War Child: Surviving a Hitch in an Army of Boys

Copyright The New York Times
Books of The Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
February 16, 2009
Barely pages into Emmanuel Jal’s fast-paced memoir about growing up amid modern African warfare, the reader is brought up short by the following sentence: “There was peace in Sudan for the first three years of my life, but I cannot remember it.”
WAR CHILD
A Child Soldier’s Story
By Emmanuel Jal with Megan Lloyd Davies
262 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $24.95.
***
It is the first of many stark, declarative statements about a human condition of cruelty and wretchedness that afflicts the lives of countless young people in distant African lands, people whose stories we are unaccustomed to hearing.
Mr. Jal’s tale, of a lengthy and devastating civil war between northern and southern Sudan (not the conflict in Darfur, more familiar to readers today), begins in the mid-1980s when he is somewhere around the age of 7 — though he is not altogether sure because he inhabits a world where time is marked by seasons, including one for hunger, rather than calendars.
At the very outset we are introduced to the boy’s family as they move southward through their country in a convoy of trucks from an area controlled by “African Arabs” to their own ethnic heartland, inhabited by “pure Africans,” in the book’s somewhat overly reductive language of ethnicity.
Four Arab men with angry eyes speak among themselves about a rebellion brewing in the country. It will fail, and the pure Africans who seek to revolt “will remain slaves beneath us just as they are meant to be,” one vows.
Moments later, a fight breaks out when the Arabs steal the meager rations of Emmanuel’s family; after they begin to beat his uncle, the boy throws himself onto one of the men’s ankles and bites it.
The scene ends with a fadeout to unconsciousness. Thus started, time rushes past in this recollected tale of appalling violence, “like sand,” in the words of the narrator, “running through my fingers as I look back.”
The attack in the truck marks Emmanuel’s loss of innocence, and with it is born a burning hatred for Arabs that will drive his behavior, often with tragic consequences, through most of the story.
Emmanuel is taken by his mother from one village to the next in the south, each time under the pretext that the new destination will be safer. There is little respite, though, as Sudan’s relentless army, bent on ethnic cleansing, unfailingly closes in and attacks anew.
At one early stop the boy learns that his father has absented himself from the family to undergo officer training in the rebel southerners’ Sudan People’s Liberation Army (S.P.L.A.).
In quick succession the young boy witnesses the rape of an aunt and then is separated permanently from his mother amid another army onslaught. At the next way station he is taken in with scores of other children who are told they are being moved to Ethiopia to go to school. But once there, he is told he must join the southerners’ rebellion as a fighter. It is his father’s will, the boy is told.
For good measure, an elder intones, “The gun does not know who is old or young.” Emmanuel, for the record, is 9.
Despite these grim contours, the story sometimes has the cloying feel of a fairy tale. This, perhaps, is a risk of the “as told to” genre. Mr. Jal, who received little schooling until well into his teens, after he was rescued by an aid worker, immigrated to England and eventually became a successful musician. His co-writer is Megan Lloyd Davies.
The writing is usually sturdy, and in a middle section that relates a long death march through the south it even rises to an urgency that recalls Jerzy Kozinski’s novel “The Painted Bird.” Elsewhere, though, it sometimes feels dreamily like Technicolor when color would do, and admits insufficient room for reflection on many themes, notably fear and hatred.
Some of the book’s most interesting observations seem almost inadvertent, depriving the reader of context that is important to understanding this conflict, and African conflicts in general. From Biafra to Rwanda, and now Darfur itself, the West has a long tradition of reducing them to good-versus-evil stories bereft not just of nuance but also of politics, history and complexity.
There is no gainsaying Mr. Jal’s experience of terror, but amid his frequent loathing for Arabs the book provides only a glimpse of the geopolitics of the war, with Ethiopia hosting hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees near their common border and allowing rebels to train on its territory.
In one recollection, the young Emmanuel, at the time he thinks he is being sent to school, astutely wonders why the Western aid workers are “nowhere to be found except in food lines or the hospital.” A few pages later he says that “while the khawajas” — a local expression for whites — “thought they ran the camp, it was the S.P.L.A. who were really in charge.”
These words amount to a provocative challenge to the myth of the beneficent and powerful Western humanitarian worker whose impact is thought exclusively good. Too often in African conflicts these workers’ presence has amounted to unacknowledged collusion.
Mr. Jal’s narrative makes another important point, but again almost incidentally. As horrible as civil conflicts are, often their collateral damage is worse. After lusting for vengeance against the Arabs, the boys’ first “battle” is a murderous raid against an Ethiopian village. The next combat is against the Ethiopian state, whose army evicts the rebels.
“War Child” ends with its least compelling material, a made-for-Hollywood account of how Mr. Jal succeeds as a antiwar musician, playing concerts around the world and toasted by the likes of Peter Gabriel. “I’m still a soldier,” he writes, “fighting with my pen and paper, for peace till the day I cease.”
Click to read more

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *