- The Washington Times - Monday, April 27, 2009

By Emmanuel Jal with Megan Lloyd Davies

St. Martin’s Press, $24.95, 262 pages.

Reviewed by John Weisman

“I was born,” Emmanuel Jal writes in “War Child,” his powerful, brutal and ultimately uplifting memoir, “in a land without books and writing, a land where history was carried on your mother’s tongue and in the songs of your village, a land swallowed up by war even as I uttered my first cry.” Mr. Jal, who dates his birth to Jan. 1, 1980, is one of Sudan’s Lost Boys, preteens who were recruited out of villages and refugee camps to become Jesh a mer - child soldiers.

The Jesh were used as cannon fodder by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in its fight against the Sudanese army and the Arab Murahaleen, who hated the black and often Christian indigenous Dinka and Nuer tribes of South Sudan.

When Mr. Jal became a Jesh, he was almost as tall as an AK-47. His father was an SPLA commander. By the age of 7, he had watched as his aunt was raped by an Arab soldier, had seen his Christian mother and grandmother beaten by Arabs and had known the violence of being on the losing side of a brutal civil war.

“I remember,” he writes, “walking into one village where bones covered the ground. Some were small and some were large, and Mamma couldn’t cover our eyes that day - there was too much to see. Tears ran down people’s faces as they cried without sound, and I had many bad dreams afterward.”

Mr. Jal’s prose is at once mesmerizing and terrifying. It’s mesmerizing because of the way he accepts the total brutality of his existence. “We crouched for hours at a time learning how to stay still, or being kicked in the head by the [trainers] if we raised our legs too high as we crawled along the ground. … If boys bled, vomited, fainted, or fell, they were left behind.” Mr. Jal was 9 years old at that point.

Mr. Jal’s prose is terrifying because of the way he writes: in an understated monotone, looking at life through dead eyes. “Death was everything here while the living went unnoticed. I wondered if any of the bodies still had life in them, if any of our soldiers lying on the ground were trying to whisper for help. I knew not if everyone hit by a bullet died. Maybe someone was lying close to me as the life ebbed out of them and I turned my back to walk farther into the forest.” Mr. Jal was then 12 years old.

Two epiphanies saved him. The first came during a long forced march. There was no food. The boys were forced to use corpses to bait hyenas so they could kill the scavengers and eat their flesh. One of the soldiers, known as the magician, turns to cannibalism. As Mr. Jal’s friend Lual is dying, “I lowered my head and pushed my nose into the crook of Lual’s arm. His skin was warm, soft. It smelled like dry meat. Saliva rushed into my mouth. Could I do what the magician had done?”

Fortunately, Mr. Jal is saved when another boy soldier kills a crow. “I pulled myself onto my knees and started crawling toward the crow. Food. God had done as I asked. He had delivered me from evil.”

Ultimately, Mr. Jal is delivered from evil by Emma McCune, the English wife of Rick Machar, an SPLA commander. Early in 1993, Emma smuggles him aboard a small aircraft and takes him to Kenya, where Mr. Jal begins another odyssey. His life becomes a series of fits and starts - a piecemeal education juxtaposed against living on the streets of Nairobi as part of a gang of Lost Boys. And there were his memories. “I knew I was different because I was a soldier. … I had dreams at night that made me shake and sweat in fear as the war buried inside me came alive again. I would see heads being cut off, babies crushed, and helicopters flying overhead with bullets pouring from them.”

Ultimately, Mr. Jal comes to his second epiphany during a bus ride. He is 20 years old, living in Nairobi, and has formed an organization - the Consolidation Association for Southern Sudanese Youth, or CASSY - to help Lost Boys like himself.

“A song started playing on the radio as I stared out the window at the streets passing by. Puff Daddy rapped a song of faith speaking to Jesus and testifying about his belief. I found myself listening beyond the beat, feeling a message that I didn’t feel in other songs, even those I liked to dance to. … As the streets of Nairobi rushed past the windows I remembered sitting under the tree in the desert and the bird that had fallen from the sky as I lay beside Lual. Could I ever believe in God again? Could I let Him into my heart? …

“By the time the bus journey ended, a plan had come to me… .”

Mr. Jal’s plan - to start a rap group to raise money for CASSY - not only succeeded, it propelled Mr. Jal into a career as a rapper and advocate for such organizations as Amnesty International and Oxfam. His music was featured in the movie “Blood Diamond.” He has released CDs, given successful performances in England and appeared on the NBC series “ER.” Mr. Jal’s life is absolute proof of William Congreve’s claim that “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast.”

John Weisman is a Washington writer. His novels “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are available as Avon paperbacks.

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