Emmanuel Jal was just seven years old when he left his family, after his mother had been killed by soldiers, to join thousands of children travelling to Ethiopia to attend school.
Along the way, he was recruited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and taken to a military camp – disguised as a school to fool international aid agencies and UN representatives – where he was trained as a soldier in the Second Sudanese Civil War.
Jal then spent several years fighting with the SPLA in Ethiopia, witnessing and experiencing the worst atrocities imaginable before he was rescued.
“This is the lowest point I’ve ever been as a human being,” Jal told a crowd of local students who came to hear him speak on Wednesday during a presentation at the Abbotsford Arts Centre.
Jal, now a hip hop artist and political activist, shared his message of forgiveness and hope to a packed auditorium.
He was just a young child when the civil war reached his village, and his family was forced to flee their home and keep moving from place to place.
Jal was five years old the first time he saw someone killed and when his aunt was raped in front of him.
“I could not help. She was crying,” he recalled.
Jal shared with the audience the depths of human despair that he reached after he and hundreds of other child soldiers decided to run away from the SPLA a few years later.
They were on the move for three months, and they ran out of food.
“My comrade was dying … and I told him, ‘I’m going to eat you tomorrow,’ ” Jal said.
He said he struggled greatly with the decision, and prayed to his mother’s God to give him something to eat.
“In the morning … when I was about to lose hope completely and I’m just about to eat my fellow human being, a crow came on top of the tree. One of the child soldiers that I thought had died shot that crow, and it fell between my legs. I ate that crow from the feathers to the intestine to the claws to the beak.”
Jal said more food – such as vultures and snails – appeared and fortified the children until they were rescued. Of the approximately 300 children that had left together, only 16 had survived.
Jal, whose story is told in the book War Child, was rescued in Kenya, where he was able to attend school and learn to read and write. He also discovered a passion for music.
He has since released five studio albums, and his music has appeared in music compilations, films and TV specials.
Jal is in demand as a public speaker and a political activist who has addressed the UN, the U.S. Congress, the G20 summit and the highest tiers of several governments.
He has also formed Gua Africa, a charity that works with individuals, families and communities to help them overcome the effects of war and poverty.
Besides building schools, the charity provides scholarships for Sudanese war survivors in refugee camps and sponsors education for children in the most deprived slum areas in Nairobi.
Jal told the Abbotsford students that he had to be able to forgive all those who had wronged him in the past in order to move forward in his life.
“My past is ugly. My past is painful. My past has taken away so much from me … but through the choices I have today I can paint the beautiful picture I want to see,” he said.
Jal’s appearance was presented by the Abbotsford school district’s International Baccalaureate Program.