Home>World News>Sudan Lost Boy reveals horror of seeing heads blown off as ‘zombie’ child soldier – World News
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Sudan Lost Boy reveals horror of seeing heads blown off as ‘zombie’ child soldier – World News


As a child Emmanuel Jal lived through more horrors than anyone should endure in a lifetime.

When he was just 12, armed with a gun he could barely carry, and in the midst of a war which had claimed the lives of hundreds of his friends and relatives, he decided he could take no more.

In extreme pain from an injury he’d suffered in combat, and having just witnessed another boy his age take his own life, he turned the gun on himself.

Thankfully and incredibly the weapon didn’t fire – and he now believes he was destined to live to tell his story, to stop others being robbed of their childhood like he was.

Talking about the incident for the first time, he revealed how bleak life was as a child soldier.

Emmanuel was one of Sudan’s Lost Boys – children whose homes were destroyed and families torn apart by the country’s brutal civil war.

Angry about the burning of his village and the murder of his mother, he was a prime target for militiamen in desperate need of recruits.

Emmanuel (centre) lost everything when pro-government soldiers destroyed his village

Emmanuel Jal was just seven years old when he was recruited as a child soldier in Sudan

He was just seven when he pledged to fight for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and immediately began training to be a killer.

Now aged 39 and a father of three, he is determined to do everything he can to prevent others losing their childhood the way he did.

Tragically it is a situation that continues to this day, with the UN estimating there are around 300,000 children fighting in armed groups across the world.

Today – February 12 – is International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, better known as Red Hand Day, with campaigners around the world calling for this recruitment to end.

Speaking from his home in Toronto, Canada, Emmanuel said: “We went through hell. Imagine being seven years old and going onto a battlefield.

Emmanuel, holding a picture of himself as a child, is lucky to be alive

“I saw heads being blown off, people dying everywhere, we were like zombies.

“There were always people screaming for help.”

After four years, it appeared all hope had been lost, until a jammed weapon transformed his life forever.

He said: “In one place I lost hope. Fifty metres away there was a boy who shot himself in the head, he took his own life.

“I wanted to do the same, I had pain in my foot and I looked at my past, present and future and did not see any hope.

“I cocked my gun and I fired, but no bullet came out, the gun failed.

“It’s a story that I never wanted to tell anyone before now.

“But at that moment when the bullet failed, I believed I survived for a reason.

Emmanuel was smuggled out of Sudan by British aid worker Emma McCune

“I saw how my life had been as a kid, and I wanted to be part of the solution.”

More than a decade ago, a book and documentary about his life, both named War Child, introduced him to audiences around the world, and made him a symbol of the crisis in his homeland.

He has also found success as a musician, with his material drawing from his own experience to spread messages of peace.

Hollywood fame followed too, when he was cast as a Lost Boy in 2014 movie The Good Lie, alongside A-lister Reese Witherspoon.

It is far beyond the dreams Emmanuel had when he finally decided to flee the life of violence.

As a young child, he grew up in a village named Tonj in what is now South Sudan.

Emmanuel was cast as a Lost Boy in 2014 film The Good Lie, alongside A-lister Reese Witherspoon

He remembers his early years as being comfortable, but everything changed when Tonj was attacked by pro-government troops.

He and his siblings were separated from his mother, who he never saw again.

With his homeland no longer safe, Emmanuel was taken to Ethiopia, where he was recruited to fight for the SPLA in a refugee camp.

“I wanted revenge, I wanted to kill as many Arabs and Muslims as I could,” he recounted.

“When they give you an AK47 you feel powerful. Violence is addictive, that’s why it keeps pulling people back.

“It haunts you for a lifetime. It’s like murder of the soul.”

Emmanuel is frank about the violence he and his comrades inflicted on other innocents during the war.

The former child soldier has achieved success as a rapper, using music to tell his story

On one unauthorised operation in Ethiopia, young soldiers ransacked a village, similar to his own.

And on another occasion he and around five others brutally beat a person to death.

He does not know whether he killed anyone else in battle, because he would fire blindly and indiscriminately toward the enemy, unaware if his bullets had found their targets.

“We were trained soldiers,” he said.

