It’s two a.m., and we’re barreling down a deeply pocked dirt road in Southern Sudan. In the cool of night, the temperature is nearly 100 degrees. Sam Childers, 46, is behind the wheel of a chrome-tinted Mitsubishi truck. Christian rock blares on the speakers. He has a Bible on the dash and a shotgun that he calls his “widow-maker” leaning against his left knee. His top sergeant, Santino Deng, 34, a Dinka tribesman with an anthracite complexion and radiant black eyes, sits in the passenger seat, an AK-47 across his lap. I sit in the back. Since leaving the town of Mundri, headed toward the Congolese border, we’ve been driving for two bone-jarring days on roads littered with the charred wrecks of armored vehicles and fuel tankers, remnants of battles past. A truck follows close behind, carrying 15 men from the small militia group under Childers’s personal command. The convoy is on its way to a Sudanese town called Maridi. In the area we’re passing through, just hours ago soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.) hacked 15 villagers to death with machetes, then disappeared into the bush. Intelligence sources from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army—the ragtag military wing of the breakaway government of Southern Sudan—have indicated that elements of the L.R.A. are now headed to Maridi. Childers wants to intercept them, and kill their leader.
Sam Childers is known in these parts, and back home in Pennsylvania, simply as the Reverend Sam. He is not your typical evangelical Christian missionary, nor, as a white American, is he your typical African warlord. Childers is a former drug dealer and outlaw biker, with tired eyes framed by grizzly muttonchops and a walrus mustache. He claims divine justification for what he does. In firefights, he says, God sometimes tells him when to shoot. He speaks country-singer American, with plenty of grit, and he recounts, over and over, the same stories from his bar-brawling days. He lifts weights, favors army fatigues, and keeps a .44 Magnum tucked in the small of his back. Harley tattoos stretch down his thick arms, and “Freedom Fighter” is airbrushed on the back of his truck. He once owned 15 pit bulls. He seems suited more to bending steel in a motorcycle shop than to saving souls in Sudanese villages.
|Sam and his wife,|
What transformed Childers into a zealot was, as he later wrote, “a metal disk about the size of a dinner plate.” A land mine had been placed along a road near the town of Yei, and a child made the mistake of stepping on it. Childers happened upon the torso. In time, he liquidated his construction business, sold his pit bulls, auctioned his antique-gun collection, and mortgaged his home to help pay for regular trips to Sudan, where he began spending most of his time. He became obsessed with the fate of the thousands of children who have lost their parents to the fighting. In due course he would set up an orphanage in Sudan. But it was Joseph Kony who grabbed his attention. “I found God in 1992,” Childers says, in what is by now a ritual formulation. “I found Satan in 1998.” He has vowed to track Kony down and, in biblical fashion, to smite him. He has been trying for years. But this specific ambition has led to a broader entanglement in the region’s conflicts. Childers is now helping to feed and supply the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (S.P.L.A.), and he has made his home in Uganda available to the rebels for a radio-relay station. An arms depot stands at the heart of his orphanage. Childers also maintains his own paid militia force—a platoon of seasoned fighters recruited from the S.P.L.A.—and for his efforts, he says, the government of Southern Sudan has named him an honorary commander, the only white man to achieve that distinction. The Ugandan and Southern Sudanese militaries give Childers wide latitude to roam an increasingly bloody militarized zone.
It is hard to know what his African allies make of this Bible-wielding biker from the Alleghenies. Before setting out on his most recent hunt for Kony, Childers had ordered his men to bow their heads in prayer and ask for God’s help. No one remarked on the irony of one man’s invoking divine sanction in order to kill a man who also invokes divine sanction. I once asked an S.P.L.A. officer about Childers and his activities, and he said simply, “He is a man of God. That’s what I can say to you. He is a man of God.”
Altar Boy, with Machete
Then there was the time Childers and his men lay in wait for three days with sniper rifles on a cliff overhanging the road to Juba, the de facto capital of Southern Sudan. Kony was expected to pass by on his way to peace talks. When Kony failed to show, Childers and his militia drove into the city, where they found Kony’s mother. “So, I hear you’re trying to meet my son,” she said to Childers. “No, ma’am,” he replied. “I’m not trying to meet your son. I’m trying to kill him.”
To understand Sam Childers you have to understand his nemesis. Born in the early 1960s, Joseph Kony grew up in the town of Odek, near the city of Gulu, in northwestern Uganda. A quiet child and a former altar boy, he was best known in Odek for his skill at the Larakaraka, a traditional Acholi dance. By age 12 he became a healer, and by 1987 he had appointed himself a prophet to his fellow Acholi people, forming what would become the Lord’s Resistance Army. The government in northern Sudan soon began backing the L.R.A., to counter the Ugandan government’s backing of the S.P.L.A.
Initially, the Lord’s Resistance Army enjoyed popularity among the Acholi, who were marginalized when Uganda’s current president, Yoweri Museveni, seized power in 1986. That support dissipated as Kony began terrorizing the countryside with a ruthlessness reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge. Over the next two decades, the L.R.A. forced two million people to flee to squalid refugee camps in northern Uganda and Southern Sudan. The L.R.A. has also abducted more than 30,000 children, turning the boys, some as young as eight, into soldiers, and the girls into sex slaves. The aim, according to the L.R.A.’s twisted theology, was to purify the Ugandan people. For years, in the countryside of northern Uganda, children left their villages at dusk to walk miles, usually barefoot and parentless, into the closest towns, where they slept in better-protected schools and parks to avoid being abducted. At dawn, they trekked back home. They were known as “night commuters.”
Even for a region with a vivid memory of Idi Amin, the L.R.A.’s brutality manages to shock. Soldiers in dreadlocks routinely cut off the lips, noses, and breasts of villagers to deter informants. Women are raped, then forced to watch as their infants are bayoneted. Kony cites biblical precedent to explain why it is sometimes necessary to murder his own people. In his camps he exudes a Jim Jones aura of fear and awe. Some of those who have escaped describe a pious man who plays with children and treats his 50 “wives” with respect. Others conjure a mercurial monster who, for obscure reasons, decreed an injunction against eating white chickens and chops off the feet of people seen bicycling. “I’ve been in a hundred countries and seen almost as many conflicts and humanitarian disasters,” Jan Egeland, the former United Nations undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, told me. “I’ve never seen an evil like Kony’s.”
Kony smears his troops with mystical oils that he says will protect them from bullets. He is known to speak in tongues, and, like Childers, claims to have received military advice from the Holy Spirit. He named one of his sons “George Bush,” after the American president. In 2005 the International Criminal Court in The Hague indicted Kony and his top echelon for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, and kidnapping.
Forced by Ugandan troops deep into a swampy and overgrown no-man’s-land in Congo, Kony was largely on the defensive for about three years. But after several failed attempts to coax him into peace talks, and continued L.R.A. attacks, the Ugandan government lost patience, and in December 2008, it decided to bomb the L.R.A.’s encampment. The mission was a disaster. Despite active assistance from the S.P.L.A. and covert help from the U.S. military—a team of 17 Pentagon advisers and analysts provided satellite phones, intelligence, and $1 million in fuel—the Ugandan troops failed to cut off the escape routes. Kony’s fighters, estimated to number between 600 and 1,000, splintered into smaller groups and slipped away like a metastasizing cancer. Marauding from village to village, the various groups moved from Congo into Southern Sudan, burning and butchering along the way. In one Congolese village, they attacked a Catholic church on Christmas day, killing about 50 worshippers. Perhaps because of the holiday timing, this act received worldwide attention. Over the next few weeks, as many as 1,000 civilians were murdered, mostly with machetes and clubs, because Kony is short on ammunition. According to Childers’s contacts in the S.P.L.A., one of these splinter groups, perhaps with Kony himself in charge, now had Maridi in its sights.
Preacher, with Machine Gun
“My life was a cesspool in those days, and I loved every minute of it,” Childers says. He compares himself to the biblical figure Ishmael, whose wild spirit, he says, drove women into transports of desire. “It was insane. I would have five girls in a single night. I mean, seriously, I could have had your mother if I had wanted her.” He glares at me, a speck of food stuck in his mustache, as if I don’t believe him. More than the drugs and sex, it was the violence that fed Childers. Two of his high-school friends recall how Childers used to blame his anger on something his mother had done when he was five years old. Childers had been invited to a local Indian powwow, and his mother thought it would be fun to dress him as a cowboy. The joke didn’t go over well, and the Indian kids beat Childers up. According to the high-school friends, he vowed it would never happen again. When I ask Childers about the incident, he walks to a filing cabinet in his church office and pulls out a faded newspaper clipping, with a photo of him in his cowboy getup. “Yeah, I’m still ticked about that,” he says.
“I wasn’t sure if I could trust him,” Scott Wagner says. And then one night he found out. After a party, he and his girlfriend were the only ones left with Childers in an empty house. The three were lounging in the living room when Childers suddenly pulled Wagner aside and demanded to have sex with his girlfriend. He gave Wagner three seconds to leave—without the girl. “It was heading to something pretty terrible,” Wagner remembers. After pleading proved ineffective, Wagner pulled out what was left of his night’s supply of drugs and offered it as ransom. Childers took the drugs and vanished.
