SOUTH SUDAN: Former Child Soldier Speaks Out with a Very Unpalatable Message about Gangs

“A question of choices”: Emmanuel Jal, who was in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army as a child Picture: Nigel Howard

By David Cohen for The London Evening Standard on February 7, 2014—
“A child soldier from South Sudan visited a London gang forum and told the group of vulnerable teenagers: “I also used to be in a gang. The only difference is that mine was massive — it was called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. My mother died when I was seven, I  carried a gun at eight, by nine I was a full-blown child soldier.”

Emmanuel Jal, 34, is a rapper and political activist who shares his story of survival in the face of incredible hardship with young people. “I went through difficult times, but I have changed my life,” he said. “It’s a question of choices. You have a choice to be in a gang or do something different.” He was giving a talk and a rap performance to a cheering room packed with 50 rambunctious south Londoners at a Kids Company street-level centre in Camberwell.

“The lowest time in my life was when I was dying of starvation and tempted to eat my friend,” said Jal. “I was 11 at the time and about 400 of us had decided to run away from the army, and we had been told it was a one- month walk to safety, but it took us three months. My friend was dying one night and I told him, ‘I gonna eat you tomorrow’.

“I looked at my friend and I smelled food. Can you imagine that? Some child soldiers had already started eating dead bodies, but I had held out. Next morning, with my friend still alive, barely, I went to try and find a dead body to eat. I prayed, ‘God, if you there, give me something to eat’.

“At about 11am, a crow flew over and my comrade shot it. I ate the innards, the beak, everything. That prevented me from having to eat my friend when he died. Of the 400 who started out, only 16 of us survived.”

Jal eventually reached the Sudanese town of Waat where he was rescued by British aid worker Emma McCune, who adopted him and took him to live with her in Kenya. When McCune died in a road accident months later, Jal was helped to continue his schooling by her friends and came to England.

He is now a father of three and lives in Toronto, travelling the world to deliver his message through song. His most famous number is War Child. In 2008 he performed at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday party in Hyde Park.

“Music became my pain killer,” said Jal. “But more than that, I see how important it is for change to speak up. When you are silent, you take sides with the oppressor. Silence is violence.”

Jal’s question to the group, “what is peace?”, was met with telling answers. “Peace is a full tummy when you have eaten,” said one. After the event, Michael, 17, from  Brixton, said: “I respect he was brave enough to admit he wanted to eat his friend. I don’t get enough food and I rely on my hot meal at Kids Company to keep me going, so I know what it is to be hungry, but I would never have admitted to thoughts of cannibalism. It’s an inspiring message that honesty of taboo things can liberate you.”

His friend, Tyrone, 19, added: “He talked about people getting into gangs because poverty put them there. When he was talking, I was thinking, ‘Yeah, we’ve got f***-all too, Emmanuel, but not quite as f***-all as you had’.”

Jal is sponsored by Paul Lindley, the founder of organic baby food brand Ella’s Kitchen, who said: “My ethos is that people should give back to society.We brought Emmanuel over to London to inspire these kids because any one of them could be the next Emmanuel Jal or the next Richard Branson. If we can help these youngsters realign their sights a few degrees, we create a ripple that becomes a wave.”

Laurence Guinness, spokesman for Kids Company, said: “There was a real simpatico between the young people and Jal.

“Sadly, they also know what it is to forage for food. You wouldn’t think this would be the case in London, but if we don’t give these children a hot meal, many go hungry.

“It’s an outrage that we suffer this in London. As Emmanuel said, it is difficult to bring peace to a neighbourhood when food is scarce.””

For the original article, please click here.

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