Child soldiers are the worst – they have no idea about the future and they don’t have children, so they can actually scream as they go forward into battle, Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier who is now a world-famous rapper, told RT’s Sophie&Co.
Jal has lost his mother during the war in South Sudan and became a child soldier, but then his life changed dramatically.
RT: Emmanuel, you were only about seven years old when your mother was killed in the second Sudanese civil war, then you became a child soldier and were told that AK-47 will be your only parent; that it would be taking care of you from now on. Is this how you really felt? That your life depended on this weapon to survive?
Emmanuel Jal: Well, that’s how most thought… When you’re in the training center you are told that your gun is your father and your mother, so your life depends on it. It’s a situation when people get transformed and brainwashed to do whatever agenda that you are being trained to focus, so the cause becomes more powerful than your beliefs or everything, because you are told that even if your father is against this cause – you can kill him.
RT: Now another thing that you have said is that children who joined the rebels wanted the revenge. Did you at that age understand what revenge was?
EJ: Well, I did understand what revenge was then, but now I can put it into the words. I was really angry as a kid. You see, when you lose everything you own and everything that is your world disappear in front of you, then you are told that your mother is gone and then, because the war itself… different people experience it differently, and you when you’re told that people who are destroying your home there are in such and such place, and you’re given a description – you don’t need to think twice, you want to act of the emotions at that moment.
RT: Going to war and becoming a soldier, I just wonder what it’s like for a kid. I’ve talked to a man, who joined the army in WWII at the age of 12 , I’ve just talked to him recently, now he was telling me that for him it was more of an adventure and a thrill - more than anything else. What was it like for you? Was it a game, or at least, at first?
EJ: Will children don’t know you only die once, so you kind of like don’t understand, don’t know that when you die, that’s it. So, at that moment you’re taken by adrenalin, you want to know what’s going on. But for me, my desire was that I wanted to kill as many Muslims and Arabs as possible, that was one, second – I wanted a bike.
RT: You’ve said children don’t know that you only die once and that’s why they are actually fearless, they don’t know what life is about – but did you ever fear that you were going to be killed, did you think about that?
EJ: Yes, sometimes. The thing that I didn’t want was that I didn’t want to get shot in my eye, didn’t want my leg get broken. I actually prefer to die than to be injured, because I’ve seen people who were injured, how they cry. And so, you know, like a kid, it’s like in your head you choose where would I’ve be shot – because I wanted to be shot where there’s meat, but not breaking my bone, not my eye, not my mouth, not my leg. But you know – that’s how you think as a child, but in the real world when it happens, the bullet depends on whichever place it’s aimed at, it doesn’t care where to shoot.
RT: When you were at the camp, what were you told? Were you told why you were fighting? Were you trained at all, or you were just given guns and told “Go and shoot”?
EJ: Actually, we were trained in the camp. It was difficult training, 6-8 months, and first time when I stepped in to the camp, it was a violent entrance. They ambushed us and we were all beaten, so people were running, you drop your bag, you actually forget yourself. It’s like them uprooting us from being lovey dovey. When we were coming, we were singing songs, holding hands, but these guys were hiding in the bushes and they just started whipping us, beating. And I was really angry at that time, I’ve said that the first person I’ll shot when I finish training will be my trainer, or look for the people that were beating us. You don’t understand why they are just beating you for no reason… There was scaring you: sit down, get up, you look behind and somebody will slap you or kick you for no reason. You can’t talk, you can’t do anything. It wasn’t exciting to be trained; it was terrifying, because some children even died during the training.
RT: Did you ever go back to see your trainers, after you graduated?
EJ: Never. I can’t even remember any of them now.
RT: But, Emmanuel, tell me a little bit about the fighting itself. Were there actual battles, or were they more like raids?
EJ: There were actual battles. It depends where and how.. I want to explain it: so, there are different raids, there’s being invaded where you are, and there’s when you’re going to a battlefield.
RT: Did the other side also use children soldiers?
EJ: Yes. Sometime they do. It depends… The government was more organized, they had child soldiers on in the militia, but in the actual army they have the real, trained soldiers that fight because they are getting paid. They have a salary.
RT: I spoke to a British mercenary, who also fought in Africa when he was young: Simon Mann, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, and he told me that he viewed child soldiers just like any other soldiers. Now, when you were fighting, did you feel your enemies who were just normal soldiers, saw you the same way, despite your age?
EJ: Well, you’re just trained to fight. If there’s enemy, that’s your enemy. In fact, child soldiers are the worst, they are very sensitive – you know, they can… the reason why they like using child soldiers is because they don’t have plans, they don’t have children, so they don’t have an idea of a future, so they can actually scream and go forward, and mostly, they are very brave. Sometimes, the worst thing is that if they really get terrified, it’s hard to convince them to fight back.
RT: Did you think about what was going on at that moment or it was just like, too much of an adrenalin rush and you had no time to stop and analyze?
EJ: You really get scared before, you want to go to toilet several times, your throat dries, your stomach, your body shakes, you know. So many things happen, so many things go on in your head at that moment, you go into silence, you’re one with the world, sometimes your legs can’t move, but after the battle begins, the realm of the gun itself, it goes with the flow, it takes you over. The battlefields are musical, when there is war, it’s very musical.
RT: Now, I know that young children, not like the teenagers, but really young, 7 or 8, like you were, are still used a soldiers in Africa. Looking back, do you feel like children make good fighters? They are said to be more cruel than the grown-ups, that there is nothing more dangerous than a kid with a rifle – would you agree with that?
EJ: Yeah, because they don’t think twice; second – they are small and if an adult passes next to them, they think that person will snatch their gun… You don’t negotiate with a child soldier, if they tell you: “stop” – you have to stop. If try to talk to them, they’ll shoot you.
RT: And now we come to Emma McCune, the British aid worker who actually saved you. How did you come across her, and, most importantly, why did you trust her?
EJ: Well, what happened is that I ended up in place called Waat, and she and her friend decided to disarm me, and promised me to take me to school; and I always wanted to go to school, but in my mind I had a different plans. I said I’m going to go to this lady’s country, and go to school, join the army, become a pilot, and steal a plane and come back to war. That’s what I had in my head. But everything changed later.
RT:But, Emmanuel, thankfully, right now, you are a very successful hip-hop artist. Your rap is political, it’s all about sending a message out there, you sing about peace, urging people to speak up for their rights. Now, do you feel your message is getting across? I mean, I know that it has landed you in trouble before now – for example, last September, when you went back to South Sudan, you were brutally beaten by police…
EJ: Yeah, the voice is going, so the police beat me because they know the strengths of my voice, so they tried to silence me, and they told me they don’t like activists. They removed their eyes and put into bags, and dropped them into Nile. And so, they were trying to scare me not to talk, but I didn’t keep quiet, I kept doing my thing, because I know why I’m in this. It’s people’s voice, and I’m pushing for justice and equality for freedom, for everybody, through the music, just creating an awareness. So, what I do is mostly for conscious awakening, getting people to understand they have the power to actually change things, not the government.
Watch the full version of the interview at Sophie&Co’s page