By Dalton Karwacki
A single person can make all the difference to someone with no hope, according to the Unity Days keynote speaker who appeared in the Bart Luedeke Center Theater on Monday.
Emmanuel Jal was a child soldier in Sudan during the country’s civil war and is now a hip-hop artist who is actively involved in charities benefiting African youth. He also travels the world, sharing his story with people.
“I’m doing this for so many children who are in the same situation,” Jal said. “I’m doing it for an old lady in my village now, who has nobody to speak her voice out. I’m doing it for the young man who wants to make a change but has no YouTube or Facebook where he can link to the world and give people the information.”
Jal was born in the southern Sudanese village of Tonj shortly before the civil war started. When the fighting began, his father joined the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to fight against the government. When Jal was 7 years old, his mother was killed by government soldiers. He became one of thousands of children who traveled to Ethiopia, where they were told they would be educated.
“There was limited food, so we were given maize, sorghum and beans,” Jal said. “We didn’t know how to cook, so a lot of us started dying. We’re like 6 years old, 7 years old; there was a lot of confusion about what was happening.”
The schools, Jal and the other children realized, were not actually meant for education. Eventually, Jal explained, a commander from the SPLA came and recruited the children into the army. Jal, angry at the government that had killed his mother, joined the SPLA, along with many other children.
“When we were asked how many were willing to train to be soldiers, everybody put their hands up,” Jal said. “In my head, what was going on was, I would see the explosion in my village. I would see people burning and somebody shot to death.”
He remembered the day that he was walking with his mother when government soldiers took their food and beat them. These things, Jal said, planted the seeds of hatred that would drive him to join the SPLA. Jal recounted the training he went through. He said it was difficult, but he kept going by remembering the things that had happened to him. After his training, Jal and many other children were sent to fight the government.
“Many kids there were so bitter, they wanted to know what happened to them,” Jal said. “And we all wanted revenge.”
Jal talked about the fact that, because he was well-liked by his commanders, he was rarely deployed to the battlefield, which sometimes made him feel like a coward. He did, however, recount how they would occasionally torture prisoners. He explained that the SPLA would shoot the arms and legs of prisoners and then slowly kill them with machetes to maximize the pain they felt. Eventually, Jal said, the fighting became too much for many of the children, and they ran away to a small group that had separated itself from the SPLA.
“We were told that the journey would take one month, but in real life, it took us three months,” Jal said. “For the first month, we had food, and eventually the food ran out. We were told to apply basic soldier skills, so we started eating maize and sorghum dry.”
Going through the desert, Jal explained, the group ran out of water, so they were forced to drink the dew on the grass every morning as their only source of water for the day. When the group began to starve, they started shooting whatever animals happened to come near. However, the animals eventually stopped coming. As the group began to seriously contemplate cannibalizing their dead, Jal said, the animals began to reappear, giving them the strength to complete the journey.
“In that journey, 400 people left,” Jal said. “Only 16 people survived.”
In the new camp, Jal met a British aid worker named Emma McCune. She told the 11-year-old Jal that he didn’t need to be a soldier. She adopted him and smuggled him to Kenya, where Jal had some difficulty adjusting to his new lifestyle. He talked about being unsure how to use a toilet.
“When they flush, you see water come out,” Jal said. “In my head, I thought, ‘How did they get a river into the house?’ Then I thought, what about the snakes? I never wanted to sit comfortably.”
When McCune died in 1993, Jal explained that he felt his life crashing down around him. It was at this time, Jal said, that he turned to music in order to deal with the pain.
“When I started doing music, it was a therapy,” said Jal. “Music became a painkiller for me to approach the day. It started giving me hope; to want to see tomorrow; that things would change for me.”
Jal explained how his education helped him learn the truth about the conflict that was raging in his country. This, along with learning about the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, helped to remove the hatred that had been planted in his mind at such a young age.
“I thought we were the only people who were suffering,” Jal said. “I didn’t know about slavery or other wars. I only knew about the problems in my country. But when I went to school, my mind was opened up, and I was able to forgive and let go.”
Jal concluded by talking about his goal to build a school in southern Sudan, which he intends to name after McCune. Until he raises the $1 million needed to accomplish this, he has engaged in a “win to lose campaign.” This means that he only eats one meal a day until he reaches his goal. He also talked about his book, documentary and album, all of which are called “War Child.” The proceeds from all three are going to fund the school.