War Child: A Boy Soldier's Story by Emmanuel Jal

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War Child: A Boy Soldier's Story by Emmanuel Jal

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: We should all read this book, and weep. Then, we should act.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Little, Brown
ISBN: 978-1408700051

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Emmanuel Jal, internationally successful rap artist, spent his childhood as a solider in his native Sudan. He has written his story in order to help those children who are still fighting, and those who have managed to get away. There are a number of books about the Sudan by western aid workers and journalists, who do, I am sure, write fluently and passionately about the horror of Darfur. This is the first book that I have read which tells the story of war from the point of view of a small boy carrying an AK-47, a gun taller than he is himself.

It is a painful story. No – much more – it is a horrifying story. Not only because of what Jal is trained to do as a soldier, and what he does do when he goes into battle, but because of the psychological and physical brutality that is meted out to him. From the moment that his father fails to rescue him after a river boat accident, leaving him to fend for himself, Jal is betrayed by almost everyone that he tries to become intimate with. He is swept into the army of the SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army), where extreme hardship is ordinary. The possible solace of friendship between the boys is discouraged, with vicious whippings as punishments. Indoctrination of children into killing machines mitigates against relationships.

Jal is proud to be a solider, and he lives only for the hatred he feels for the jallabas, the Muslim Sudanese who shelled his family. He longs to get into battle. However, his descriptions of what happens when manages to achieve his aim are not for the squeamish. He lived in a world where death had become an everyday occurrence. His descriptions of the violence in the villages, amongst the SPLA and between the SPLA and the jellabas are grotesque, perhaps more than ordinarily so as they are written in such a matter-of-fact manner. It is so easy to forget that the 'solider' who is writing his story was at this point probably ten years old – probably, because Jal does not know his date of birth. However, the vagueness in the book about time and place, the snapshots of events described in vivid detail, the impotence and powerlessness of the individual are so recognisably child-like. To hear these things out of a mouth of a child is exceptional. To feel with him what it feels like to starve, to march for days, to be beaten senseless and to kill, is a privilege and a shocking revelation.

This book would be almost unreadably painful were it not for the redemption at the end – which we all know must be coming, or the book could not have been written. Jal must be an exceptionally charismatic person. When he spends time at a refugee camp, it is he, out of thousands, who is picked to chat to the khawajas or white people, and later it is he who manages to form a crucial relationship that provides an escape route. However, it is very apparent that even when he is no longer a soldier, his struggle continues. His path to music is not an easy one.

This book should be required reading for anyone who is interested in politics and in Africa, in childhood and in psychology. My daughter is 10. When I think that she's old enough to even read about some of the events that happened to this child at her age, I'll get her to read it. I reckon that won't be for some years yet.

Emmanuel Jal has formed a charity to help children in Africa overcome the effects of war. You can find out about it here.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If the subject interests you then you might also appreciate Heart of Darfur by Lisa French Blaker and Frontline by David Loyn. We were also impressed by the diaries of Chris Mullin who speaks passionately about his interest in Africa and the time that he was the UK's Minister for Africa at the Foreign Office.

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Buy War Child: A Boy Soldier's Story by Emmanuel Jal at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy War Child: A Boy Soldier's Story by Emmanuel Jal at Amazon.com.


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