- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008


After spending his youth mired in harrowing brutality and poverty as a child soldier in Sudan’s ethnic conflict,

Emmanuel Jal was rescued by aid workers who pushed to give him a new start in a different country.

Yet there were times when he didn’t want it.

“When I was in Kenya, I hated myself, I even cursed the day I was born. I hated it. I wanted to commit suicide. I went to England; when there was a car coming, I would want to stop and the car to hit me,” says Mr. Jal, a slight, soft-spoken man whose gentle demeanor belies his past. “I was trying to look for death.”

Inspiration for a better life would come in an unusual form - the violent, crime-plagued rhymes of rappers in the United States.

“What made me brave is American hip-hop,” Mr. Jal says in his heavily accented English. “Someone come and say to me, ‘They have to rob for them to eat. So I would try and picture, how does America look like because I’ve never been there. So for me, when I look at it and look at my situation - I was a child soldier, we never had food, we raid villages and we take the food and we eat … So I said, ‘OK, let me testify.’”

Mr. Jal’s testimony came in the form of his own raps . Now, through his music, he is hoping not only to heal the wounds of his own people, but to promote peace while inspiring others.

“I lost my childhood, yes. My country is at war. People are dying now. What could I do with what I have?” asks Mr. Jal, who last month released his third international CD, “WarChild,” and is the subject of a new documentary of the same name.

“It cause me nothing if I just go and talk about my story, but the impact that will do will be amazing, so let me sacrifice my pride. Because before I used to hide; I didn’t even want to be called a Sudanese because of what I see on TV. … But I say this country, this is me, this is my responsibility, I have survived, I’m here, let me use it.”

Karim Chrobog, director of the award-winning “War Child” film, says Mr. Jal’s story shows that “you can really survive horrible, horrible things and come out of them and really make a difference. … He has put all the bitter things in life aside, his sense of revenge, his sense of the war and how it’s affected him personally.”

The dreadlocked Mr. Jal, who doesn’t know his age but thinks he is in his 20s, was about 7 when the Sudanese civil war, which pitted Muslims against non-Muslims, tore apart his family and led to his life as a child warrior for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. His pregnant mother was killed, and his father, a member of the SPLA, allowed his son to be trained as a solider for the anti-Muslim faction. Bands of children were taught how to use machine guns and were put on the front lines as the militia carried out attacks against government loyalists.

One of the more somber parts of the “War Child” film shows video of Mr. Jal as a young boy carrying a weapon; another features the now-adult Mr. Jal talking to schoolchildren and solemnly acknowledging that he took part in killings as a child.

Mr. Jal and hundreds of other children were forced to fend for themselves. At one point, they were so hungry that Mr. Jal admits he considered eating the flesh of a dying child comrade. After an attempted escape, he and 150 others were rescued by aid worker Emma McCune and taken to Kenya. Miss McCune adopted Mr. Jal, but she died in a car accident a year later. Her friends helped bring him to London to start anew.

Mr. Jal managed to finish high school in England, but when he tried to extend his visa to stay for college, he was rejected and sent to Kenya.

“My life crushed; I had no hope. So that’s when I started doing music. I was just doing it to encourage myself and have fun,” he says.

As he grew older and started writing lyrics, his music struck a chord not only in Kenya, where his song “Gua” (which means peace) became a hit, but internationally. He was invited to perform at the 2005 Live Aid concert in London, collaborated with the likes of Peter Gabriel and Moby, and realized that his rhymes were therapeutic not just for himself, but for others as well.

The lyrics on “WarChild” are not only inspirational and spiritual, but also political. One song talks about Africa being financially raped by the outside world. “Forced to Sin” talks about his life as a soldier.

Although he once was inspired by American rap, he uses the CD to criticize some rappers’ glorification of violence, sex and crime, most notably on the song “50 Cent,” which urges the multiplatinum rapper to stop promoting songs that might encourage black-on-black crime.

“I sometimes ask myself, you say you’re a gangster, you deal drugs, you kill people,” Mr. Jal says of 50 Cent and other rappers of his ilk. “If you’re a real killer, it’s not fun talking about killing people. It’s hard … participating in killing someone is hard because human life; it doesn’t matter who you are, there’s no one can say, ‘I’m hard-core, I kill people.’ Somehow, someday it will burst in you.”

Mr. Jal is trying to help those afflicted by the violence with the Gua Africa foundation, designed to help war survivors rebuild their lives. With Sudan still in turmoil with the violent Darfur conflict, he is trying to solve the problem the best way he can: with his musical contributions.

“For any person who struggle in something, [this is] to show that if you are in this world, you are here for a reason, and every person has a purpose,” he says. “It took me long time to actually say I believe that I survived for a reason.”



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