THE VILLAGERS’ VOICES rose louder and louder as they sang. Drums
thudded to greet us: the family of Simon Jok, the SPLA commander
who protected this village and the ones around it. Everyone
seemed so happy and I was too as I stood next to Babba—taller than I remembered,
with a bigger belly now. He’d been treated like a king after arriving
earlier in the day, and he had shown us to the tukul we’d been given
as a home. We even had cows now, just as Mamma had said we would.
They were black- and- white with big, curled horns. An elder, naked except
for beads around his waist and a necklace of ostrich eggs around his neck,
stood in front of my family. Next to him was a riek—the altar found in
every home to make sacrifices to gods. Like many in the south, these villagers
were animists who believed in many gods and made sure a cow’s blood
touched the riek whenever one was slaughtered to please them. The singing
got louder as an old woman tried to sprinkle water on us.
“Please no, we are Christian,” Mamma said.
“Jeeeeesus,” the woman crooned as she carried on sprinkling water.
A bull tied with a leather rope stood in front of the riek. Its eyes rolled
as the old man took a spear and stood in front of it. It knew what was
going to happen as well as I did and moved restlessly. The elder lifted his
spear and in one fast move sliced into the bull’s heart. I watched as it fell
on its left side and blood spread slowly across the earth. It was a blessing.
Later the elder would cut off the bull’s head and skin before handing me
one of the testicles. It was burned on the fire and I had to eat it, but while
the village boys loved the taste, I did not.
“Come, Jal,” my father said after we had finished.
We left Mamma, my sisters, and my brothers behind as we started walking
through the village with some soldiers. They were big and strong too,
but I knew my father was the most important one. He had just come from
Ethiopia, where he’d learned to be a lieutenant commander.
“I am happy you are here where I can visit you,” Babba said as we
So was I. It had taken so long to escape Bantiu. We’d had to turn back
that day on death route because a village was burning in the distance, and
after that it was always the same until Mamma made a new plan. The only
people the troops sometimes allowed to move in and out of the town were
villagers from outside Bantiu who came in to sell milk to the soldiers. It
was dangerous but Mamma told us we were going to pretend to be with
them. I thought of the naked children and women who wore just a skin
around their middle. I didn’t want to be bare. But of course I had no choice,
and soon Mamma, Aunt Nyagai, Nyakouth, Nyaruach, Miri, Marna, and I
had melted into a group.
My brothers, sisters, and I hated being without clothes and shoes, and
Mamma looked strange too. The sun was so hot as we walked that the earth
burned us and we had to take turns standing on her feet. The moment our
turn came to an end, we’d step back onto the ground, and thorns would dig
into our soft skin as the village children laughed. I turned my back on them.
All I cared was that I was leaving Bantiu—and the war—behind.
I looked up now at Babba as he spoke to me.
“This is our land,” he said as he swung his arm in the air around him.
“This is what we are fighting to protect because this is what the Arabs are
trying to take from us.
“They want to change us, our way of life, and make us like them. But I
will never let them do that.”
Bending down, Babba put his arms around mine and lifted me into the
air. Higher and higher I went until I could finally twist my legs around his
shoulders. I felt his hands holding firmly on to my legs as he stopped to
speak to a man.
“This is my son,” Babba said as I sat silently looking down.
I knew he would never let me fall.
Babba left soon after to go back to the war, and I cried when he told me
he was going. He saw my tears and told me I was a man, a soldier, a warrior
The village was as beautiful as I’d been told so long ago it would be.
Tukuls lay in long lines near ours, and there were also bigger luaks, where
the men slept with cows after the fire- red sun had sunk into the night. The
villagers also had many sheep and goats, and the thing I liked most was
that I could walk wherever I liked because it was safe.
Soon I had learned not to wear clothes as I made friends with some of
the village children who I entertained with stories of the city. I liked making
them laugh as I told them about the black- and- white tele vi sion we’d
had—they didn’t understand that a box could show moving pictures. But
there were also many things for me to learn. Village life in Sudan is traditional,
and girls and boys have different jobs to do. While Nyakouth was
taught how to help in the kitchen and milk the cows, I learned how to dry
dung, which was then burned on fires to chase mosquitoes away. Nyaruach
tried to help us, but she mostly made more trouble than she solved.
Her name meant “talkative,” and she loved the sound of her voice even
more than I did my own. Somehow Mamma always found out whenever I
did anything wrong, and I was sure it was because of Nyaruach and her
big mouth. I was glad that Nyakouth was quieter.
