LTW speaks to Emmanuel Jal

South Sudan is in a state of absolute chaos at the moment, I think we’re all agreed about that. The Sudanese Government and army have failed its people. The Government security forces have engaged have engaged in a campaign of violence against civilians simply because they belong to a different ethnic group or are viewed as opponents of the current government.

In South Sudan the government is part of the problem, not the solution. They take sides in the ethnic conflict; the rape, killing and pillage are reported to be committed by Government forces. There is serious cause for concern when a former rebel leader turned head of state expresses in a national speech that he is concerned, in fact ‘extremely concerned about the continuing attacks and senseless killing of innocent victims’. It is particularly worrying because the President has spent most of his entire adult life surrounded by corpses of dead enemies and comrades – so to hear him airing concerns about the insecurity in the land makes one think.

Many South Sudanese are in despair because the new country has failed to live up to the expectations of the South Sudanese who have reached the conclusion that without significant changes and reform which seems remote South Sudan may slide towards instability, conflict and protracted governance crisis. I spoke to Emmanuel Jal who fought for Sudanese independence in the SPLA as a child soldier about life now and then.

Can you tell me about your life as a child soldier in Southern Sudan before its independence?

That is a tough beginning of the questions… Imagine being 6 or 7 years old – I don’t know my exact age – and being the cause of death. You are there without your mother with you and trained to be like an adult, like a machine I should say purely to fight. In any other country you are supposed to be in school. Here all we learn is that life will be difficult. I remember clearly that we had to walk everywhere for miles, there’s no car that can move through the jungle like a child can.

What did you have to do?

Some kids were selected to do battlefields I was lucky I guess, I was able to be in headquarters but they made me feel like a woman fighting the war like this. Really weather you are in the battlefield or not you are still a child soldier and life is impossible. You don’t sleep properly in the camp because you’re always on alert from attack. I felt like I had a migraine for five years. Essentially it’s just the mental turmoil of knowing you are going to die soon.

Was there camaraderie amongst the children?

We all had to cook for each other and sleep together but we were soldiers and not friends. No one was happy in that place. We all got there because we travelled to Ethiopia where we were told we could get educated but really were recruited by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army and trained in a camp disguised for the UN as a school. All we had in our hearts was to kill as many Muslims as possible so we weren’t children.

Louder Than War Interview: Sudanese Child Soldier Emmanuel JalWhat weapons did you use?

I only used one weapon. An AK47. It was bigger than me.

Do you know any survivors like you?

A few, but not really child soldiers just seem to disappear…

Is being a human killing machine a hard habit to kick when it’s ingrained in you as a child?

I still consider myself a soldier. It’s a very hard thing to discipline you out of this way of living. My instinct was always violence and still now I get angry and just want to grab my gun and solve my problems that way but then you go out on the battlefield and you get shot and that’s it. So I use my story to try and educate people. I am trying to fight for peace now through my music and my organisation wewantpeace.org. I’m trying to make people give up something they don’t need to make the world a better place, we all have too much, I’ve become a nomad and given up my house and now live in my office.

Your peace message is not welcomed in South Sudan though is it?

No. I was in Juba for a peace concert and there was a bunch of young police officers and I was asking for directions and I was beaten, almost to death. Just because I am from another tribe –they are Dinka and I am Nuer. Not all Dinka’s would do this but in South Sudan you have a political system where the police are not controlled. The police there are almost lawless, they don’t understand what their work actually is and so there is no security for most South Sudanese. They abuse the power they have been given.

This isn’t the country you envisaged you were fighting for when you were a child then? 

No. The revolution was for everybody and now our country is a dictatorship. I can’t visit South Sudan. Even today I got a threatening message ‘if you’re speaking like that you’re going to be put to rest’. They want me to sing praise of the torturers and then I’ll be accepted. Our dreams of our country are being betrayed, you hear journalists are threatened when they speak their mind. This is the worst period for South Sudanese newspapers since its independence. Our country isn’t free like we thought.

Do you think the increasing violence will increase the need for more child soldiers?

Yes. Definitely. The young people who are fighting each other are 12,13,14 years old, and they’ve gone to war. They are child soldiers. The Yau Yau those are young people.  The tribe having a revenge attack on the Murle they are young people too.

Do you think that the SPLM are torturing civilians?

People talk. Where there is a magnet of light there is some truth.

What is your relationship with Riek Machar? 

He was Emma’s McCune’s husband. She adopted me when I was around 11 and took me out of the army, despite Machar being the leader of the guerrilla army I was in. My relationship properly started with him then, when I was living in his house before Emma died in a ‘car accident’ and I started living in the slums in Kenya.

Now he tells me not to get involved in politics and promote my message.

Louder Than War Interview: Sudanese Child Soldier Emmanuel JalWhat do you think of the smaller cabinet that Kiir has selected – notably minus Machar and the spats over the direction of the SPLM last week?

Kiir is just targeting the Vice-President not shuffling the government.  He’s just trying to insight calm by simply saying ‘I’m selecting a new team.’ But by dissolving the whole system he is just trying to crush it so he can have full command. A lot of voices are going to be silenced. Civilians are going to live in fear. 

This is how the government works: the Dinka recruit for all the top positions in the cabinet and then put a few other tribes in trophy positions; everything from finance to agriculture is managed by the Dinka’s, so we now have a constitution that has given the President the power of God. Democracy will be silenced.

On my side I don’t mind how the political is run, I really care about my freedom. I want to be able to move back to my country and not be a refugee and have to seek asylum in another country because my country wants to destroy me.

What do you think about the US involvement in South Sudan or do you believe in African Solutions to African problems? 

‘African solutions to African problems’ is a slogan made by dictators, where they keep everyone away so they can maintain their system and smuggle the wealth out of the country. Tribalism reigns in South Sudan and so we need to learn from countries that have done the best. But the US needs to take the focus off oil and security. The main resource in my country is the people. We need to care about this.

What do you think will happen next?

At the moment I am just happy that nothing else has happened this week. The system needs focus. It needs brotherhood. But we need help; the aid we have at the moment is not working. The UN itself its crippled, its has not enough resources; not enough tents, helicopters and the OAU is crippled too, its like a union of bunch of precedents that just meet once a year and there is nothing really that they are doing. 

Do you have hope for the future of South Sudan as a state?

You can never let hope go I’ve decided. I didn’t die in the struggle so why should I? The last bullet that granted us independence was not fired by the army, it was by the people. That was the vote. In the next election we apparently have the opportunity to push any leader out of the system, because we have the power to vote. I hope this is true. But then they might rig it.

Emmanuel Jal’s album See me Mama is available now on iTunes.

Check out Emmanuel’s charity work here or here. Emmanuel is also on Twitter @EmmanuelJAL and Facebook.

All photos Emmanuel Jal.

All words by Mia Veglio-Taylor.  More writing by Mia can be found at her Louder than War authors archive. You can follow her on twitter @Mia_VT.

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