In Other Words… A Journey of Redemption: From Orphaned Child Soldier to International Hip Hop Star and Activist

Written By: Sara Ledesma

In modern society we recognize some things should always be diametrically opposed: Children and Violence, children and exploitation, Religion and hate, religion and intolerance. Yet around the globe religion is used to divide citizens, provoke war, justify unspeakable acts of terror and condone mass homicide. Children are targeted for exploitation precisely because of the vulnerability of their innocence.

Africa, a continent plagued by a history of civil warfare, knows the barbarism fueled by religious and ethnic division leaves no true survivors. Children do not survive childhood with their families, or their innocence, unbroken. But they can survive the hell of mayhem and destruction with their souls and dignity intact. Emmanuel Jal is proof of that possibility. Having survived the terrifying plight of being a child soldier himself, he is now working to ensure the broken children of war have the chance to grow up with the dignity that is the birthright of every human child.

Emmanuel Jal walked through the demented fires of a living hell, was forced to participate in the most dehumanizing acts one person can perpetrate against another, and came out the other side an activist and artist determined to right every wrong, to cleanse himself, and his beloved Africa, of sins committed as a “war child” in the Sudanese army. He entered the army an innocent casualty of the lust for power that fueled the civil wars of Sudan. Bolstered by rhetoric of religious and ethnic intolerance, the SPLA inducted orphaned Emmanuel. Warlords placed an assault rifle in his hand, where there should have been a ball or a pencil. Any innocence left unmarred by the murder of his mother, rape of his aunt, and burning of his home and village evaporated as he became a child soldier at seven years of age.

Emmanuel escaped on foot with over 300 other “lost boys”. They walked for more than three months to find sanctuary from the front lines of war. They scavenged for snails, snakes, leaves, roots and vulture carcasses to fend off starvation. Emmanuel dreamed of tasting the tender meat of a good friend as hunger drove his mind to envision cannibalism to appease its agony. Those who starvation did not slaughter, were executed by animal attacks, disease or military ambush. 16 survived the death walk to reach the safety of a refugee camp. There Emmanuel found safe haven from the torment of a war that had held him prisoner to the vilest of human nature.

He crossed into a new reality where hope, life and love were once again possible. Rescued by English aid worker Emma McCune, Emmanuel’s life, and soul, were saved. Emma educated Emmanuel, setting him free from the illiteracy and ignorance that had allowed him to be manipulated by scheming warlords. While other kids were learning to read and add and write, Emmanuel was foraging for food, raiding villages and fighting a bloody, vicious war.

Education gave Emmanuel fresh eyes to see the war for what it was: a senseless, wicked prison that held his people captive in a cycle of poverty, starvation, disease, lack of infrastructure, lack of clean water, lack of access to employment, education and medical care. Emmanuel saw himself as one of 4 million made homeless, and hopeless, by decades of perpetual war. He recognized how his thirst for revenge had been influenced by the religious and ethnic rhetoric of the SPLA designed to convert him from a traumatized boy into a merciless soldier. He realized it was a lust for oil, diamonds and gold for which villages, lives, and a country’s future, were desecrated.

Emmanuel felt used and remorseful. He forgave the soldiers that raped his aunt as he watched, a scared, confused 5 year old boy. He forgave them for burning into ashes the village he had called home. He forgave them for scattering the family he loved and destroying the world where he had been so happy. Innocence, family and community defiled, he was fed lies that nourished a thirst for revenge. A 7 year old boy, armed with hatred and an AK 47 machine gun taller than him, would go on to exact his revenge over the next 5 years. As a little boy soldier he would dwell in the darkest recesses of the human spirit. Atrocities committed against Life, God, and his own countrymen—fellow Africans he could only recognize as the enemies who had stolen everything from him.

Emmanuel survived five years of the front lines of two Sudanese civil wars and a terrifying death march to make it back to humanity. Into his story of redemption comes Emma McCune, a British aid worker who smuggled Emmanuel into Nairobi, adopted him and sent him to school. Salvation came through education and redemption came through telling his story. Through music, a documentary and an autobiography he exposed his private pain. He told the story of war worn Africa for all those who could not share their heart breaking stories and voice their dreams for change and peace.

