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

Book review: A Child Soldier's Story Add to ...

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.

War Child: A Child Soldier's Story, by Emmanuel Jal with Megan Lloyd Davies, St. Martin's Press, 257 pages, $27.95

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.

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