lay still as the minutes passed andflies collected on its huge bottom. But a passing chicken could not resistsuch good pickings and pecked along the trail of flies until it reached thejeer’s backside. As its beak pecked, the jeer woke up, sucked the chicken’shead inside, and ran away. Nyakouth and I had laughed and laughed as wewatched. Now I giggled to myself again as I led a cow out of the luak intothe daylight. I hoped that we would see another jeer soon.I froze as I saw an Arab standing in front of me. He was wearing a long,black jellabiya and holding a gun. Everyone had stopped moving. Themorning was silent. The Arab said nothing as he walked toward the tukuland came out with Gatluak.“Put your hands up,” the Arab shouted as he pressed his gun intoGatluak’s back. “Turn around, move over there.”Gatluak stepped forward and lowered his hands as he turned around toface the Arab. The two men stared at each other for a second before thesharp crack of bullets sliced open the silence. Gatluak dropped onto theground and the Arab started running away. My eyes did not follow him.All I could do was stare at Gatluak as he lay on the ground. I knew thesound of a gun well and how people looked after they’d been shot, buthad never seen the moment when bullet met flesh.I couldn’t breathe. Gatluak’s stomach had been ripped apart and his intestinesspilled out of the wound. The smell of shit filled the air. Steamrose from his body as he lay on the ground, body jerking and eyes empty.I watched as Mamma sank to her knees beside him. Tears ran down herface as her hands closed around Gatluak’s stomach. They were bright withblood as she tried to hold the skin together.“Get some rags,” she shouted.I couldn’t move, couldn’t take my eyes away from the sight ofGatluak’s guts—gray like a goat’s—mixing with a sea of red. I watched ashe twisted in the dirt, his breath coming in gasps as he choked for air.Then a low moan escaped his lips and he went silent. Mamma bent herhead toward him and cried. Still I did not move.Days later a witch doctor arrived at our home wearing a leopard skinand carry ing a big spear. He was tall and wore many beads and bangles,which rattled as he told Mamma he wanted us to sacrifice a black goat forhis gods so that he could tell us our future.“He is a dev il trying to trap us,” Mamma said as we stared at him. “Wewill not give him a sacrifice.”But the man didn’t listen as he started banging a drum in front of ourtukul.“You will be punished,” he said in a suddenly deep voice. “Our god isthe one who protects you, and you must listen to him. He is telling methat your village will be burned. You must listen. You will soon all die.”“Leave us in Jesus’ name!” Mamma shrieked at him.Soon he left, but the fear that had wrapped itself inside my stomach theday Gatluak died now pulled even tighter. I knew I shouldn’t listen to aman who worshipped gods that were not ours, but I couldn’t forget hiswords. I wondered what it all meant for us.It was afternoon and I had left the village with my friend Biel to go fishing.We were walking back home when we heard the deep blast of a bigbomb. It was close. We looked at each other quickly before running to thetop of a slope. Below us was our village. There was smoke and fire, peoplerunning in different directions like frightened chickens. Government soldierswere attacking.The savanna grass crunched beneath our feet as we started runningdown the hill. As we neared the road into the village, we saw two SPLAsoldiers lying on the ground ahead and stopped. Hiding ourselves in thelong grass, we poked our heads high enough to see about twenty villagersgathered by the side of the road surrounded by soldiers pointing guns atthem. Other troops were beating a family.“You’re keeping rebels here, aren’t you?” they screamed. “You’re givingthem food.”Children cried as they watched while the rest of the crowd—men andwomen, babies strapped to their mothers’ backs, and elders—looked onwith fear in their eyes. “We’ve found these rebels here,” a soldier shouted as he pointed to thedead SPLA. “Where are the others? Where are the rest of your men?”Suddenly the soldiers rushed at the people and started pushing them withtheir guns toward a luak nearby. The villagers cried as they were herdedback, and a man ran toward a soldier. A bullet rang out, then he dropped tothe ground.“Get inside,” the soldier hissed as he fired at two other men in thecrowd.Beside me Biel was breathing hard. I looked at him. Tears were on hisface. I turned my head again to see troops hitting women with their gunsas they pushed the villagers inside the luak. Bullets cracked in the distanceand screams echoed above us as the soldiers closed the wooden door. Icould hear people crying, and I thought of them trapped in the darknessas I watched a soldier throw gasoline from a can onto the luak’s straw roof.I saw the light before I heard the noise. Something bright burned infront of my eyes, and a huge boom roared in my chest as the luak explodedinto flames. Biel jumped up and started running toward the flames. I knewI should not follow. Death was trying to trap me in his jaws once again, andI had to move faster than him. I turned and started running back into thesavanna. Deeper and deeper I went into the long grass as my heart poundedin my mouth. My stomach felt liquid. I wanted to empty myself. Suddenlya hand closed around my neck and I screamed as it pulled me to theground. I saw a man’s face. I was dead.