Emmanuel is now an international hip hop star who sings of the suffering of life in a death zone riddled by war. An award-winning documentary and an autobiography, both titled “War Child”, document the evils perpetuated against a people trying to hold onto family, life and hope while ensnared in an endless cycle of military conflict. His critically acclaimed third album, also titled “War Child” dropped in 2008 and he is working on his 4th album now. Emmanuel is also an activist who braves the torment of telling his story to audiences across the globe so he can raise money for his non-profit foundation Gua Africa. Gua means “peace” in his native Nuer, a southern Sudanese dialect. An innocent soul, soiled by the crimes of war is finally able to bring about the healing power of peace.

Emmanuel‘s first CD, Gua, brought the plight of the children of war to the international community. He chose to turn his terror into triumph after realizing the power of music to heal, to cross ethnic and religious boundaries and speak to a part of the human soul that is common to all—regardless of color, creed or country. He sings of an ailing Africa besieged by a cycle of civil war and generations of children raised by constant violence, hungry, orphaned, violated and afraid.

Religious and ethnic rhetoric disguise an Africa strapped by a brutal struggle for resources, power and control. Children orphaned, women and girls raped, boys forced to commit the sins they’ve witnessed done to their own families and villages, unto others. And he sings of the aid worker, and second mother, Emma McCune who saved his life: “What would I be, if Emma never rescued me? What would I be…another starving refugee.” He sings of his beloved savior who dedicated her life to the children of war. It is a pull you up onto your feet and make you dance track you want to replay over and over again. It ends with Emmanuel telling you to “Go save a child”. Emma saved 150 children in war ravaged Sudan, going as far as to marry a Sudanese guerilla commander and convince him not to use children as soldiers.

Emmanuel is doing his part to save children through his charity Gua Africa. They are building a primary school, teacher training center and secondary school in his hometown of Leer, Sudan. It is named Emma Academy, in honor of his beloved Emma McCune who passed away in a car accident. Gua also supports another school, Kariobangi, which serves 400 kids orphaned by war who would not have access to education without Emmanuel’s organization. Emmanuel is currently on a limited hunger strike, where he only eats one meal a day until he raises enough money to finish the academy. His “lose to win” hunger campaign is a tribute to many in his country who eat only one meal daily out of necessity.

Through his music and his foundation Emmanuel is fighting for a new Africa. Gua is building schools and sponsoring the education of ex-child soldiers and refugees so they become artists, engineers, teachers and doctors. These survivors of Africa’s war riddled legacy are studying so they can create the change they want to see in Africa’s future. Emmanuel says the old men who are orchestrating wars in Africa will die soon, and he is doing his part to ensure the next generation can resurrect the demolished institutions needed to bring Africa into a new age of prosperity, progress, health and peace.

For some in the most disadvantaged and heinous parts of the world, their circumstances drag them so deep into the depths of hell they lose sight of their own humanity. It is not a choice any human would make to live and suffer the violence of war. It is, however, possible to spin a life of inflicted savagery into forgiveness and a quest for peace. It is possible to live through the hell of war and dedicate oneself to doing everything humanly possible to ensure no child has to endure what you have survived. Emmanuel chose to turn pain into music…the more beautiful because of the deep, raw emotion and profound message it sings to the world. His music is a universal call for healing, peace and a brighter tomorrow.

In other words…the human soul has an almost unfathomable capacity for resilience and redemption. It is this potential to right our wrongs, to weave hope out of despair, to build peace out of violence and violation that proves peace can one day be a reality the whole world can share. Give peace a chance. And while you are at it, give Emmanuel’s albums “Gua” and “War Child” a chance. It’s some of the rawest, most insightful lyrics, spread over some of the most bumping beats, you will hear in music today. It’s a rare cry for a return to the dignity of humanity.

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