Emmanuel Jal: Sudan's rebel with a cause

Once a child soldier and now a star of African music, Emmanuel Jal is campaigning for peace. Phil Meadley reports
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Travelling at night is safer because of the absence of aeroplanes, but dangerous because of the wild animals, so which one do you choose?" asks Emmanuel Jal, one of Sudan's luckiest ex-child soldiers.

Jal is now a musical success in Kenya through his No 1 single "Gua" (meaning "Peace"), but things were infinitely more precarious when his father escaped the Muslim North Sudanese Government militia and joined the rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army in the bush.

Jal's mother was left to fend for herself and her five children, but with no income and increased threats of violence, she decided to try and find her husband.

"In Sudan people measure journeys by days, because there's virtually no other transport aside from on foot," says Jal. "We chose to travel by night, because the wild animals maybe take only three, but the aeroplanes can destroy many people."

Sitting in the café of the ICA, for the showing of Andy Jones stirring new documentary, Just Peace, Jal cuts a striking figure, a beanie hat completing his combat, gangster hip-hop look. But behind his toughened façade one finds a strong, positive character with strongly-held Christian beliefs - which dominate his first, self-financed album, Gua. Now 25, he's become a spokesman for the Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. He is also finishing a new album with the northern Sudanese musician Abdel Gadir Salim and completing a degree in electrical engineering in Kenya.

When his mother died an aunt took him in, but soon the SPLA leaders requested that children between the ages of seven and 13 should be sent to school at United Nations refugee camps in Ethiopia. These camps became fertile army recruitment centres, and after six months of basic training Jal was keen to join the fight and have his very own weapon.

"It was safer than not having one," he says. "When you don't have a gun you are expected to carry bullets to the front line, and carry soldiers' food or provisions. With a gun you can kill an animal, and it gives you a license to get free food anywhere.

"What I knew is that we were fighting for freedom, that's what was inspiring us. So many had seen their houses destroyed, their parents killed and friends kidnapped. All the child soldiers weren't bitter with the SPLA because they were fighting for us and there was no other option."

Jal was involved with the SPLA's "Operation Jungle Storm" - a failed assault on Juba, the capital of southern Sudan. He fled with his compatriots to the rebel stronghold of Waat, on the Upper Nile, and was one of only a handful of people to survive the journey.

"For me, I had belief in God," he says quietly. "There was this occasion when there was not enough water. Some soldiers shot themselves. Others would force fellow soldiers to urinate in a cup so they could drink... that's what my friend told me. And the worst part was when we found the skulls of dead people. That showed there was no life and we were all going to die."

Jal made it to Waat, where he caught the eye of the British aid worker Emma McCune. Soon to be the subject of a major film, McCune married the British-educated rebel commander Riek Machar. McCune managed to smuggle Jal into Nairobi. A few months later she was killed in car accident.

The journalist and aid worker Peter Moszynski his partner, and an American friend became Jal's guardians. His sister moved to Nairobi (and is featured on the single "Gua"), but Jal isn't sure of the whereabouts of his the rest of his family. "If things get better and my career goes well, I can look for dad, and get him to come to Nairobi. We can get a nice house and he can stay."

It may yet happen - in January Jal was asked to sing at the momentous peace signing by Sudan's vice president Ali Osman Taha and the SPLA's leader John Garang.

Jal is represented in the new Rough Guide To the Music of Sudan, compiled by Moszynski and Peter Verney, and is due to travel around the world campaigning for the demobilisation of child soldiers.

"If I take a gun I can only fight one battle and I may die," he says. "But now I can speak to many people. I know how war is terrible, and I can actually speak sense and try to tell people the truth."

'The Rough Guide to the Music of Sudan' is out now on World Music Network

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