Today, when he is not in Sudan, the Reverend Sam—together with his wife, Lynn, a former stripper—serves as the spiritual leader of the Shekinah Fellowship Church, in deeply depressed Central City, Pennsylvania. It was Lynn, whom Childers met during a drug deal at the Fox Hole bar, in Orlando, Florida, in the early 1980s, who calmed him down. Lynn found religion, and then Childers did, too. Even Ishmael eventually repented, in Childers’s version of the story. As a boy, Childers had lived briefly just across the highway, Route 160, from where his church stands now. Up the road, the steel mills and coal mines have long since closed. Two nearby prisons, the Somerset and Laurel Highlands State Correctional Institutions, and the Wal-Mart distribution center, in Bedford, are the area’s largest employers. From the outside, the Shekinah Fellowship Church looks more like an abandoned high-school auditorium than like a place of worship. The outer walls are open-faced insulation, a shrine to Tyvek.
On Sunday mornings, Childers does not behave like a swaggering vigilante. A tear rolls down his cheek as he talks about his mission to Africa. Some 30 or so parishioners hang on every gesture, every word. They know about the arms dealing. They know about the pursuit of Kony. Dressed in black jeans, biker boots, and a black blazer over a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, Childers stands behind a chrome-plated podium. A guitarist, drummer, and small choir stand to the side of the stage. Several menacing young men—former and current members of the biker gang the Outlaws—stand at the back of the church. Tattooed and wearing steel-tipped boots and ZZ Top beards, they look like younger, tougher versions of the preacher. The older men seem broken, not a trace of aggression left in their bones. Several arrive in cars without mufflers that barely make it up the steep gravel driveway. They park next to Childers’s red Hummer. The older men are overweight and slow to stand. Two of them have small oxygen tanks at their sides. Some of the older women wear Steelers jackets as they file in, dog-eared Bibles in hand.
Another Man’s War is not a self-effacing work. The reference to movie stars is shorthand for a handful of celebrities, such as the actress Sandra Bullock, the motorcycle builder Jesse James, and the country singer John Rich, who have taken an interest in Childers and helped him raise money. Sebastian Roche, an actor in the soap opera General Hospital, has been preparing a documentary about Childers, to be called Machine Gun Preacher . With slender good looks and a slight French accent, Roche is the type of person that Childers’s biker acolytes might beat up for sport. He met Childers two years ago at a charity event for Sudan. Likening him to Dog, the Bounty Hunter, Roche sees Childers as the embodiment of two archetypes Hollywood always falls for: the high-school delinquent and the gutsy do-gooder. “Actors love Sam for the same reason they love U.F.C. fighters,” he adds. “He’s the real deal. He doesn’t fantasize or pretend to do dangerous stuff—he actually does it.”
Peter Fonda, best known for his role in the movie Easy Rider, is another Childers fan. “He’s a showman, and he’s doing something over in Africa that you and I won’t do, by saving those kids,” Fonda says. He predicts that if Childers ever gets the chance to kill Kony he’ll probably go the extra step and eat Kony’s heart, just to send a message to the Lord’s Resistance Army. If Childers sometimes seems a little over the top, it doesn’t bother Fonda: “He’s telling people a story, and if he mumbles, they aren’t going to listen to it.”
“I Have a Calling”
Run mostly by local women who cook, clean, and mind the youngsters, the orphanage has an annual budget of about $600,000, raised primarily through Childers’s speaking fees and donations from a global network of evangelicals. The 40-acre enclave is encircled by a high chain-link fence and patrolled by members of the militia. Mud-brick buildings with cement floors dot the compound—seven dormitories, several schoolhouses, and two guesthouses to lodge missionary groups. A pen for pigs and chickens sits not far from a long red-brick structure known as the Church, although, as I would discover, the name of the building does not reflect its function.
When he visits the orphanage, the women greet Childers with hugs. Children flock around and poke at him, laughing, and Childers makes the army’s “Hoo-ah” grunt and slashes the air with karate chops, pretending to fend them off. Eventually the laughter dies away as the women tell Childers about issues that have arisen during the time he has been gone.
