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Hip-hop artist publishes memoir of child soldier experience

Sudanese hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal remembers clearly the moment that planted hate in his heart, and just as clearly the message of love that his mother taught him.

Sudanese hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal remembers clearly the moment that planted hate in his heart, and just as clearly the message of love that his mother taught him.

Jal — whose music was featured in the film Blood Diamond and recorded alongside Coldplay, Gorillaz and Radiohead on the War Child fundraising album — has just published a harrowing memoir.

War Child tells his story of growing up amid the violence of Sudan's civil war of the 1980s and becoming a child soldier around the age of eight, a time when his gun, an AK-47, was taller than he was.

Jal, who now lives in Britain and is travelling in support of the book, said he remembers in vivid detail the first incident that made him hate Arabs.

"The strongest memory is of my mother, in a truck," he told CBC Radio's Q cultural affairs show on Thursday.

"We had our food and one of the government soldiers came and took our food by force and from there we tried to get our food back. All of us were beaten. And the solders were saying, 'These are slaves. God made them to serve us'…. When they beat my mom, I tried to help my mom. And a small seed was planted in my heart to hate."

Later, after his mother died and he was separated from his family, he was taken along with other children and told he would be going to school, but was actually recruited into military training.

Jal said it was easy to convince him to become a child soldier.

Looking for revenge

"I went to the training for wrong reason, wanting to revenge and my desire was to kill as many Muslims or Arabs as possible," he said. "What I wanted to fight for was, my mom died in the war, I don't know where my brothers and sisters are, my father's in the war ... I don't know what I'm fighting for — mine was basically revenge."

Jal sings about that experience in the song War Child, which has won international attention. Peter Gabriel has compared him to a young Bob Marley.

Jal said his book, like his music and a documentary made about his experiences, is meant to open eyes in the West about the plight of child soldiers.

"The situation I'm in now telling my story is not easy to talk about, but I've found a way that I can talk about it through the music. I've come here, I feel like I'm a voice for so many not able to — they don't have a chance to speak,"  he said.

"I've lost my childhood, I'll never gain everything that I've lost. I've lost my family members, the war has torn us. There is nothing I can do about it. The only thing I can affect now is my future."

Jal was rescued by a British aid worker, who smuggled him across the border into Kenya where he went to school and witnessed Kenyan Muslims and Christians living in harmony.

A different world

"I was taken to a different world and the people with me showed me a lot of love, but I come from a violent background so, even when I was taken to school, I was always expelled. I was always involved in trouble," Jal said. "It took time for me to adjust to the situation."

He said it was a memory of his mother that helped him let go of the violent ways he learned as a soldier.

"My mom planted a seed in us as children that has helped us go through the pain or the struggle.... The way she handled everything, when we lost our house, when somebody has died, when she was being beaten and the way she handled it — I never saw her curse and swear, maybe she cried, but she'd tell us, 'Say a prayer and God is going to help us,'" Jal said.

Jal had little education until he was in his teens and his book was written with the help of British journalist Megan Lloyd Davies.

Helping Sudan

He regards it as another plank in his campaign to build schools in Sudan, which is now undergoing more civil strife around Darfur.

"Education is enlightenment is power. I might not change the world with a book, but I may be able to move someone to invest in a child," he said.

Jal is speaking in Waterloo, Ont., Thursday and at an Ottawa Writers Festival event on Friday.