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Emmanuel Jal: The war child fighting for a better future

By Dean Irvine, CNN
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African voices: Emmanuel Jal
  • Now a hip hop musician, Jal was a child soldier in Sudan's civil war
  • Was rescued from the conflict by a British aid worker
  • Has produced a critically acclaimed album and has a project to build a school in Sudan
  • Sudan
  • Hip-Hop and Rap
  • Music

(CNN) -- Emmanuel Jal is fighting to give the youth of Sudan an education after his own childhood was stolen by war.

The Sudanese hip hop musician was a former child soldier of Sudan's brutal civil war that raged between 1983 and 2005. Unlike thousands of other "lost boys" he survived, but by the time he was 13 he had witnessed the unspeakable horrors of war and had seen hundreds of others like him perish.

Now around 30-years-old (he's not sure exactly when he was born) and with a critically acclaimed album and autobiography to his name, Jal is focused on building a school in Sudan to give children there the chances he never had.

It's a project that has been almost all consuming; Jal decided that he would forego breakfast and lunch each day until enough money was raised. The funds have not been as forthcoming as Jal had hoped.

"It was slightly discouraging but I look at it and I say 'Look, I'm willing to die for this'. Because this is a message I want the world to know. Education is the only way for my country. When you don't educate the people, you're crippling them. You are, you're not giving them ways to survive," Jal told CNN.

Education is the only way for my country. When you don't educate the people, you're crippling them. You are, you're not giving them ways to survive.
--Emmanuel Jal

Jal's life is now as far away as possible from the battlefields of his lost childhood -- he's worked with Alicia Keys and Peter Gabriel and has appeared at a TED conference. It is an almost unimaginable contrast to his early life.

"I was born in violence because I wouldn't say there was a month would pass that we were happy or there was nobody crying or we weren't running from any place," says Jal.

As civil war raged in Sudan, Jal was promised an "education" by his father, but it turned out to be something quite different from what he had hoped.

"We were told we were going to go to school. And that was exciting. That's how every family member was convinced. And the way it was done is a family would be told: 'Do you see the plane that is flying?' And someone would say, 'Yes'. 'This plane was built by someone who went to school'. So every kid was really convinced that they're going to school to learn. So they would be able to do these things," says Jal.

Instead he was sent to Ethiopia by the Sudan People's Liberation Army, given an AK47 and trained to fight against the people who had beaten his mother and raped his aunt in front of his eyes.

"A lot of [the other boys] were like me. You know that you want revenge, so we don't know what is freedom. Me personally mine was to revenge. But only now that I know what freedom is. Then, I didn't know the meaning. I wanted revenge for my family," says Jal.

After years of brutal fighting Jal was lucky to survive the war, but only found freedom from the conflict after the intervention of British aid worker Emma McCune. She spotted Jal while he was at his lowest point, marching from a battlefield as those around him starved or turned to cannibalism.

"We were like 400, but only 16 survived," says Jal.

McCune managed to take Jal to Kenya, smuggling him onboard a plane, fed and clothed him. To Jal she was like his guardian angel. Tragically she died in a car crash six months later after Jal arrived in Kenya.

Jal moved to the UK in 2005, where he has written and recorded his album "Warchild" and penned his autobiography. Both proved to be cathartic and positive experiences, but bringing back such vivid memories was at times harrowing.

"The worst moment I had of nightmares was when I was writing the book. One day, all of a sudden massive nightmares, so I lost myself. For 30 minutes I wouldn't know where I am, even when the lights are on, I don't want to talk to anyone. I don't know what happen, because writing the book...the person writing the book with me was going into details that I've been locking up for years," says Jal.

While McCune rescued him, music has proved to be his salvation and continues to sustain him.

Download Emmanuel Jal's new single "We Fall" for free from December 2

"Music has become a therapy for me. So I hide myself into the music," says Jal.

"For me, the happiest moment is when I'm making music, or when I'm performing it and I see the reaction. That's when I see the beauty of life. That's when I see heaven again that there's another side to life -- which is music. It's like a painkiller."