Miri and Marna were still too young to work, and we, the older children,
helped look after them. Of course, there was still time to play, and
the game I liked most was with a baby sheep I had made friends with.
Staring at it seriously, I would drop to my knees and throw myself forward
as it butted its head against mine.
“You will break your bones one day,” Nyakouth used to scold me when
she heard the crack of our heads colliding.
I didn’t listen because the sheep made me laugh too much to stop.
Mamma was also busy. As well as feeding Miri and Marna her milk,
she looked after the many people who arrived to see her. Injured soldiers
came who needed their wounds dressed with old pieces of bedsheets, and
Mamma also had some needles, which she boiled again and again, to look
after them. Villagers also arrived at our tukul—some wanting the fruit of
the neem tree, which Mamma boiled to treat malaria, while others asked
for the salt- and- sugar drink she made for those weak with diarrhea.
Although the war was far from us now, we still had to learn to follow
rules. Soon after we arrived, Mamma was beaten with a stick by angry
SPLA soldiers. Villagers were supposed to leave out food and milk to feed
the rebels, and she hadn’t known. What they didn’t realize was that when
government soldiers came to watch the bush with binoculars, the villagers
also gave them milk. But Mamma quickly learned what she had to do, and
Babba sent us a soldier called Gatluak to look after us so we were safe
I loved life in the village. Watching the ostriches and buffalo in the
bush, learning to use the ashes of cow dung and sticks to brush my teeth,
and dyeing my hair red using the bark of the luor tree. I also liked having
Gatluak with us because he played with me often. But most of all I was
glad to have left the war behind.
On a clear morning, we were all outside. Nyakouth was milking a cow and
I was bringing the others outside so I could sweep up the dung in the luak.
But really I just wanted to keep laughing at what I’d seen earlier. There is
an animal in Sudan called a jeer, which is about the size of a large cat.
Earlier one had come out of the bush and fallen asleep in the grass near
our house—or so we’d thought. The jeer lay still as the minutes passed and
flies collected on its huge bottom. But a passing chicken could not resist
such good pickings and pecked along the trail of flies until it reached the
jeer’s backside. As its beak pecked, the jeer woke up, sucked the chicken’s
head inside, and ran away. Nyakouth and I had laughed and laughed as we
watched. Now I giggled to myself again as I led a cow out of the luak into
the daylight. I hoped that we would see another jeer soon.
I froze as I saw an Arab standing in front of me. He was wearing a long,
black jellabiya and holding a gun. Everyone had stopped moving. The
morning was silent. The Arab said nothing as he walked toward the tukul
and came out with Gatluak.
“Put your hands up,” the Arab shouted as he pressed his gun into
Gatluak’s back. “Turn around, move over there.”
Gatluak stepped forward and lowered his hands as he turned around to
face the Arab. The two men stared at each other for a second before the
sharp crack of bullets sliced open the silence. Gatluak dropped onto the
ground and the Arab started running away. My eyes did not follow him.
All I could do was stare at Gatluak as he lay on the ground. I knew the
sound of a gun well and how people looked after they’d been shot, but
had never seen the moment when bullet met flesh.
I couldn’t breathe. Gatluak’s stomach had been ripped apart and his intestines
spilled out of the wound. The smell of shit filled the air. Steam
rose from his body as he lay on the ground, body jerking and eyes empty.
I watched as Mamma sank to her knees beside him. Tears ran down her
face as her hands closed around Gatluak’s stomach. They were bright with
blood as she tried to hold the skin together.
“Get some rags,” she shouted.
I couldn’t move, couldn’t take my eyes away from the sight of
Gatluak’s guts—gray like a goat’s—mixing with a sea of red. I watched as
he twisted in the dirt, his breath coming in gasps as he choked for air.
Then a low moan escaped his lips and he went silent. Mamma bent her
head toward him and cried. Still I did not move.
Days later a witch doctor arrived at our home wearing a leopard skin
and carry ing a big spear. He was tall and wore many beads and bangles,
which rattled as he told Mamma he wanted us to sacrifice a black goat for
his gods so that he could tell us our future.
“He is a dev il trying to trap us,” Mamma said as we stared at him. “We
will not give him a sacrifice.”
But the man didn’t listen as he started banging a drum in front of our
“You will be punished,” he said in a suddenly deep voice. “Our god is
the one who protects you, and you must listen to him. He is telling me
that your village will be burned. You must listen. You will soon all die.”
“Leave us in Jesus’ name!” Mamma shrieked at him.
