Emmanuel Jal’s voice is unhurried and kindly. His smile is not one that is easily forgotten – not because he is famous – but because it resonates a serenity that lingers. Yet, it is a marked contrast to his past. Long before he was an international hip-hop star, Emmanuel’s childhood was marred by atrocities that would rival hell itself.
Born during the tumultuous war in Sudan, children were acclimatised to the sounds of bombs and ammunition around them every day. Emmanuel grew up seeing people systematically executed or tortured. At five-years-old, he watched his aunt get raped. And after his mother died in the war, he found himself somewhere even more macabre.
His father led young Emmanuel to believe that he was being sent to Ethiopia for school. The reality was that he had been recruited as a child soldier – to be trained as a killer. With no records about when he was born, Emmanuel estimated that he was about seven-years-old at the time.
The staggering journey saw many children die – from starvation, dehydration, and being eaten by wild animals. Emmanuel and his similarly aged companions dug graves and buried those who died en route.
When they arrived at the training camp, as part of being groomed as child soldiers, they were routinely starved, and tortured – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
“I remember there was one young kid crying one night,” Emmanuel told me in a sombre voice. “He kept saying over and over again, ‘Where is my mummy? Why are we suffering like this? Why are we here?’ He voice sounded exhausted yet no one came to give him a hug. By 11 pm, he finally went quiet for a while but then he started asking again. At around 6 in the morning, he climbed a tree, put the rope around his neck, and jumped. All of us watched him do it. He had had enough.”
After a few years of fighting in the war, Emmanuel planned his escape along with around 400 other children. Only 16 of them survived the three-month trek. He recounted what he described as his “lowest point”. Faced with starvation, some child soldiers had resorted to eating the flesh of those who were dying – if not already dead.
“I went under a tree and placed bombs around a dead body, hoping that a hyena would come and the bomb would explode. But the hyena took the body. So…” Emmanuel’s voice slowed.
“I crawled under the tree to see if I could find any pieces of a dead body to eat. But there was none – just flies. So I crawled back out and sat next to my dying comrade. I spent the whole day resisting the starvation. By the nighttime, part of my mind was telling me to eat my comrade, while the other part told me that if I ate him, it would haunt me for the rest of my life. Instead, I prayed like my mother used to.”
“By the morning, a crow had perched on top of a tree. I tried to cock my gun to shoot it, but I had no strength. Another child soldier who was dying opened his eyes, cocked his gun, fired at the bird, and it fell between my legs. Then he collapsed. That child never lived to eat that bird. So I ate that bird – from the intestines to the claws to the feathers and everything. But the question that remained was how did that child know I was struggling to shoot the bird? Where did he find the energy when he was lying there and dying himself?”
Soon after, Emmanuel met Emma McCune, a British aid worker who had already rescued 150 child soldiers. Yet, Emmanuel was the only child she smuggled onto a plane and put in school in Kenya. Not long after, Emma was tragically killed. Emmanuel credits her as his saviour and has set up a charity called Gua Africa, which provides support to those affected by war and poverty. His hope is to build schools in honour of Emma.
In his critically acclaimed memoir, War Child: A Child Soldier’s Story, Emmanuel spoke about the mental trauma that marks child soldiers for the rest of their lives.
He said that he didn’t know the effects of war until he reached a peaceful environment and a second war took place in his mind.
“What dominated my mind the most was trauma. It is mental genocide. An invasion of demons occupies your mind in flashbacks and nightmares,” Emmanuel admitted. “I remember being in school. The lesson would be gone because other things were in my head. I didn’t know who I could tell about the nightmares and flashbacks that came and robbed me of my peace.”
“There is not enough focus on the prevention of child soldiers. War is a big business for everybody. People focus on the symptoms instead of the cure. Peace would stop the problem of child soldiers. Peace is conflict management.”
The recruitment of juveniles as soldiers remains one of the most controversial war tactics and children’s rights issues. It is estimated that there are as many as 300,000 child soldiers around the globe being used as combatants and non-combatants, and that 40% of armed forces use children.
Last week, in the small village of Konduga in Borno State, Nigeria, a group gathered in a cosy tea venue to watch a football match. What should have been an intimate affair quickly descended into a bloody massacre. Three suicide bombers blew themselves up, killing at least 30 and injuring around 40. It was reported that the bombers were underage children – two girls and a boy.
Last year, 48 children were used as suicide bombers in Nigeria, while in 2017, the figure was more than 83 children.