A Former Child Soldier Finds Escape, Heaven Through His Music : Goats and Soda Starved, brainwashed and beaten, Emmanuel Jal was a child soldier who escaped Sudan's war. Now he's an actor, musician and activist. But he says he still gets nightmares.
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A Former Child Soldier Finds Escape, Heaven Through His Music

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A Former Child Soldier Finds Escape, Heaven Through His Music

A Former Child Soldier Finds Escape, Heaven Through His Music

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The United Nation says it's made an agreement that will gradually release 3,000 child soldiers from an armed group in South Sudan. The children are between 11 and 17 years of age. They have spent their childhoods fighting and killing for a group called the South Sudan Democratic Army Cobra faction. Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF's South Sudan representative, says these children have been forced to do and see things that no child should ever experience. Sudan has a long history of civil war and using children for war. Only a few of the thousands of children who get captured and dragged into the conflict manage to escape. Emmanuel Jal did. He's now an actor and musician in Toronto, who had a role in last year's film "The Good Lie." He was 8 years old when he became a child soldier.

EMMANUEL JAL: Most of us have seen our homes burned down, have seen terrible things happen. So, I mean, I witness one of my aunt raped in our home area. And witnessing and seeing my home village burned down and then when we're told that I'm going to be given skills and a gun to fight the people who did that to my homeland, there was not much for me to be convinced.

SIMON: What was life for you like as a child soldier?

JAL: It's hell seeing 6, 7 years old burying their own dead. Nobody's going to give them questions when they're beginning to ask questions. Simple questions - why are we here? Where's my mommy? That's when you get to know, like, these are children sometimes when the terrible things happen.

SIMON: So on the one hand, they're killing people and on the other hand they're still children.

>>JAL They are still children, but, you know, they've been - they've grown really fast in terms of - to be trained to be killing machines because - the only thing is children don't know you die once. And also - AK is also a terrible gun that has been invented because young people can carry the gun - 8 years old can fire an AK47 that's as good as a 20-year-old.

SIMON: How did you get out of that?

JAL: Well, what happened is I - we plan an escape. It was really, really dangerous. The movement that we're struggling in became tribal and so, you know, you see soldiers who are turning on each other. And so we decide, look, I rather go and die where my family members are. We were, like, around - between two to 400, I think, and only 16 people survived. And the way some died of starvation, dehydration and a lot of things that attacked us on the way that we weren't prepared for.

SIMON: You wound up at a place called Waat.

JAL: Yeah, when I arrived in a place called Waat and I met a British aid worker called Emma McCune. And so Emma McCune was the one who smuggled me into Kenya and put me in school, so she disarmed me.

SIMON: So when you heard the news that 3,000 child soldiers may be gradually released in South Sudan, what did that make you feel?

JAL: Well, it's exciting on one hand. It's also sad because if the war hasn't stopped those kids are still going to go back because when they have disarmed where are they going to go do? Is there a place safe for them that the U.N. is going to keep them in? Where are their families? The best thing is get them to school. If they are not schooled they'll be idle at home. They'll still get guns and go back. It will be just, like, for publicity stunt.

SIMON: You're a hip-hop star, an actor, a peace activist now - certainly sounds like you're doing well. Do you ever get over what happened to you? Do you have nightmares at night about what happened to you?

JAL: Yeah, I used to - I used to have a lot of nightmares. Life was difficult then, you know, but music became the place I was able to see heaven again. So through music I was able to dance, through music I was able to become a child again. And I did not know that I was going to be a recording artist. I was just doing it for fun because it gave me - it kept me busy.

SIMON: You know, this week, Mr. Jal, a senior commander of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army went before the International Criminal Court charged with crimes that include murder and sexual enslavement. Apparently he was a child soldier. And without asking you to give a legal judgment, in your human moral terms does he deserve some leniency because of his past? Do you look at someone like him and think there, but for the grace of music, could be me?

JAL: Here, what you see - the way I look at it, most child soldiers - even me, I'm not clean. When I was a child soldier I did stuff, but along the way I got help. I wanted to change and I'm here. So sometimes we need to ask ourselves why do people do extremely terrible things, you know? Why are they be able to do that? Sometime when I look at it's - crime is like disease. You know, we have psychopath governing people and they kill millions of people. They are the same ones - the same general. Getting that guy to ICC, that's a good sign. It gives hope to a lot of people who have been hurt, but at the same time you look - he was a child soldier as well, you know? So where - the way I want it is what do the people say? Is this a situation where we can have the people who have been directly affected to be able to come and testify and talk, and what would they feel would be best way for them to find justice?

SIMON: Does your current life seem a little unreal to you sometimes?

JAL: I feel like I'm dreaming where I am now. I feel like - I don't even know. I mean, I just been nominated here for one of the biggest awards in Canada - the Juno award, so - which mean my music is getting recognized. I just have a new album. I also have acted in a movie with Reese Witherspoon. All these platforms, I'm using them to raise conscious awaking. So even when the nightmare comes, it's not as effective as it used to be.

SIMON: Emmanuel Jal - he is a hip-hop artist and a former child soldier in Sudan. Thanks so much for speaking us.

JAL: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE FALL")

JAL: (Singing) Mama left me without saying goodbye. The world crush me, I thought I was going to die. I saw many die, I turned a blind eye. Death never left me it kept passing by. I call on Jesus to come by here.

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