From Child Soldier to Hip-Hop Star

Young people in Central Europe have difficulty imagining the horrors Emmanuel Jal experienced as a child and his turbulent life. The documentary film War Child tells the story of the musician, who was born in southern Sudan in 1980 and who once wanted "to kill as many Arabs or Muslims as possible." By Silke Bartlick

Director Christian Karim Chrobog (photo: picture-alliance/ dpa)
Director Christian Karim Chrobog during the filming of the documentary War Child

​​Emmanuel Jal is a lanky young man with dishevelled dreadlocks. Born in Sudan, Jal now lives in London. Music, he says, has always been part of his life.

It was only when life got too tough that he stopped singing. And life was tough when he was growing up in his native Sudan. "There was a war and we had to fight alone. There was no-one there to help us. This is why everyone had to get involved and defend the country," he recalls.

Jal was born in the southern Sudanese city of Tonj in 1980. His father was a member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which fought against the economic, political, religious, and social dominance of the Arab-Muslim north. Just like many other children in the region, he experienced violence and brutality at an early age:

​​"My cousins and my aunt were raped; my mother died in the conflict; our villages were destroyed; our house burned down," says Jal. He was only seven years old when his mother died. After her death, he trained as a child soldier in Ethiopia. Looking back, he explains why: "because we wanted to help in the fight against our enemy and wanted to protect our country."

No prospects

In his documentary film War Child, which is currently being shown at the Berlinale, director Christian Karim Chrobog tells the life story of the 28-year-old. Unlike Jal, approximately 20,000 former Sudanese child soldiers are leading what Chrobog refers to as "a generally dismal life that is devoid of prospects. These former child soldiers in southern Sudan have never really been integrated into society."

He travelled to Sudan for filming in early 2007. Three years previously, rebels in the Christian-Animistic south concluded a peace agreement with the central government of Sudan, which is predominantly Muslim. According to estimates, the 20-year civil war cost 2 million lives; 4 million were displaced.

​​"We saw many former child soldiers who are now just hanging around, addicted to alcohol. For former child soldiers, many of whom are orphans, there are "by no means enough schools" in the refugee camps. Chrobog believes that international assistance will have to be stepped up if the bleak situation is to be improved.

The 30-year-old director is the son of the former secretary of state in Germany’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, Jürgen Chrobog. Originally, Chrobog Junior wanted to shoot a series on hip-hop. But when he met Jal, he immediately saw the potential in filming his life story.

Music as a weapon

In 1991, Emmanuel Jal deserted with 400 other children. Only twelve of them survived. He was later adopted by a women who worked for the child aid organisation Street Kids. He moved to Nairobi, where he went to school.

Despite this change for the better, he was constantly haunted by what he had experienced during the war, so great was the hate he felt growing up: "I wanted to avenge my people. And that is why I wanted to kill as many Arabs or Muslims as possible."

The Sudanese Rapper Emmanuel Jal at concert 2007 (photo: dpa)
From child soldier to musician: Emmanuel Jal

​​The film War Child tells the story of how the child soldier Emmanuel Jal changed into the person he is today. The transformation began when he discovered music as a weapon. "It helps me as a person. I am doing well. I have peace in my heart. But I have to use my experience to tell others about my people’s struggle," he says.

Today, Jal is a spokesman for Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and has been an ambassador for the aid organisation Oxfam since 2006. Not only that, but he is also a world-renowned hip-hop musician who, among other things, collaborated on the soundtrack to the film Blood Diamond, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio. He sings in English, Arabic, Swahili, and in two southern Sudanese languages. His lyrics are about the civil war in Sudan and call for peace and tolerance: "Words can be used to make people kill each other; or forgive each other."

Silke Bartlick


Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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