“Don’t move,” a voice said. “You must stay with us, keep hidden.”Looking around, I saw a small group of villagers. They were trying to escapedeath too. I turned onto my stomach as bitter smoke filled my lungsand sounds washed over me—screams and the k-k- k-k- k-k- k of gunfire.Where was Mamma? Where were Nyagai, my brothers and sisters? Whenwould Babba arrive to save the village?I don’t know how long it was before I felt the man’s hand take hold ofme once again and pull me to my feet. We started walking through thegrass and soon reached the river, which we crossed before making our wayto another village where Mamma found me.“We should have listened to the witch doctor,” I said to her.I couldn’t stop thinking about the people in the luak. I could see theirfaces, the hate in the soldiers’ eyes as they looked at them.“Are they dead, Mamma? Have they gone to heaven?”“Hush, makuath,” she replied. “They are sleeping, and if they are inheaven now, they are safe. All the pain they have suffered will have ended,their bodies will be whole again. God is watching over all of us and Hewill look after them.”“But when will we go to heaven?”“I cannot tell you, Jal. Only God knows when each of us will joinHim.”I looked up at Mamma. I hadn’t known before that the people I sawwere just asleep. I felt happier now.Pain returned to our lives once again. Our village had been burned to theground and we couldn’t return. Many others did, though, and I soon learnedthat people go back to the place of their birth just as birds return to theirnests. Even if nothing was left, they would still go back and rebuild onthe place their ancestors knew. Mamma, Aunt Nyagai, my brothers, sisters,and I had no such place, and we ran and ran as village after village was attacked.People were generous with what little they had, and we were givena place to rest and food to eat as we moved across the south with otherrefugees.“God will protect us,” Mamma told us night after night, and cuddledus to her.But even she was different now—her smell had changed. In the city thescent of perfume and incense had clung to her skin, whereas now thesmell of milk mixed with the sharpness of fear lingered on her.I knew why. The soldiers came in jeeps and trucks to attack, or sometimeswe would hear tanks in the distance and escape the low growl. Buton other days they arrived as light was breaking and took us by surprise.The dry season was the worst because they could move more easily. Burningand looting crops, they destroyed anything that might feed us or theSPLA. They wanted us to starve and set village after village afire as the luckyones escaped to the rivers or the forest, while their friends and family perished.Murahaleen also came, and they were the ones I was most afraid ofas they shouted, “Allahu Akbar,” and shot. The village men would try tofight them with spears, but they were no match against the guns, and themurahaleen would kill everyone they could.I remember walking into one village where bones covered the ground.Some were small and some were large, and Mamma couldn’t cover our eyesthat day—there was too much to see. Tears ran down people’s faces as theycried without sound, and I had many bad dreams afterward. SometimesMamma would sing me a song to go back to sleep, but the only time I feltreally protected was lying beside her or Nyagai. I had to make room for theyounger children, though, so I never really did feel safe.Sometimes we saw he li cop ters in the distance—gunships that hoveredin the air before firing—and I learned that people running for their livesnever go in one direction. Instead they scatter like ants and flee whereverinstinct takes them. With the smell of burning flesh in the air and thememories of bodies lying still on the ground, I’d run as if the dev il werechasing me. I became good at war. Soon I knew the different sounds ofexplosions—the boom of big bombs, the smaller one of grenades thrownfrom the hands of soldiers, the hiss of a rocket from an RPG. There werealso different guns—the AK- 47s carried by the SPLA, the Mack 4s themurahaleen used, and the G3s of the government soldiers. I learned howto run until I felt my feet would touch the back of my head even as mystomach twisted and tumbled inside me. Often I fell down and each timeprayed that I would disappear into the ground. But of course I had to getup and start running again. I wondered if I would ever stop.Stories woven tight with threads become simple ones in the mind of achild, and the war in Sudan was less distinct than a fight between blackand Arab, Christian and Muslim. Centuries of marriage had blurred ourtribes, age- old rivalries were used by the northern government to pit oneagainst the other, and black Muslims from Darfur fought alongside ArabMuslim troops in the belief that they were taking part in a holy waragainst the infidels from the south. Even black African Christians joinedthe government forces to earn money.But I forgot about the African faces I saw among the enemy as I thoughtof the Arabs who attacked us and my hate grew inside. Arabs and murahaleenbecame one in my mind—jallabas—whom I hated more and more.In the north I’d wondered why they had better clothes than we did, whythey were allowed to go to mosques while Mamma got beaten for going toa church. But now I saw for myself what they could do. The answer wasalways the same when anyone asked who’d done something: “Jallabas—Arabs.” The jallabas were to blame for all I had seen; they were the reasonmy family had been tossed onto the wind as our world disappeared.“I don’t like them,” I’d tell Mamma. “They should go to hell. They arebad people.”