About a year ago, Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier in the Sudanese Civil War and rap artist for peace, performed at a DC nightclub. I was on crutches from a biking injury and hobbled to a space in the back. After months of sitting incapacitated at home, my life seemed grim – until I heard Emmanuel’s story of a seven-year-old orphan with a gun in hand, fighting for revenge for the death of his mother.
That night, I danced on one leg and crutches until near collapse. I wasn’t dancing because I suddenly realized the insignificance of my injury relative to his. I danced because after experiencing hell, Emmanuel Jal could still sing for peace and for the betterment of Africa.
Footage from that show was included in the new documentary, War Child, which chronicles his time as an orphan soldier with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), his daring escape to Kenya, and a career as a musician and activist. The film shows for the last time Thursday at the E Street Cinema in Washington, DC. If it does well in Washington it may be taken to theaters across America.
The film weaves his childhood with his first return to Africa in 18 years. It shows the progression of his musical career and painful and awkward reunions with family members. It even shows his first hit music video shot in Nairobi, Kenya.
As Emmanuel’s story spread, several UN workers who were stationed at a refugee camp in Ethiopia revealed they had film of Jal living in the camp as a young boy. Filmmakers obtained the footage and integrated it into the documentary. The UN workers took a particular interest in Emmanuel Jal and filmed him in school, singing with friends, and talking about his dreams of becoming a pilot. In a role no different from today, he was a spokesperson for his people.
Over two million people died in the Sudanese Civil War. For every one Emmanuel Jal, there are hundreds of thousands who never escaped or did not survive. In this way, the War Child is not Emmanuel, but all African children ensnared in civil conflict.
— Sam Sherraden