Soon he left, but the fear that had wrapped itself inside my stomach the
day Gatluak died now pulled even tighter. I knew I shouldn’t listen to a
man who worshipped gods that were not ours, but I couldn’t forget his
words. I wondered what it all meant for us.
It was afternoon and I had left the village with my friend Biel to go fishing.
We were walking back home when we heard the deep blast of a big
bomb. It was close. We looked at each other quickly before running to the
top of a slope. Below us was our village. There was smoke and fire, people
running in different directions like frightened chickens. Government soldiers
The savanna grass crunched beneath our feet as we started running
down the hill. As we neared the road into the village, we saw two SPLA
soldiers lying on the ground ahead and stopped. Hiding ourselves in the
long grass, we poked our heads high enough to see about twenty villagers
gathered by the side of the road surrounded by soldiers pointing guns at
them. Other troops were beating a family.
“You’re keeping rebels here, aren’t you?” they screamed. “You’re giving
Children cried as they watched while the rest of the crowd—men and
women, babies strapped to their mothers’ backs, and elders—looked on
with fear in their eyes.
“We’ve found these rebels here,” a soldier shouted as he pointed to the
dead SPLA. “Where are the others? Where are the rest of your men?”
Suddenly the soldiers rushed at the people and started pushing them with
their guns toward a luak nearby. The villagers cried as they were herded
back, and a man ran toward a soldier. A bullet rang out, then he dropped to
“Get inside,” the soldier hissed as he fired at two other men in the
Beside me Biel was breathing hard. I looked at him. Tears were on his
face. I turned my head again to see troops hitting women with their guns
as they pushed the villagers inside the luak. Bullets cracked in the distance
and screams echoed above us as the soldiers closed the wooden door. I
could hear people crying, and I thought of them trapped in the darkness
as I watched a soldier throw gasoline from a can onto the luak’s straw roof.
I saw the light before I heard the noise. Something bright burned in
front of my eyes, and a huge boom roared in my chest as the luak exploded
into flames. Biel jumped up and started running toward the flames. I knew
I should not follow. Death was trying to trap me in his jaws once again, and
I had to move faster than him. I turned and started running back into the
savanna. Deeper and deeper I went into the long grass as my heart pounded
in my mouth. My stomach felt liquid. I wanted to empty myself. Suddenly
a hand closed around my neck and I screamed as it pulled me to the
ground. I saw a man’s face. I was dead.
“Don’t move,” a voice said. “You must stay with us, keep hidden.”
Looking around, I saw a small group of villagers. They were trying to escape
death too. I turned onto my stomach as bitter smoke filled my lungs
and sounds washed over me—screams and the k-k- k-k- k-k- k of gunfire.
Where was Mamma? Where were Nyagai, my brothers and sisters? When
would Babba arrive to save the village?
I don’t know how long it was before I felt the man’s hand take hold of
me once again and pull me to my feet. We started walking through the
grass and soon reached the river, which we crossed before making our way
to another village where Mamma found me.
“We should have listened to the witch doctor,” I said to her.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the people in the luak. I could see their
faces, the hate in the soldiers’ eyes as they looked at them.
“Are they dead, Mamma? Have they gone to heaven?”
“Hush, makuath,” she replied. “They are sleeping, and if they are in
heaven now, they are safe. All the pain they have suffered will have ended,
their bodies will be whole again. God is watching over all of us and He
will look after them.”
“But when will we go to heaven?”
“I cannot tell you, Jal. Only God knows when each of us will join
I looked up at Mamma. I hadn’t known before that the people I saw
were just asleep. I felt happier now.
Pain returned to our lives once again. Our village had been burned to the
ground and we couldn’t return. Many others did, though, and I soon learned
that people go back to the place of their birth just as birds return to their
nests. Even if nothing was left, they would still go back and rebuild on
the place their ancestors knew. Mamma, Aunt Nyagai, my brothers, sisters,
and I had no such place, and we ran and ran as village after village was attacked.
People were generous with what little they had, and we were given
a place to rest and food to eat as we moved across the south with other
“God will protect us,” Mamma told us night after night, and cuddled
us to her.
But even she was different now—her smell had changed. In the city the
scent of perfume and incense had clung to her skin, whereas now the
smell of milk mixed with the sharpness of fear lingered on her.
I knew why. The soldiers came in jeeps and trucks to attack, or sometimes
we would hear tanks in the distance and escape the low growl. But
on other days they arrived as light was breaking and took us by surprise.