“I’m one of the individuals that played a part in burning that village down, people were killed.

“We weren’t held accountable. Young people can be programmed to do these things, war is all they know.”

In spite of the trauma he experienced, Emmanuel refuses to view his recruiters as evil, instead describing them as a product of their surroundings.

The UN estimates that around 300,000 children are currently members of armed groups around the world (file picture)

“The place for a child is in school,” he said. “Children should not have to fight.”

“But a genocide was happening, it was war. Where do you run that is better?

“If I didn’t fight, I would probably be dead.”There is no alternative. The only way to prevent it is to prevent the war from actually happening.”

But with many of the current political leaders in South Sudan and Sudan having themselves been child soldiers, Emmanuel fears the cycle of recruitment and violence will continue.

He admits he was lucky. Had he not decided to run away, and been smuggled into Kenya by a sympathetic aid worker, he believes he would either be dead, or still fighting.

“I’d either be a soldier or I’d have been killed,” he said thoughtfully.

He and a group of around 200 children decided to flee when the violence became unbearable.

Emmanuel was forced to fight in Sudan’s brutal civil war (file picture)

Just a handful, including Emmanuel, made it to the town of Waat, in what is now South Sudan.

There he met British aid worker Emma McCune, who was married to a senior SPLA leader.

Determined to ensure Emmanuel did not have to return to the battlefield, McCune – who tragically died a few months later in a car crash – smuggled him to Nairobi in Kenya.

There he was able to continue his schooling, and his outlook on life began to change.”I am an ex-child soldier who used to hate Muslims,” he said.

“Now I don’t hate anyone, my experience has shown me we can co-exist.”

In 2005 he collaborated with a Sudanese Muslim artist, Abdel Gadir Salim, to make an album called Ceasefire.

A decade ago Emmanuel became known around the world thanks to film and book War Child

“Music is powerful, it gives you a voice and I got to become a champion at it,” Emmanuel stated.

With acclaim came interest from around the world, and he was one of the artists picked to perform at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations in Hyde Park in 2008.

“That was incredible,” he recalled.

From Kenya he lived in London from 2004 to 2009, before moving to his current home in Canada.

Throughout much of his horrific ordeal as a child soldier, he had no idea whether his family had survived.

It was only in 2008 that he reunited with younger sister Nyaruach, who had herself seen those around her brutally killed, and suffered horrifying assaults by government officials.

Now they have recorded an album together, named Naath, and plan to perform in Europe over the summer.

Nyaruach is currently living in a refugee camp in Kenya, one of around two million people displaced by Sudan’s destructive civil war.

“When you come from a survival state you are super creative,” Emmanuel said.

“This is a platform for us to share our message. There is always hope.”

Emmanuel with sister Nyaruach, who endured her own nightmare during Sudan’s brutal war

Sadly hope is still something denied to thousands of children forced to fight.

Military recruitment of children is gradually being outlawed, but 50 countries still allow it, charity War Child reveals – and the armed forces of Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen are known to include child combatants.

A report published by the UN last year warned that many combat groups sell children to raise funds.

It said: “Rape and other forms of sexual violence are also very clearly linked to trafficking and to the sale of children, as armed groups often traffic children for sexual purposes and sometimes use sales to sustain their activities financially.”

War Child has warned that support available to former combatants falls well short of what is needed.

A spokeswoman said: “For children who’ve been in armed groups much of the structure of the humanitarian system is set to fail them. Every child associated or formally associated with an armed group will have unique needs – there’s no one size fits all.

“It takes time and dedicated specialist care to help each child come to terms with their experiences and to really understand what the challenges are to them realising their future.

“For some children returning to education doesn’t feel like an option – having missed years of school they don’t want to go back into the classroom with children who are much younger than them – in these cases training into a viable livelihood is the most important skill they can gain.

“There needs to be a more holistic response for children who’ve left armed groups. At times the stigma faced by them leads them to being excluded from their communities and this can be a factor that contributed to children re-joining armed groups.

“It’s important to work with whole communities, not just the children who’ve been in groups, to ensure that children are seen as victims not perpetrators and able to get the help they need to overcome their experiences.”

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