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Peter Eichstaedt on the border of South Sudan and DR Congo in 2006

Reviewed here: War Child: A Child Soldier's Story, by Emmanuel Jal with Megan Lloyd Davies; First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army, by Peter Eichstaedt

Emmanuel Jal's profound memoir War Child, about his life as a boy and child soldier in Sudan's civil war in the mid-1980s, and Peter Eichstaedt's thoroughly researched and harrowing First Kill Your Family, discussing the use of children as soldiers in the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda's 20-plus-year-old war, are worthy additions to the understanding of war and its catastrophic effects on children and societies where such bloodshed occurs.

Both books provide us with the necessary human contexts so that throughout the horror and destruction of places and human life, we do not forget that these sufferings are happening to human beings who, in the midst of such inhumanity, manage to remain hopeful, and for some, survive.

Emmanuel Jal, though he is unsure of his exact age, was a seven-year-old boy in the mid- 1980s. Born in Southern Sudan, Jal recalls three peaceful years before the civil war consumed his simple life. His father, a member of the Nuer tribe, was a policeman, and his Christian mother, half-Nuer and half-Dinka, was a nurse.

The tentacles of the civil war began to reach Jal's home with the arrival of refugees, people beaten by police, funerals almost every night, curfews and fear that forced adults to start speaking in whispers. It became quickly apparent even to a small child such as Jal that the Sudanese Arabs, Muslims from the north, hated the blacks from the south, who are mostly Christian. The Islamic government later began seizing tribal lands for water, oil and other resources.

Jal soon experienced racial hatred when Arab Sudanese travelling in the same truck with his family started talking about the war, how the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) that was fighting against the northern government and the Arab militia would lose the fight and the blacks would remain slaves as they were meant to be. The Arabs forcefully took the little food that Jal's hungry family had, and mercilessly beat his uncle, mother and himself.

"Looking back, I can see that the seed of hate was sown inside me that day," Jal writes. Killings, rapes and bombings became daily occurrences in his once peaceful life.

He also remembers walking into a village where human bones covered the ground, his mother unable to cover his eyes or his siblings'. These were just the beginnings of his exposure to the horrors of war, and he soon learned that "even a mother's fierce love will not protect [him]"

The war eventually took away Jal's mother; his father, now one of the leaders of the SPLA movement, decided to send him and hundreds of other village boys to school in Ethiopia, where they would be educated. They boarded a boat, chaperoned by adult soldiers, but the ship was over capacity and sank. Only a handful of children survived the sinking and attacks by hippos and crocodiles.

Jal and other survivors continued the journey to Ethiopia. Many died of thirst and hunger, were attacked and eaten by lions; some became too weak to walk and simply settled down and died.

The boys reached Ethiopia to discover that the promise of education was false. They settled in a refugee camp called Pinyudu and, after two years of waiting and tremendous hardship, Jal was recruited into the SPLA. He couldn't wait to take his revenge on the Arabs he had come to hate. During training, he was beaten and dragged through severe ordeals. He learned to put a hold on all emotions in order to stay alive, but soon began to realize that war and revenge were not as romantic and fulfilling as he had thought.

The SPLA's Dinka and the Nuer tribes became suspicious of each other. Jal and some members defected to join their tribal commander. They embarked on a journey that almost turned Jal to cannibalism. Eventually, he left the war and met an English aid worker, Emma, who took him to Kenya and placed him in school. But Emma died in an accident and Jal was left alone again, this time on the streets of Nairobi. With tremendous difficulty, and with memories of the war constantly disturbing him, pushing him to near suicide, Jal pursued his education and later his music, which gained him international fame.

In First Kill Your Family, journalist and Africa hand Peter Eichstaedt offers shocking details from the experiences of people who have participated in the war in northern Uganda as children and adults, those who suffered kidnapping, maiming and other physical and psychological damage, government military officers fighting against the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), former top officers of Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, and many other direct and indirect actors and victims of the war in Uganda.

The power of this work is not only that it is well researched, but also that it derives from Eichstaedt's genuine curiosity to know more about a war that had taken 100,000 lives and displaced more than two million people. His perplexity about why the world doesn't know more about the war, and his desire to change this fact, are illustrated in his presentation of the violence of the LRA, the equally oppressive national army toward the Acholi people of the northern areas, and former LRA leaders whose opinions are disturbing.

Furthermore, he outlines north and south divisions due to the historical and political development of bloodthirsty leaders from Idi Amin in the 1970s to other regional leaders such as Alice Lakwena, who claimed to have been possessed by a spirit called Lakwena (Messenger) and who in 1986 started the Holy Spirit Mobile Force, incorporated into Joseph Kony's LRA in 1988.

In the opening of the book, we meet a generation of young men and women who have known nothing but war. First is young Richard Opio, 17 in 2000 and a former child soldier of the LRA. His ordeal started when the rebels attacked his home and forced him to crush the skulls of his mother and father with the blunt end of an ax. The rebels told him it was "a sign of courage" to kill his parents. He knew he couldn't resist; those who had were mutilated, losing limbs, lips and ears; some had been clubbed to death. Richard's parents begged him to kill them. It seemed his only chance to survive.

There is 25-year-old Lily Adong, a former wife of Joseph Kony. She was struggling to be accepted into her community and didn't think that Kony was a bad man. Col. Charles Otema, of the Ugandan army in the north, dismissed the seriousness of the LRA and its atrocities by saying that the group was basically finished. "A dying horse kicks harder" than the bands of LRA rebels, he said, and "Northern Uganda is generally peaceful."

This despite the many civilians who had been injured and had escaped from the LRA. They feared the group's return and lived in constant worry in refugee camps only loosely guarded by the government's army. The army imposed curfews on the people, who felt imprisoned. They could not properly farm and their way of life became suspect to the soldiers, who considered them supporters of the LRA.

The fear of witch doctors, witchcraft and unholy ghosts was pervasive. And to bring us perhaps closer to the mindset of Kony himself, there were three former commanders of the LRA who had accepted the government's amnesty. Maj. Jackson Acama said that Kony "talked about two things. First you should have faith in God. And two, we should overthrow the government."

Eichstaedt questioned Acama further and discovered that Kony believed he was doing exactly what God told him to do, and that he, Kony, was a prophet who had been rejected by a generation, and therefore any crime committed against that generation was not a crime. Acama unflinchingly believed that Kony was a prophet, and it was difficult to wipe that belief from the mindset of Kony's followers.

Another former LRA commander said Kony wasn't aware of all the atrocities, that only the deployed troops were. "Kony is not crazy but rather a clever man," he said. If these commanders who had left Kony still believed in him, what does that say about the possible conclusion of the war, even if Kony were killed or arrested by the International Criminal Court?

It is my hope that Eichstaedt's work will help overcome our forgetfulness and wake us to see that something can be done, that inaction isn't acceptable. For more of his commentary, see his blog.

Emmanuel Jal's memoir offers another human face for child soldiers, an experience that may seem far-fetched to many, but believable if we allow ourselves to see the humanity of others. His journey has brought us to see intimately what war does to children, families and societies, and the struggle to recover and – more important – the strength and resilience of children.

The question is whether children used in wars are lost, or if it is our inaction that makes them lost. Jal's story is also an invitation to the power of music, the power of finding meaning in a shattered life. Although I celebrate Jal's survival, I am heartbroken about the possibility of refocusing lives such as his, lives that can add to and deepen our understanding of the power of goodness and the human spirit.

Ishmael Beah is the author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.