What is it like, when war robs you of your childhood? If you have no one to care for you, the gun is your only defender in heat of civil war – and you are just seven years old? We look at the tragic fate of one such man. Our guest has lost his mother during the war in South Sudan, and became a soldier. Kindness of strangers and music has helped him overcome his past. Emmanuel Jal is now a world-famous hip-hop artist - and he’s here on Sophie&Co today.
[The photo on 5:50 is actually a screenshot from the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain videogame]
Sophie Shevardnadze: Emmanuel Jal, child soldier turned hip-hop artist, welcome, it’s great to have you on our show today. I just want to go back and remind our viewers where you started. You were only about 7 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, actually, train…to be 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.
SS: Now another thing that you have said si that children who joined the rebels, they 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.
SS: Going to war and becoming a soldier, I just wonder what it’s like for a kid. I’ve talke 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.
SS: 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.
SS: Have you ever been wounded?
EJ: I’ve been wounded, definitely, but not by a gun.
SS: This one thing you’ve said that actually marked me, about just wanting a bicycle. Now, when the army recruiting you, did they give an incentive, did they tell you, like, if you take a gun and kill people they will give you something in return? For example, a bicycle, or were you doing this just for free? Were you getting any reward whatsoever for what you were doing?
EJ: No, there were no rewards as such, like somebody getting paid for doing something – the country has been destroyed, people were fighting for their survival. You could see from the adults that there’s something… you know, when you go to a house, and you attack the people in the house, and the children there, they’ll try to join and fight. But now, this is not the villagers, this is the whole community, this is all tribe uniting against a force that wants to wipe them out. Us, we did not know that they want to wipe us out, we don’t know what was the reason for a war, in fact, when the war happened, I though the world was ending, because my mother here tells me: “We are all a children of God and one day the world is going to end, and people are going to turn at each other”, and so you look at it as a child, and you just get confused with different messages. And so, I didn’t really understand what was going on, but now – I have an idea of what actually was happening.
SS: 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.
SS: Did you ever go back to see your trainers, after you graduated?
EJ: Never. I can’t even remember any of them now.
SS: 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 is different raids, there’s being invaded where you are, and there’s when you’re going to a battlefield.
SS: 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.
SS: 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.
SS: Do you remember the first time you killed someone?
EJ: I wouldn’t say like I actually remember me killing somebody by myself, but I was in an active situation, where we did mob justice with other people, they just told me “Hey, it was your bullet that shot the person”.
SS: 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 toiled 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.
SS: What do you mean, musical?
EJ: The sounds of the guns, it’s like they flow with reason, especially you are very far, or if you are there, sometimes you can’t even hear the sound of your gun. So, maybe when it’s shaking, you know when you are into it so much. And then the other thing is, what the other experience is, when you’re not in the battlefield, and you’re sleeping, and other people are fighting, it’s like you don’t want the bullets to stop, because it’s almost like there’s a beat, the ‘boom’, the big sound is like a base, so you want the explosions to continue, and the sounds.
SS: But is this something that actually were in you, and that helped you and your music later on? That rhythmic sounds and the feeling of the rhythm that you’ve experienced during the war?
EJ: No. Actually I’m doing what I’m doing not because I’ve planned it, I think it’s something that possessed men, it’s accidental. It wasn’t planned.
SS: 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.
SS: I guess when you guys were taken to those camps, and you were taken away from your families – the only thing that you had is each other – did you make any close friends when you were in the camp or when you were fighting?
EJ: Yeah, I had a lot of childhood friends, and you are taught to be “brothers-keepers”, so your fellow soldier is your brother; you only got each other, so when battlefield happens, you could be injured and your fellow soldier can carry you. There are no hot feelings – you can’t afford to hate any of your members when you’re in the same place, because when the war happens, any of you can be hurt; and also, if you’re going to leave your fellow soldiers when they are injured and you are not a good person, they can actually shoot you, because they don’t want die by themselves. Now, if they are really nice and they like you, they can actually give you a cover for you to escape - if they are injured. They have to be nice with each other.
SS: What would happen to the kids who refuse to take part in training, in fighting?
EJ: They get punished, or if you try to escape and go and see your family members – they know where your family members are and to wreak havoc on your home.
SS: Now, for you, I mean, it will be fair to say that you yourself chose to stop. What was the turning point, when you escaped the soldier’s camp: how did you manage that?
EJ: Well, actually, I didn’t plan on this escape. It was planned by others and I just joined them. It was a difficult journey, because on the way a lot of people died, even one of my friends was dying; and cannibalism started. I was tempted to eat my friend, actually, because my senses changed, and I was on one of the lowest points… Then I arrived at this place called Waat where I was rescued by the British aid worker, who smuggled me to Kenya.
SS: We going to get to Emma in a second, but I just really wanted to know what was that turning point that made your escape, made you say to yourself: “That’s it, I need to go”?
EJ: It wasn’t planned, so even when I asked one of the guys, they told me “we’ve been planning it for a while, we couldn’t tell you because you have a big mouth, and you were going to get us in trouble”. It’s because I ended up going with them I realized they were escaping later on. I thought it’s just a normal way of going to one place, where we were going to deliver ammunitions, or support, or check up on injured, or just going for a patrol somewhere.
SS: So, you didn’t know you were going, you walked literally across the whole country. You’ve said some of your people who were actually moving with you died. How did you managed to survive?
EJ: This was difficult. Actually, I probably knew, after 6 six hours of the journey, that’s when I was able to know we’re actually escaping. I survived… We were eating on snails, vultures, anything that we could find in the journey, we started to eat roots of the trees, the plantation, other people got poisoned, it was difficult journey. Also, dehydration – people, died of dehydration. So, I would say that I was lucky to survived, but I kept myself positive, that tomorrow is going to come. We were between 2 or 4 hundreds young people mixed with others, and only 16 people survived the journey.
SS: 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.
SS: So it was all about bicycle, school and an airplane.
EJ: When you are trained into that angle as a child, it can take a while along for transformation.
SS: Unfortunately, Emma died soon after that in a car crash, and there was no one else to take care of you. What did you do afterwards?
EJ: I was lucky. Our family members took it, and there’s different people came pass-by, and life became really difficult… So this is where the music came and took opportunity, and this is where I was able to heal myself. I used to have a lot of nightmares, I wasn’t focused, sometime I got kicked out of school, so music became the painkiller, and a therapy for me at that time. And it happened to methat Kenyan woman called Mrs. Mumo who actually helped me out in my process, when I became a musician, so I became more focused in doing what I’m doing up to now.
SS: You also talk a lot about the feeling of guilt that you experience, in other interviews. But looking back, did you really have a choice? And don’t the adults that got you involved bear more responsibility?
EJ: Sometimes, when you see so much problems happening, you see everybody suffering, it’s hard to actually blame the adults, because they are dying, you see, everything is happening – and you all know “ we are all in it together, in this boat we are dying altogether, we may also work together to get ourselves out of it”. That’s the main concept I had; the only time I can really get angry and feel betrayed is actually what is happening in South Sudan, when the very people who say that they are fighting for our independence, swallowed the freedom that we suffered for. So that’s the only thing that make you really feel betrayed, because now you have a government that wants to stay in power, and arresting people who are founding fathers of the organizations that wanted to transform the country to be accountable and transparent – and the president decided to stick there to try and find an opportunity to terminate his political opponent, and the country is in civil war. I just hear, like, couple days ago when the police and the prison guard, removed their uniform and entered the UN compound to kill women and children who happened to be under the guiding of the UN, and you see this hatred, this bitterness of fighting now, because of the killings are on ethnic line. The government kills one ethnic group, the rebels go… and some of them who are not controlled, go and do a revenge – so, it’s terrifying.
SS: 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’tkeep quiet, I kept doing my thing, because I know why I’m in this. It’s people 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.
SS: Emmanuel, thank you so much for this mesmerizing, insights into a life of child soldier. Wish you all the best in getting your voice across the whole world and to everyone, and to stopping a child soldiers being recruited in the future. Thanks a lot for this interview, we were talking to Emmanuel Jal, former child soldier and world famous rapper right now. We were talking about the horrors of being a child soldier, and how it could be stopped. Thanks for being with us, that’s it from Sophie&Co, we’ll see you next time.