NAIROBI, Kenya — South Sudanese hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal, a global peace activist who’s the subject of the book and movie "War Child," said Monday that he was brutally beaten and knocked unconscious over the weekend by police in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, as he was planning a peace concert.
"I still have a headache. My left side has been numb since yesterday. I can’t feel anything on my left side," Jal, who said he was out of the hospital recovering from his injuries, told McClatchy in a telephone interview.
The rapper said the beating occurred when he was going home after a late planning session for the upcoming show when he got lost and stopped to ask directions from a group of police officers. They told him to get out of the car and started harassing him.
"They said, ’You are drunk. How can you not know your way?’ They didn’t understand how someone could be asking directions," he said. Most of the police were of South Sudan’s dominant Dinka tribe. They asked him if he was Nuer, and he said yes.
Five police officers then began beating him, as perhaps as many as 15 other security personnel stood watching, Jal said. One of the officers took his phone, Jal said. He said he eventually lost consciousness.
Jal, who maintains residences in Britain and Canada, is one of South Sudan’s best-known citizens. His story of surviving his country’s brutal war against the Sudanese government, first as a refugee and then as a child soldier for the rebels, has touched millions.
The rapper escaped the war after he was adopted by then-guerrilla and now-Vice President Riek Machar’s British wife, Emma McCune, who later died in Nairobi in a car accident.
Jal said Machar called him Sunday evening after he heard about the incident. Machar’s press secretary said he didn’t have details of the call. South Sudan’s government spokesperson, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, couldn’t be reached by phone for comment.
For two years, Jal ate just one meal a day to raise money to build a rural school. He’s known for writing a rap song addressed to the artist 50 Cent, complaining about his promotion of street violence. Recently, Jal released a pro-peace music video that features former President Jimmy Carter, actor George Clooney, musician Ringo Starr and others.
The reported assault highlights a major challenge facing South Sudan, where the vast security service is populated by former rebels and militia members whose training for police activities is lacking. Like Jal, many have been under arms since they were teenagers, or younger, and they lack any sort of education.
Incidents such as what happened to Jal "are no longer shocking to a lot of people in South Sudan," said Jok Madut Jok, South Sudan’s undersecretary of culture, who’s said that he himself was tortured in December during a visit to the city of Wau, the capital of his home region. "This is happening to so many people every day across the country from the hands of the men and women in uniform."
Jok said he’d suffered a concussion from the unprovoked attack. He said he’d never received an apology for the incident, which he wrote about publicly several days later in scalding detail: "As I was seated on the floor, being interrogated, several drunken soldiers, the ones ’protecting’ our leader, kept interrupting their officer with really disorderly behavior, and instead of the officer reprimanding them, he told me ‘You see, they may be drunk, but that is how we liberated this country,’ Jok wrote at the time. "Liberators? To what end?"
He said growing pains within the country’s security services were in some ways inevitable, given the country’s violent history, but that they were aggravated by a culture of impunity within the armed forces.
"Nothing happened. They were let go," he said of the soldiers in his own situation.
"There are no law books for them to read. And if there were law books, they couldn’t read them because they are illiterate," Jok said.
As for Jal, the musician said his peace concert later this month will go on as planned. He said he remained optimistic about his nation and found a ray of hope in one of the police officers yelling, "Don’t beat him," as he was repeatedly struck.
"We are just out of war. South Sudan is like a newborn baby. And I believe it is going to grow," Jal said.
He said the authorities told him they were still looking for those responsible.
Jal’s new album, “See Me Mama,” will be released later this month.
Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights.