There's profit in letting go, says AU ambassador, ex-child soldier Emmanuel Jal
Newly appointed African Union ambassador for peace Emmanuel Jal tells Edwin Naidu how he has used the trauma of his experiences as a child soldier to help others, both in his music and in his life
'My desire as a kid was to kill as many enemies as possible. I wanted revenge for my family. I wanted my enemies to feel that fire that they put in me when they burnt and tore down my home. And that has been the path that I've been on, but there's also a part of me that wanted to be a part of the solution. I wanted to be among the people who can stop this."
These are the words of actor and hip-hop star Emmanuel Jal, who says he was once driven by hatred and revenge.
The former child soldier was inspired as an adult by the examples of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King jnr to put aside the bitterness that drove him.
He become a musician and a global campaigner for peace after realising that revenge is temporary but there is permanent healing in forgiveness.
Jal grew up in a village in South Sudan. He was three years old when civil war broke out in 1983, thwarting his childhood hopes of getting an education and making something good out of his life.
His father belonged to the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). After their family home was destroyed and his mother murdered by soldiers loyal to the government, Jal, then seven, joined thousands of children on an exodus towards a better life, which they hoped would exist 1,000km away in Ethiopia.
But along with many other children, Jal was coerced into serving in a military camp run by the SPLA. The boy soldier would play a part in the bloody conflict that ran until 2005, culminating in the independence of South Sudan after the deaths of more than 2-million people.
"I was made to join when I was seven, received training until I was eight, and I was 12 when I was saved," says Jal, now 41 and a Canadian citizen.
As a musician he has collaborated with Lauryn Hill, Xavier Rudd, Peter Gabriel, Nelly Furtado, Darryl "DMC" McDaniels, Joss Stone, Ed Sheeran, Nile Rodgers and Alicia Keys.
His music draws on his personal experiences, conveying powerful messages about peace and reconciliation. The traumatic time he spent as a child soldier informs much of what he sings about and much of what he does.
He vividly remembers being a child engaged in adult warfare. "First, before you enter battle, I wanted to go to the toilet several times. I swallow saliva, there's so many things that seem to happen ... one is scared and goes through different emotions."But by the time you're engaged with the barrel of the gun, it's actually fun. It's the gun in itself, the morale and the other people screaming orders. For kids it was almost like a game," he says.
Children are malleable. They lack the risk aversion and impulse control present in adults, which is why so many unscrupulous armies co-opt children into the frontline. But no matter how much like a game it might have appeared at first, Jal says the realities of war left deep mental scars.
"The worst is when you see your comrades gone, somebody's head blown off. One of the parts I hated most was when the guns went silent. Then you see people with broken limbs sticking out, they're crying, there are no painkillers. There was this young man screaming like an adult earlier, now he's crying like a baby because his pain is worse throughout the night.
"I used to say prayers which probably worked, asking God if anything happened to me, please take me whole. I would also pray about where I would rather get shot: OK, if the bullet comes, don't shoot my eye, don't shoot my mouth. I picked the part I could be shot. It had to be the meaty part of my body, please no broken bones. It doesn't make sense my asking Christ where I could get shot but, lucky me, nothing happened."
Perhaps even worse, he says, were the extended periods of shelling, when mortar bombs rained down on their encampment.
"During shelling, you'd be staying in the bunkers and it would rain bombs, every day. Because there was no engagement with the enemy, it's not exciting.
"At one point, I left the hole that I was in and entered a different bunker. The captain or the commander of that bunker asked, 'Jal, what are you doing here?' I told him I had this feeling that told me to move so I'm just gonna be here for a few minutes and then go back. So one of the captains shouted, 'Jal! Are you scared?'
"I stayed with them and again that same feeling came back to me and told me, if you don't move to the side now, to the left side of this bunker, you're gonna die. I moved, and two seconds later a huge shell passed close to my throat. If I had not moved, I would have been dead.
"Then there was silence. One of the captains said I was blessed with great intuition, that God had an angel whispering for me. How else did I move from that spot?"
Growing up in a war-torn country, Jal says revenge and anger were ingrained in the minds of youngsters - there was no innocence or sense of normality. He says he has learnt from this and it enables him to teach others.
"We still have this potential to make an impact on children today," he says. "When talking to youth, you're obviously talking from a position of, 'I've been there, right?' "
Jal reflects on the hatred that infused his childhood. Revenge, he says, can be a short, angry outburst, but the impact of this can have a lasting effect because your enemies also have children and families.
His long road to freedom and forgiveness began after he was rescued at the age of 12 from the military and taken to Kenya. This is where he heard about former South African president Nelson Mandela.
"I was told about him by a Kenyan woman," Jal says. "Mandela, coming out after 27 years in prison saying we can coexist, that took me in a different direction. I couldn't understand why he would do that. Even when I was in Kenya, even though I had been rescued, still I was bitter.
"When I used to see somebody connected with how my home had been burnt down, I would want to grab a knife and cut their throat. But then I learnt about Nelson Mandela, and I realised how massive his spirit was. South Africa would have ended up in a civil war without his forgiving spirit. I saw that there is profit in letting go, forgiving and moving forward."
A British aid worker smuggled Jal from Waat in South Sudan to Kenya and took him under her wing. After she died he lived on the streets until her friends helped him get an education. He found his gift in music and began to record songs, scoring a hit in Kenya with his first single, All We Need is Jesus, before moving to Toronto where he pursued a musical career while trying to heal the wounds of war, for himself and for others.
Speaking via Teams from Canada after his recent appointment as African Union ambassador for peace, Jal says he is proud to address conflict on the continent as part of the AU's "Silencing the Guns" initiative, which strives to put an end to wars, civil conflicts and gender-based violence.
But he says it has not always been easy to take the higher ground.
"People who are destroying others, who are causing a lot of havoc, they do these things because they don't have that peace inside them. So, you look at me, look at my brothers and sisters, where are they? They are all scattered, they are refugees in different countries or internally displaced.
"I was born in a country torn apart by war. I have seen that war take the soul of my village. It took my mom, took my uncles, my aunties. It separated me, put me on a lonely path where it messed up my emotions and gave me traumatic experiences.
"Even after finding a sort of peace I felt I was always looking in from the outside. I had to find it within me."
*This article was originally published in the Sunday Times