A Sudanese Lost Boy, Found

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War Child: A Child Soldier's Story
By Emmanuel Jal
262 pages; St. Martin's Press

The Gist:

Writing a memoir based on the memories of an entire childhood filled with the savagery of war would certainly be difficult enough. Doing so after having been trained as a tiny soldier to kill Arabs and Muslims, or jallabas, before even reaching puberty, would prove to be an impossible task for some. Stories of the Lost Boys of Sudan — stolen from their homes and sometimes coaxed by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to fight a war the children had little understanding of — have emerged bit by bit since the end of the civil war that raged in the country for nearly two decades killing almost 2 million people and displacing millions more. (Read "Sudan Starvation in a Fruitful Land")

Emmanuel Jal is one of those boys; now an adult, he travels the world as a rapper explaining the War Child life he lived; he has starred in a documentary of the same name and released both an album and now this book sharing his feelings on the past and the present of a country in unending distress.

Highlight Reel:

1. War as an everyday lifestyle: With the smell of burning flesh in the air and the memories of bodies lying still on the ground, I'd run as if the devil were chasing me. I became good at war.

2. On the foundation of his desire to entertain: Another favorite was the dissing competitions, in which children threw insults at each other to make others laugh. "Your grandmother is so fat that God won't let her into heaven," one boy would shout at another as the crown laughed ... In the beginning I'd fall silent when it was my turn. But I started improving ... As well as the insults we had to rap for the older boys—tell stories in chanting rhythms to entertain them—and I found that I enjoyed entertaining people.

3. On becoming inured to the desperation and fear of being a child soldier: As time passed, I learned that a body gets used to fear—I didn't shake so much and my stomach stayed still—but a mind doesn't. I thought about God often, and questions filled me. We were all created by God, but if God knew Satan would make so much trouble, then why hadn't He killed him? And who made God?

4. Upon being taken to Kenya for schooling and reintegrating into regular life: I knew I made mistakes in this strange place. When I was given a cup, I broke it; when I ate food at a table, I threw chicken bones over my shoulder onto the floor; and when I played with white children, I made them cry ... I knew I was different because I was a soldier, and although other children never knew my secret, I think they could sense it. I had dreams at night that made me shake and sweat in fear as the war buried inside me came alive again.

The Lowdown:

Jal's story — that of a a 7-year-old who saw every home he knew destroyed, lost his mother to murderers and his father to the SPLA — fits securely in the history of Sudan's second civil war but also stands on its own. Against a beast of a war that spiraled into battles between all those fighting to survive, Jal who struggles not to become a brutal killer of jallabas, eventually succumbs in order to survive. Unlike many of the Lost Boys, however, Jal finds salvation through the grace of two women who steer him toward education. His subsequent life as a rapper and philanthropist trying to save other children from similar pain and anguish leaves hope for the possibility of redemption.

The Verdict: Read

Read a 2005 Q&A with Emmanuel Jal

Read "Songs of Experience"