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The Fight of His Life

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, February 6, 2009

WAR CHILD

A Child Soldier's Story

By Emmanuel Jal with Megan Lloyd Davies

St. Martin's. 262 pp. $24.95

Inevitably, "War Child" will invite comparison to Ishmael Beah's "A Long Way Gone," another memoir by an African boy-soldier. Set in Sierra Leone, Beah's madly popular volume was crammed with narrow escapes, daring adventures, drugs, rock-and-roll, and a stunning set piece in which, after boys from both sides of the civil war are rescued by an NGO, they're put in the same dorm room, and the war starts up all over again. Parts of Beah's memoir were later questioned, but who's going to be the fact-checker who goes out into the jungle, finds a war-crazed fighter with bloodshot eyes and a sack of grenades and asks, "Excuse me, sir, but could you verify the existence of six or eight boys who traveled together, all high on drugs, slaughtering everything that crossed their path? And could you give me a year, please, and a date for that? Ballpark figures, of course." It's not going to happen. You take these stories on faith, or you don't take them at all.

"War Child" is very different, very much worth reading, and when you think about it, much more believable. Emmanuel Jal is not sure how old he is, but he sets his tentative birthday in 1980, dating the rest of his life from there. He was born in southern Sudan, where the population is mostly black. His father, a clandestine official in the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), is a policeman and a member of the Nuer tribe. His mother is half-Nuer, half-Dinka and a practicing Christian. The first three years of his life are peaceful, and then war breaks out. Sudan's Arab population, Muslims from the northern part of the country, hate the blacks from the south, who are often Christian. The conflict, then, is regional, religious, racial. To thicken the plot, many of the southern tribes are at odds with one another. But the war is really about oil.

Jal's earliest memories are of Arabs beating his mother. When the war comes to their village, the family moves to other villages, finding different sets of relatives, looking for peace, but the war follows them. Jal gets used to bombings, shootings, fire, rape.

Then his father leads an SPLA movement to send hundreds of village boys to school in Ethiopia to be educated. "Ethiopia is a good place," he tells parents who have gathered on a river bank to say goodbye to their children. "There is food, no war, and your sons will have shoes and education." They board a ship, supervised by soldiers; soon the ship sinks. They make their way back to the village, tormented by hippos, crocodiles andsnakes. "Only about forty children had lived," Jal writes. Parents come searching for their children, but Jal's father never shows up. His mother is already dead, he's been abandoned by his family, and he begins his life as a "lost boy." After another harrowing boat trip, he and another large band of children walk for days without food and water. Many of them die of thirst and starvation. The SPLA doesn't give a fig about education; they have taken these boys to use as cannon fodder in battles yet to come.

When the boys reach Ethiopia, it turns out to be an enormous refugee camp called Pinyudu, where the food has run out and hundreds of people are starving to death. "Boys died day after day. . . . Terrible diarrhea made us bleed and grow thin; measles, whooping cough, and chicken pox were also common. Even our skin crawled with lice." Jal sickens enough to make it into the hospital, where he gets some tea and biscuits and kindness; then it's back out into the camp with its polio and cholera and protein-deficiency disease. Remember, this is a little kid, not even 10 years old, all alone. Hatred, by now, is the only thing that sustains him, hatred for his father, who so brutally double-crossed him, hatred for the Arabs, who he presumes are responsible for this war. There's no glamour here, no pitched battles, only unimaginable misery.

Finally, after about two years in the camp, he's recruited into the SPLA, and his real troubles begin. He's beaten and tortured in every possible fashion. His first real battle comes when the Ethiopians turn on the refugees and kick them out. Then the Nuer and Dinka tribes turn against each other. He goes on more forced marches, suffers terrible privations, is repeatedly betrayed by his friends. When he finally does get to kill a few Arabs, he feels no sense of triumph, just sadness. They're human, too, it seems.

A couple of miracles happen. Jal sees a vision of Jesus, who advises him against cannibalism. His best friend has died during the night, and lies, still warm, beside him. Jal is perishing with hunger. How bad could it be to take a few bites out of his friend just to stay alive? Jesus talks him out of it. But can the vision be real? What does turn out to be real is that he's singled out by a prominent English aid worker who takes him into her own home. He ends up in Nairobi. But the aid worker dies, and once again Jal must live by his wits. He pursues his education in fits and starts. He's ashamed of his appearance and his bad grades. Humans have invented so many different ways to be awful to one another!

Still, we know there is a happy ending; otherwise, there wouldn't be this book. Jal becomes a believing Christian and gospel singer. He sets up an organization to help lost boys, but he's broke a lot of the time -- a star in Kenya, maybe, but unknown on the larger stage. He's often tired and sad and lonely, but in "War Child" he succeeds in making this crazy war and all its ramifications utterly grounded, specific and real. Recently, he has been the subject of a documentary film, and his music has been featured in movies and TV shows, even though he reports he still has spent more than a few nights sleeping on London park benches. You'll come away from this book loving Emmanuel Jal. He might even prod you into a good deed or two.

This Sunday in Book World

· Lincoln's 200th birthday.

· The untapped comedy of "King Lear."

· Is God a mathematician?

· Is mathematician Manil Suri a novelist?

· Was William Randolph Hearst a god?

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