The songs of a war child

The songs of a war child

Emmanuel Jal was trained to be a killer at a young age. Yet he is now spreading a message of peace.


Once Emmanuel Jal toted guns in his native Sudan as a child. Now he is singing and rapping about the need for peace around the world.
Once Emmanuel Jal toted guns in his native Sudan as a child. Now he is singing and rapping about the need for peace around the world.
Photo: Edmond So
Emmanuel Jal has found his calling in life. He wants to spread the message of peace worldwide - through his music.

He has certainly seen plenty of bloodshed. Jal was born in Southern Sudan. He grew up knowing only violence during the second Sudanese civil war, which broke out in 1983. The brutal conflict saw 2 million people die and 4 million others lose their homes.

"I saw death around me when I was a child," said Jal, who is now in his early 30s. "I saw my whole village burned down and my mum and aunties killed."

He was just seven when soldiers loyal to the central government killed his mother. His father joined the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a rebel group fighting against the government. "I lost everything. I was bitter and angry. I wanted revenge," he recalled.

Like many other orphans, he became a child soldier for the SPLA. He was taken by the rebels to a military training camp. "We were trained to use all kinds of weapons, to attack villages, to kill," he said. The fighting went on for several years until he found it unbearable. "I didn't have a life as a child," he said. "Many of us had no idea what would happen to us."

But he got lucky. At the town of Waat he met Emma McCune, a British aid worker married to a leading southern guerrilla commandant. McCune took the 11-year-old boy soldier under her wing. She adopted him and smuggled him to Kenya. "She has changed my life," Jal said. "She put me in school. I had the chance to study and learn for the first time. I was enlightened by what I read about history."

School opened his eyes. "I learned about wars and their causes. I began to understand why things happened," he explained. "Education helped me to see that I have the power to choose for myself, and not be indoctrinated by others."

He began to sing and rap in schools and churches. His songs told a touchingly personal story. "Music is a pain killer for me," he said. "It helps to put me through the day."

He eventually began recording his songs on such popular albums as Gua, War Child, Ceasefire and most recently We Want Peace. In 2005, Jal received the American Gospel Music Award for best international artist. In 2008 he performed at former South African president Nelson Mandela's 90th Birthday Concert in London. That same year, a critically acclaimed documentary on his life, War Child, was released. He has founded a charity called "Gua Africa", which builds schools and sponsors education for children affected by war and poverty.

"We have to create noise. We must make other people understand we can stop wars from happening," he said. "I was a war child and I survived for a reason: I am here to tell my story, to touch lives."



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