Nightmares still flood the mind of Emmanuel Jal.
Some nights he runs away from enemy gunfire past burning houses and prays not to be captured. Other nights he is tempted to eat the flesh of dead child-soldiers – of his friends who are no longer alive.
Jal was a “lost boy,” part of a generation of child-soldiers that fought in the Ethiopian Civil War.
Although his memories are blurred, he remembers the hunger and the thirst. He remembers being told his little sister was raped three times by government soldiers, and how his older sister was sold as a sex slave to a warlord.
He remembers the minefields and the murders, the cannibalism and the fear.
He remembers the certainty of death.
“Once you are there, you know you are there to die,” said Jal in a gentle voice. “You just have to hope that you survive.”
But that is all over now. He lives in London, England, and when he’s not home, he’s on the road.
He traded in an AK-47 for a microphone, and his muddled memories echo through his lyrics on stage. He turned a life of brutal violence into a budding hip-hop career, telling his story through music.
“The lyrics just come,” said Jal about his new album WARchild. “Music kept me busy in my mind.”
Although he is uncertain of his exact birthday, Jal was born in war-torn Sudan around the year 1980.
His father left as a rebel for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), never to return. His mother was killed when he was 7. Jal was sent on a 600-kilometer walk from his home to Ethiopia with thousands of other Sudanese children where they were told they’d receive an education.
Instead, they trained for war.
Vengeful and full of rage, 8-year-old Jal volunteered to train after witnessing his village burned to the ground and the destruction of his family and friends.
Jal has no good memories from childhood. Everything was violence and every day was survival.
“When we were in the frontlines, there was no food,” he said. “We ate snails. When the snails ran out, we depended on the vultures. And when those disappeared, cannibalism started happening.”
“I was tempted to eat my friends.”
In 1993, after years of fighting, he became one of the 400 “lost boys” of Sudan who fled the rebel soldiers for three months on foot to the town of Waat.
Only 16 survived, he said. Many died of hunger, drowned or were eaten by crocodiles.
He was rescued and adopted by a young British aid worker named Emma McCune, who smuggled him into Kenya.
He was given another chance, he said.
“I don’t have the heart of hatred I used to have,” said 28-year-old Jal.
Jal enrolled in a Nairobi school, but it wasn’t an easy transition.
“I was kicked out of school many times,” he said. “It took a long time to settle into the system.”
He became involved in church and sung in a gospel choir. He started concerts for homeless children and eventually found his voice in hip-hop music.
“I’m a war child,” he sings in his single. “I believe I’ve survived for a reason – to tell my story, to touch lives.”
Jal sings in five languages: English, Swahili, Arabic, Nuer and Dinka. His message of hope and personal power resonates through African beats and instrumentals in “Ceasefire” and “Gua,” his two previous albums.
But Jal is not proud of his past. It is a responsibility, he said, to tell his story through his music.
“It’s hard going back to that place,” said Jal, who becomes an 8-year-old soldier again when he steps on stage. “Music is like therapy – it’s difficult. But it gives me strength and positivity so see how far I’ve come.”
Jal has performed at Live 8 and recently took the stage at Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday concert in Hyde Park, London.
“It gave me more hope that good things will happen,” he said.
Jal has also been nominated for an mtvU Woodie Award. His story is told in a documentary film “War Child,” in which he travels back for the first time since he left Sudan, to see his remaining family and a country that is still struggling.
“A lot of people led their lives in fear that the war will come again,” he said. “But the people of Sudan have a lot of strength in the way they encourage themselves.”
“I believe in people,” he said, pausing. “I tell my story to raise their consciousness and give them the energy to do good.”
“And I believe in the university students,” he said. “They have the power to change governments, just as the Darfur situation was improved by students.”
“The future leaders will hear my story and want to do improve the world when they have opportunity in power.”
Published in The Independent Florida Alligator