The dry season was the worst because they could move more easily. Burning
and looting crops, they destroyed anything that might feed us or the
SPLA. They wanted us to starve and set village after village afire as the lucky
ones escaped to the rivers or the forest, while their friends and family perished.
Murahaleen also came, and they were the ones I was most afraid of
as they shouted, “Allahu Akbar,” and shot. The village men would try to
fight them with spears, but they were no match against the guns, and the
murahaleen would kill everyone they could.
I remember walking into one village where bones covered the ground.
Some were small and some were large, and Mamma couldn’t cover our eyes
that day—there was too much to see. Tears ran down people’s faces as they
cried without sound, and I had many bad dreams afterward. Sometimes
Mamma would sing me a song to go back to sleep, but the only time I felt
really protected was lying beside her or Nyagai. I had to make room for the
younger children, though, so I never really did feel safe.
Sometimes we saw he li cop ters in the distance—gunships that hovered
in the air before firing—and I learned that people running for their lives
never go in one direction. Instead they scatter like ants and flee wherever
instinct takes them. With the smell of burning flesh in the air and the
memories of bodies lying still on the ground, I’d run as if the dev il were
chasing me. I became good at war. Soon I knew the different sounds of
explosions—the boom of big bombs, the smaller one of grenades thrown
from the hands of soldiers, the hiss of a rocket from an RPG. There were
also different guns—the AK- 47s carried by the SPLA, the Mack 4s the
murahaleen used, and the G3s of the government soldiers. I learned how
to run until I felt my feet would touch the back of my head even as my
stomach twisted and tumbled inside me. Often I fell down and each time
prayed that I would disappear into the ground. But of course I had to get
up and start running again. I wondered if I would ever stop.
Stories woven tight with threads become simple ones in the mind of a
child, and the war in Sudan was less distinct than a fight between black
and Arab, Christian and Muslim. Centuries of marriage had blurred our
tribes, age- old rivalries were used by the northern government to pit one
against the other, and black Muslims from Darfur fought alongside Arab
Muslim troops in the belief that they were taking part in a holy war
against the infidels from the south. Even black African Christians joined
the government forces to earn money.
But I forgot about the African faces I saw among the enemy as I thought
of the Arabs who attacked us and my hate grew inside. Arabs and murahaleen
became one in my mind—jallabas—whom I hated more and more.
In the north I’d wondered why they had better clothes than we did, why
they were allowed to go to mosques while Mamma got beaten for going to
a church. But now I saw for myself what they could do. The answer was
always the same when anyone asked who’d done something: “Jallabas—
Arabs.” The jallabas were to blame for all I had seen; they were the reason
my family had been tossed onto the wind as our world disappeared.
“I don’t like them,” I’d tell Mamma. “They should go to hell. They are
“No,” she would reply. “Heaven is for everyone and God is for all people.”
Sometimes I wondered how God could let them into heaven when they
killed everyone, and secretly I told myself I would attack the Arabs with
my father when I grew up. All I wanted to do was stop them from hurting
But at times I could forget the hatred I felt for jallabas because children
are better at war than adults. The moment the battle was behind us, we
would start playing again and laugh as we remembered how funny people
looked as they ran. It was only at night that you couldn’t forget, but in the
day we would always find a game to play in the dust or a joke to tell.
My family and I were separated many times as war snaked around us.
Sometimes I was alone, sometimes with Aunt Nyagai or Nyakouth, but I
quickly realized that wherever I found myself, I had only to mention my
father’s name and Mamma would find me. I hated being apart from her,
and in the days without her I would be restless and crying as I waited. Yet
even when Mamma came back, I would be ready to run again, and if we
ever came to a stop in one place, I would feel my stomach trembling as it
waited for the next battle.
“We are safe now,” Mamma would tell us.
But the war was never far away, and even when we did stop, people
were forced to help the SPLA on the front lines by carry ing food and ammunition
there. Aunt Nyagai had to go once and was silent when she returned.
She’d seen many dead people and heard of families crying for
boys who’d been taken as slaves on sugar plantations and girls who would
be used by the militiamen for kun ke bom. She refused to eat when she
came back and couldn’t taste meat. I knew what she was remembering—
the smell of the burned people.
“It was so terrible,” I heard her say one night to Mamma.
I’d been woken up by the sound of Aunt Nyagai being sick, and now
she spoke to my mother in a low voice.
“Angelina, there were children and babies, a pregnant woman lying
burned on the ground with her child inside her.”
“Hush, Nyagai,” Mamma said. “You’re safe now.”