“No,” she would reply. “Heaven is for everyone and God is for all people.”Sometimes I wondered how God could let them into heaven when theykilled everyone, and secretly I told myself I would attack the Arabs withmy father when I grew up. All I wanted to do was stop them from hurtingus anymore.But at times I could forget the hatred I felt for jallabas because childrenare better at war than adults. The moment the battle was behind us, wewould start playing again and laugh as we remembered how funny peoplelooked as they ran. It was only at night that you couldn’t forget, but in theday we would always find a game to play in the dust or a joke to tell.My family and I were separated many times as war snaked around us.Sometimes I was alone, sometimes with Aunt Nyagai or Nyakouth, but Iquickly realized that wherever I found myself, I had only to mention myfather’s name and Mamma would find me. I hated being apart from her,and in the days without her I would be restless and crying as I waited. Yeteven when Mamma came back, I would be ready to run again, and if weever came to a stop in one place, I would feel my stomach trembling as itwaited for the next battle.“We are safe now,” Mamma would tell us.But the war was never far away, and even when we did stop, peoplewere forced to help the SPLA on the front lines by carry ing food and ammunitionthere. Aunt Nyagai had to go once and was silent when she returned.She’d seen many dead people and heard of families crying forboys who’d been taken as slaves on sugar plantations and girls who wouldbe used by the militiamen for kun ke bom. She refused to eat when shecame back and couldn’t taste meat. I knew what she was remembering—the smell of the burned people.“It was so terrible,” I heard her say one night to Mamma.I’d been woken up by the sound of Aunt Nyagai being sick, and nowshe spoke to my mother in a low voice.“Angelina, there were children and babies, a pregnant woman lyingburned on the ground with her child inside her.”“Hush, Nyagai,” Mamma said. “You’re safe now.”I was scared by what I’d heard. It put pictures in my mind—I couldsmell the air and hear the cries. I kept telling myself what Mamma hadtold me—the people were asleep and would wake up later, and if theydidn’t, then God would make them whole again in heaven.It felt as if we’d been running forever until we finally found a villagethat wasn’t attacked for many weeks.“The SPLA are protecting us now,” Mamma told us one night. “Thewar is distant. We can stay here and rest.”I almost dared to believe her. Babba had brought us some cows, hissoldiers had built us a tukul, and Mamma’s belly had swollen with anotherbrother or sister for me.“Tell us a story,” Nyaruach said.“Will you ever be happy to listen to the silence?” Mamma laughed asshe sat down beside us. “I will tell you one story and then you must sleep.”We looked at her as she sat down.“Did you know that the fox and the dog were once cousins who playedhappily together?” she asked. “But one day the dog went to visit the foxand told him, ‘It is hard to live in the bush, but in the village all you haveto do is warn people when the hyena is coming. You should come and livewith me.’“So the fox decided to go to the village, but got there to find the doghadn’t been given any food that night. Silently he watched as the dog wentto his master’s house to ask. But he was kicked and given only bones tochew on. “The fox told him, ‘In the village you are humiliated. All you get isbones. In the bush I kill my own meat and eat what I want.’“ ‘Just wait and see,’ the dog told the fox. ‘My master looks after me well.’“And so the fox stayed, but the next day the dog and the fox killed ananimal, took it to the master, and were given only bones to eat once again.“ ‘I must go back to the bush,’ the fox told the dog. ‘I will never behappy here.’“And so the fox returned to the bush and the dog stayed loyal to hismaster, and the two became enemies, which is why they fight today.”Mamma kissed the younger children as I turned onto my side to sleep.I was seven—too old for kisses. I felt her hand touch my shoulder as Iclosed my eyes.The boom in my belly told me that war had come again. I opened myeyes. I could hear guns spitting bullets and the low tuk- tuk- tuk of heli coptersthrobbing overhead. I jumped to my feet. Everyone else was up. Miriwas crying, scared by the loud noises. Running to the door of the tukul,we plunged into the daylight. My heart was beating and my legs felt weak.Would I be able to run fast enough this time?Aunt Nyagai’s hand took mine as Mamma held on to the babies and weall started running. All around us people were screaming. Dust and smokefilled the air; I could smell fire.“Wait,” Mamma shouted as she turned toward the tukul.I knew what she wanted—her medical box. It was the one thing she alwaysran with during war.“Don’t go,” Nyagai screamed. “There’s no time.”Mamma stopped for a moment, unsure of what to do. She turned towardus again. “Run for the river,” she screamed.I could see government soldiers in the distance and told my legs theymust be strong as I gripped Nyagai’s hand. I didn’t look behind at Mammaand the others. I knew they were there.Suddenly the little boom of an exploding grenade came from near usand I heard cries.“Quick,” Nyagai screamed, and we turned toward the forest that lay onthe outskirts of the village. We’d be safer among the trees there.My feet flew through the air as I forced myself to go quicker. The battlescreamed in my ears, and all I could feel was Nyagai’s hand in mine.Thorns dug deep into my legs but I didn’t feel them. Fear will always winagainst pain, and all I had to do was run. Run and run, keep going, neverstop until I’d left the guns behind. I wanted to silence the crack and roarand hiss and screech of war forever.When the world was finally quiet again, I realized that I had lost Nyagai.I was alone but knew what to do. I joined a crowd of refugees to startwalking. I didn’t know where they were going, just that when they finallystopped, Mamma would find me. She, my brothers, and my sisters had tobe somewhere close by, and until I met them again, someone would lookafter me as always.“Mamma will find you,” I told myself again and again. “God will lookafter her.”