As a seven year old he was already using an AK 47 as a soldier in the then rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army. Today he is an international music star who uses every platform he gets to preach peace and the need to provide young people with education.
Emmanuel Jal performing during the youth 21 event © UN-HABITAT/Julius Mwelu
Speaking during a global youth meeting that opened on Thursday in Nairobi, Emmanuel Jal captivated the audience with the story of his life which has seen him fight as a child soldier, lived as a refugee in Ethiopia and sneaked into Kenya where he managed to get education and later launch his music career.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UN-Habitat, with financial support from the Government of Norway, are hosting the four-day meeting which seeks to better understand and advocate for the engagement of youth in governance. It has brought together about 300 youth delegates from all over the world.
"I was a bitter boy whose main mission was to kill all Arabs and Muslims because I believed they were the cause of the suffering of my people," he said. However, his life was to take a turn for the better after a British aid worker sneaked him into Kenya and enrolled him in school.
"With education my world view changed. I came to realise that people will always fight when there are clashing interests especially for oil, gold and other natural resources," he said.
He says his fame as a musician has given him an opportunity to preach peace and appeal for funds to help build schools in his native South Sudan. He said he finds it more fulfilling reaching out to young people and preaching to them the need for education.
According to Wikipedia, Jal was born in the village of Tonj in South Sudan and was a young child when the Second Sudanese Civil War broke out. His father joined the SPLA and when he was about seven years old his mother was killed by soldiers loyal to the government. He then decided to join the thousands of children traveling to Ethiopia who had been told that they could be educated there.
However, many of the children, Jal included, were recruited by the SPLA and taken to military training camps in the bush in Etwas disguised as a school in front of international aid agencies and UN representatives, but behind closed doors the children were training to fight. "I didn't have a life as a child. In five years as a fighting boy, what was in my heart was to kill as many Muslims as possible."
Jal spent several years fighting with the SPLA in Ethiopia, until war broke in and out, there too and the child soldiers were forced back into Sudan by the fighting and joined the SPLA's efforts to fight the government in the town of Juba. "Many kids there were so bitter, they wanted to know what happened to them. And we all wanted revenge."
When the fighting became unbearable Jal and some other children decided to run away. They were on the move for three months, with many dying on the way, until they reached the town of Waat, which was the headquarter of a small group that had separated themselves from the main SPLA. It was here that he met the aid worker who adopted him and took him to Kenya, and to his fame.