A Sudanese 'Warchild' All Grown Up At the tender age of eight, Emmanuel Jal was recruited into the Sudan People's Liberation Army as a child soldier. He later escaped and is now making music about his experiences.
NPR logo

A Sudanese 'Warchild' All Grown Up

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/90224217/90224206" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Sudanese 'Warchild' All Grown Up

A Sudanese 'Warchild' All Grown Up

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/90224217/90224206" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Here's a listener favorite from 2008.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: At the tender age of eight, Emmanuel Jal was recruited to fight in a guerilla war. He took up arms for the Sudan People's Liberation Army, a militia that was fighting the government of Sudan. As a child soldier, Jal went into battle carrying an AK-47 that was taller than he was. He later escaped to Kenya. Now, Emmanuel Jal makes music that talks about his history as a child soldier and the need for peace. His new CD is "Warchild" and it mixes traditional African sounds with hip-hop vibes.

(Soundbite of song "Warchild" by Emmanuel Jal)

CHIDEYA: Emmanuel recently shared some of his extraordinary life story.

Mr. EMMANUEL JAL (Singer; Former Child Soldier, Sudan People's Liberation Army): I believe I've survived for a reason, to tell my story, to touch lives. I was driven by my village. When my village was burned down and we were running all over here and there, cows. And my mom died in the time of the war and then this - my sister is displaced. And basically, it's a kind of a revenge. You know, when you're bitter, you know, that's what driven me. So - but other people were freedom fighters like the adults. But as the young people, most of us were not forced to do anything like to go to war. But the first battle wasn't easy. You know, you feel you're scared, you know, but once you pull the trigger, you know, you just dance to the beat of the gun, because it pulls you up and on until when you survive, or when you're dead.

CHIDEYA: Your life took a lot of different turns. Were you trekked through the desert and not everyone who was with you survived. Later on, you met an aid worker, Emma McKuhn(ph), who passed away later in a car accident, but she got you into Kenya. What was it like to decompress from being in a situation where everyday you had to fight for survival to being in a situation where your life was more like a - the lives of people, for example, who might be listening to this radio show?

Mr. JAL: My escape, you know, one of the things were really horrible you know you kind of sometimes want to lose hope. Will this war ever end? What's going to happen? What's happened with my brothers and sisters? Because I lost contact with my family. So, that was frustrating. And my trek in the desert wasn't easy, you know, seeing some of my friend die and watching somebody stab them to death, it's not a good thing because some would become skinny. And also me getting tempted even to eat one my best friend, because there was no food and the cannibalism that broke out there. But when I arrive in (unintelligible) it wasn't easy because even though when I met Emma McKuhn(ph) and she had so much sympathy, and wanting to take me and adopt me, in my mind I was still thinking I'm a soldier, but I had nightmares, she wake up and try to talk to me, "no, you're not in Sudan, you're in a safe place now, there's no war." Sometimes, you - maybe if I'm in a place and bored - I may start playing like a soldier naming staff and fighting when there's no someone to fight. So it's crazy. I guess...

CHIDEYA: It's what people now called "post-traumatic stress disorder." And do you ever deal with it now just waking up in the middle of the night and thinking you might be back in a war zone?

Mr. JAL: I'll say like I'll thank God most of my problems were in Kenya, most of it, you know. Because you see, when I came to Kenya I got a lot of love and a lot of attention from different people like Emma's friends and how they're giving me good treat, taking me and appreciating me and even when I'm wrong they're not beating on me or jumping on me. So, they were a bit soft to me and educating me. And also, because Kenya is amazing, I start going to churches, you know, and music where music I listen to positive music that (unintelligible) that is good for my soul so, and listening to people's stories and getting to learn the world.

Mr. EMMANUEL JAL: (Singing) All right, peace What would I be If you never ever rescue me What would I be My love is not (unintelligible) What would I be If you never ever rescue me Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Lord I see my face on the telly Got hungry belly Cries in my eyes Had to be (unintelligible) for my side That's another starving child...

Mr. JAL: Emma McKuhn was a gift to our community, I only thought I was the only one rescued, but I didn't realize she rescued all 157 child soldiers. And apart from that, wherever she goes, she touch people's hearts, mine, and leave a smile. And she was someone who is dedicated, really, and loving the people and wanting to do all her best to have them come out the poverty. And also, the heart she has for young people and give them (unintelligible) child soldiers. But apart from that, these - the love that she's given me, you know, staying with her, she took me to the best school in Kenya. And when she smuggle me, you know, I didn't have clothes to wear so I was wearing her clothes, her shoes and I was like a little brother because I'll sleep with her in the same bed. And also, when I was in Kenya, people will tell her why you're taking care of this kid? You're wasting your time, you should send him to a children home or something, you know. And she didn't give up and she gave me the best education that's why I'm able to speak English. And there's nothing much - there's no way I can say thank you to her, but it's just to make her name known.

Mr. EMMANUEL JAL: (Singing) What would I be If you never ever rescue me What would I be If my (unintelligible) Remember the time When I was small...

CHIDEYA: Let's talk about some of the other songs on "WARchild." There's one called "Forced to Sin" where you talk about really what it's like to be a soldier. Tell me about that song.

(Soundbite of song "Forced to Sin")

Mr. EMMANUEL JAL: (Singing) Forced to sin Forced to sin Forced to sin Forced to sin to make a living Sometimes you got to (unintelligible) to win Never give up, never give in My dreams...

Mr. JAL: When I was in a refugee camp, I did everything to survive, you know. And me and my friends, we used to go and steal chickens, and we used to go and pretend to other staff, so just to make a living and I've reached here because of the horrible things I've done but I'm saying it's not great but sometimes we are forced to sin to make a living.

(Soundbite of song "Forced to Sin")

Mr. EMMANUEL JAL: (Singing) We used to raid(ph) villages Steal in chickens, goats and sheeps Anything we could eat I knew it was rude But we needed food And therefore I was

Forced to sin, forced to sin To make a living Forced to sin...

CHIDEYA: You know, at this point in time you've seen so many things that other people haven't and you've written that into your music. Are you hopeful that your music can transform lives?

Mr. JAL: I'm hopeful because it helped me as a person and it's communicating from my country. And different places where I perform I meet different people, they say, "I listen to your music and you're inspiring and I thought I had so much problem, but just listening to what you're saying and looking up to you just make me keep on moving." And it used to depress me talking about my story and doing all this, but it and I'd ask somebody and it makes somebody appreciate life. That's what also encouraged me to say OK, nothing just happens, everything happens for a reason.

CHIDEYA: Emmanuel, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Mr. JAL: Michel, thank you.

CHIDEYA: Sudanese musician and former child soldier, Emmanuel Jal. His new CD is called "WARchild."

Mr. EMMANUEL JAL: (Singing) I was born in Sudan In a place called Konyan(ph) A village by the river Where the people are born strong Respective of the fact That the place is war torn The people are still strong...

CHIDEYA: You're listening to News & Notes from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.