Living in a peaceful, Western country, it becomes easy to be desensitised to violence. Each news story you hear from a war zone seems to have less impact than the last, until these news stories become background noise that you overhear on TV or scroll past on your news feed.
It’s only when you are face to face with someone who has lived and survived through horrific life experiences such as war, that it really hits home. Behind the headlines there are innocent victims who have experienced unfathomable horror and there are millions of them.
Emmanuel Jal is the first true survivor of war I have ever met.
He is an incredibly successful musician, entrepreneur, motivational speaker and founder of the charity Gua Africa. His charity supports people who have been affected by war, helping them get an education with the aim of people being able to then find their own source of income, leading to a more well rounded society.
On top of all that he has released 6 studio albums, has toured around the world, performed at Live 8 & Nelson Mandela’s birthday celebrations and has spoken at the UN. The latest of which he is performing with his sister at Soup Kitchen in Manchester on Thursday 21st November.
We begin our interview over Skype from his home in Toronto, Canada and it’s clear how his friendly and warm approach has got him this far.
But as Jal begins to recount his life story, it becomes a tense and often times incredibly shocking story that he begins to unfold.
Emmanuel’s life began in a small village in South Sudan during the 80's. At the time the Second Sudanese Civil War had broken out. It was a brutal and bloody war that lasted over two decades and cost the lives of roughly two million people. Emmanuel’s village was not spared.
“One day war reached my village. I’ve never heard loud guns before that would shake the ground, bombs dropping and people running in different directions. I thought this was it, the world was ending.”
Emmanuel’s life was torn apart by the conflict, losing family members and being forced to flee the village he has known and grown up with.
“My aunties died, some died of diseases. My mum was also claimed by the war. We became scattered and I was a refuge in my home area.”
There was one particular instance that Emmanuel described to me in intense detail.
“My mums’ bodyguard was shot next to me. My mother was trying to put his intestines back because he was shot in the stomach. We got used to seeing people dying. We would walk where there was rotten and fresh bodies lying there”.
Emmanuel managed to escape South Sudan with thousands of other children and fled to neighbouring Ethiopia. The children went in search of safety, shelter and a chance for education. But a normal education was not what Emmanuel and the other children received. They were being trained to become child soldiers.
Emmanuel was trained and fought for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Firstly in Ethiopia before returning back to Sudan. The fighting was brutal and the inhumane treatment many of the soldiers received was the tipping point in planning an escape.
"There was [a fellow soldier] who shared his story to our group. Him and his friend were told to dig their own graves by their commanders. When his friend finished digging, he was taken in the morning and they put him in the grave and buried him alive. It was then his time to go.
When they pushed him in the grave, he managed to jump out of the grave. He was hit with a machete, as guns would have been too loud, but he managed to survive and run away. He still had big cuts on his arms from that machete. That story freaked us out and that’s what motivated our escape”.
200 to 300 kids escaped from their captives and set off on a 3-month escape across the often-barren Sudanese landscape. Out of all of them, only 16 survived.
“It was the lowest point of my life. When we ran out of food, I was tempted to eat my comrade. There was no water, we drank our own urine”.
Miraculously, the few surviving boys came across a small village called Waat and they were saved by Emma McCune, a British aid worker.
“I came to learn that she saved over 150 child soldiers” Emmanuel explains. “At that moment Emma was stuck on me. I didn’t understand why me. I stayed with her and she smuggled me into Kenya”.
Life in Kenya could now deliver on what Emmanuel had been dreaming for when he first fled Sudan, education and stability in life. But this wasn’t without its downsides. Emmanuel was still heavily haunted by his experiences in Sudan and experienced PTSD.
“No one told me about nightmares and about trauma. I would often wake up in the middle of night screaming ‘They have come’. Sometimes my brain used to think there was a war but there was none. '' Emmanuel recounts to me. “I had to grow through those experiences but the school opened the door for me to rejuvenate and move forward in a positive place”.
One of the main ways Emmanuel dealt with his experiences and trauma was music. Hip Hop was his outlet to recount those terrible memories and turn them into something positive. Given the horrific childhood he experienced, it may have been easy for Emmanuel to write music that was angry. But he chose a different approach and has always looked ahead with his music.
“I look at my traumas as a lesson. Overcoming them added value in my life. I’m grateful for the traumas and challenges I had in my life but I’m also grateful for the good I have.”
Manchester will get a chance to experience Emmanuel Jal live in Soup Kitchen, alongside his sister Nyaruach, in what promises to be a special and uplifting occasion.
“My shows are like a village party” Emmanuel explains with high enthusiasm in his voice, “I like to have a party. I want people to be part of the show. In most Western shows, you want to go to a show to be entertained. In Africa, you go to a show and you’re going to contribute your personality.
A lot of people who come to our shows and say ‘I came to the show really stressed out but now I feel light. I feel joy.”
Emmanuel’s approach to his past is both incredibly inspiring and incredibly brave. It’s almost unimaginable to think what he went through and I’m not sure many would have the bravery to morph their past horrific experiences into positive ones quite like Emmanuel has done. His positivity and countless charity work make him one of the most inspirational figures today.
At the end of our interview, I asked Emmanuel to give a piece of advice for overcoming such adversities in your own life.
“If you could learn how to forgive, you will enjoy heaven on earth. You’ll be calm in life and move on.
Trust the process, you are in this world for a reason. There’s only something you can do in this world. Find it and contribute with it”.
EMMANUEL JAL & NYARUACH + DIRTY FREUD
Venue: Band On The Wall
Date: Thursday 21st November