I was scared by what I’d heard. It put pictures in my mind—I could
smell the air and hear the cries. I kept telling myself what Mamma had
told me—the people were asleep and would wake up later, and if they
didn’t, then God would make them whole again in heaven.
It felt as if we’d been running forever until we finally found a village
that wasn’t attacked for many weeks.
“The SPLA are protecting us now,” Mamma told us one night. “The
war is distant. We can stay here and rest.”
I almost dared to believe her. Babba had brought us some cows, his
soldiers had built us a tukul, and Mamma’s belly had swollen with another
brother or sister for me.
“Tell us a story,” Nyaruach said.
“Will you ever be happy to listen to the silence?” Mamma laughed as
she sat down beside us. “I will tell you one story and then you must sleep.”
We looked at her as she sat down.
“Did you know that the fox and the dog were once cousins who played
happily together?” she asked. “But one day the dog went to visit the fox
and told him, ‘It is hard to live in the bush, but in the village all you have
to do is warn people when the hyena is coming. You should come and live
“So the fox decided to go to the village, but got there to find the dog
hadn’t been given any food that night. Silently he watched as the dog went
to his master’s house to ask. But he was kicked and given only bones to
“The fox told him, ‘In the village you are humiliated. All you get is
bones. In the bush I kill my own meat and eat what I want.’
“ ‘Just wait and see,’ the dog told the fox. ‘My master looks after me well.’
“And so the fox stayed, but the next day the dog and the fox killed an
animal, took it to the master, and were given only bones to eat once again.
“ ‘I must go back to the bush,’ the fox told the dog. ‘I will never be
“And so the fox returned to the bush and the dog stayed loyal to his
master, and the two became enemies, which is why they fight today.”
Mamma kissed the younger children as I turned onto my side to sleep.
I was seven—too old for kisses. I felt her hand touch my shoulder as I
closed my eyes.
The boom in my belly told me that war had come again. I opened my
eyes. I could hear guns spitting bullets and the low tuk- tuk- tuk of heli copters
throbbing overhead. I jumped to my feet. Everyone else was up. Miri
was crying, scared by the loud noises. Running to the door of the tukul,
we plunged into the daylight. My heart was beating and my legs felt weak.
Would I be able to run fast enough this time?
Aunt Nyagai’s hand took mine as Mamma held on to the babies and we
all started running. All around us people were screaming. Dust and smoke
filled the air; I could smell fire.
“Wait,” Mamma shouted as she turned toward the tukul.
I knew what she wanted—her medical box. It was the one thing she always
ran with during war.
“Don’t go,” Nyagai screamed. “There’s no time.”
Mamma stopped for a moment, unsure of what to do. She turned toward
us again. “Run for the river,” she screamed.
I could see government soldiers in the distance and told my legs they
must be strong as I gripped Nyagai’s hand. I didn’t look behind at Mamma
and the others. I knew they were there.
Suddenly the little boom of an exploding grenade came from near us
and I heard cries.
“Quick,” Nyagai screamed, and we turned toward the forest that lay on
the outskirts of the village. We’d be safer among the trees there.
My feet flew through the air as I forced myself to go quicker. The battle
screamed in my ears, and all I could feel was Nyagai’s hand in mine.
Thorns dug deep into my legs but I didn’t feel them. Fear will always win
against pain, and all I had to do was run. Run and run, keep going, never
stop until I’d left the guns behind. I wanted to silence the crack and roar
and hiss and screech of war forever.
When the world was finally quiet again, I realized that I had lost Nyagai.
I was alone but knew what to do. I joined a crowd of refugees to start
walking. I didn’t know where they were going, just that when they finally
stopped, Mamma would find me. She, my brothers, and my sisters had to
be somewhere close by, and until I met them again, someone would look
after me as always.
“Mamma will find you,” I told myself again and again. “God will look
after her.” EMMANUEL JAL lives in London. His music has been featured in the movie Blood Diamond
, the documentary God Grew Tired of Us
, and in three episodes of ER
. He is a spokesman for Amnesty International and Oxfam, and has done work for Save the Children, UNICEF, World Food Programme, Christian Aid, and other charities, and has established his own charitable foundation, Gua Africa, to help former Sudanese child soldiers. He has been featured in Time Magazine
, USA Today
, the Washington Post
, Newsweek.com, and on NPR, CNN, Fox, MTV, and the BBC. A documentary about Jal’s life, also called War Child
, premiered to acclaim at the February 2008 Berlin Film Festival and the April 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. His first U.S. album War Child
was released in May 2008.