He starts with the broken generator. A mouse has chewed the switch, so Childers rummages through a junk heap for a new one and splices its wires into place. Next is the infirmary—a nurse is unsure what certain medicines do and how they should be stored. Childers sets her straight. Then he’s told that several of the older boys have been mouthing off to the female cooks. Childers tells his soldiers to announce that there will be a public caning of those boys in the morning. (He later relents, and decrees extra chores.) As darkness falls, Childers is still at it, repairing a truck. His own S.U.V. sits with its doors ajar, suitcases still waiting to be unloaded. “I leave here and the place stops functioning,” he says. Childers works until late at night, pausing to eat some canned beans and ramen noodles.
|With Gerard Butler|
Sitting on a porch near a dusty soccer field, Childers grins at one of the visiting S.P.L.A. officers. “So, we’re finally going to kill Kony,” Childers says. “Yes, this is good, this is good,” responds one of the officers, nodding vigorously. Another officer says, “Kony is Taliban. He is a terrorist.” The officers stare in silence as Childers uses a Buck knife to screw a sniper scope onto a machine gun. It is one of several gifts Childers will give the men in exchange for their providing some extra soldiers he needs. Childers asks if the soldiers will bring their own rocket-propelled grenade launchers. No, one officer says. “We ran out.” He shoots Childers a look, as if to say that he hopes the Reverend Sam might be able to help out with that. Ignoring the plea, Childers steals a move from Jay Gatsby. He produces a plastic baggy of photographs. In them, he is posing, Zelig-like, with John Garang, the now deceased leader of the S.P.L.A., and also with the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni. In others, Childers appears stern as he instructs soldiers—officers from Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda, he says—on how to use a sight on an AK-47. Leafing through the pictures, the officers nod dutifully, but no one says a word. It’s anyone’s guess what these men make of Childers.
Killing for Christ
|With Bill Paxton|
“Please help us, please,” one man pleads. Childers orders his men out of the truck. Some take up positions in the surrounding brush. Others push the truck to the side of the road. The men tell us they are brothers. Childers offers them both a ride. The men argue in Arabic over what to do. They tell Childers that one of them will come with us. The other will remain with the truck. Before we pull away, the brothers hold hands for several silent seconds as they stare at each other. “Pray!,” Sergeant Deng calls to the man left behind as we drive off. Later, an S.P.L.A. official tells me that they discovered the truck. It had been ransacked, and its driver was missing.
The next day, we meet with local police and S.P.L.A. officials. They are a stern-faced bunch until Childers pulls out his box of sniper scopes. He shows the men a high-powered scope that can sight up to one mile. Like boys, the men marvel as they take turns looking through it. The officials share what they know about Kony’s whereabouts. Childers anticipates much of what they say, he tells me later, because the S.P.L.A. routes most of its secret intelligence reports through a shortwave radio station that Childers keeps in a house he owns. The officers press Childers about buying guns. “We can talk about those things when muzungu isn’t around,” he tells them, using the Luganda term for “white man” to refer to me.
Back in the truck, I ask Childers where he gets his weapons. He says mostly from the Russians, but emphasizes that he buys everything legally and in-country. Pausing for a second, he turns around and stares hotly: “You ask me another question about the arms dealing, I’m going to throw you out of the car.”
|Machine Gun Preacher Sam Childers and Big Al Aceves, |
founder of The Mongols Motorcycle Club
pose at the Have A Heart For Children Charity
at Palihouse Holloway on March 9, 2011
in West Hollywood, California.
There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
I don’t know what it is
Something’s wrong with our eyes
We’re seeing things in a different way
And God knows it ain’t His
It sure ain’t no surprise
A t last we pull into town, and it is immediately clear that Childers won’t be eating Kony’s heart today. Maridi teems with S.P.L.A. soldiers. They wander aimlessly, uncertain of what to do next. The Lord’s Resistance Army had indeed been here, passing through just a few hours ago, and had encountered not the slightest resistance. They set huts on fire, kidnapped children, killed 12 people, and then disappeared. Villagers describe the men as dreadlocked and speaking a language they do not recognize, probably Acholi. The smell of char is in the air.
At the hospital, an 80-year-old man with a deep gash in his neck and severe burns on one half of his body tells me about soldiers with machetes who hacked at him and then threw him into a fire. In a clearing outside Mboroko, a few miles from Maridi, a woman stands looking lost as she holds her sister’s baby. She tells me how she hid in the bush and watched as the baby’s mother was dragged out of her house, raped by three men, then chopped to pieces. A U.N. military camp is 800 meters away from where the incident took place. An S.P.L.A. camp is even closer. Since the L.R.A. used only machetes, neither group of soldiers knew about the attacks until it was too late. Mboroko has a Mad Max, post-apocalyptic feel to it. Some villagers are walking around with AK-47s. Others shoulder bows and arrows.
Childers is frustrated and angry. He has driven for two days, only to have Satan elude him. Looking at the scenes of misery and destruction, he decides that this is as far as we can go. He wants to get back to the orphanage. He stands alongside a half-burnt hut and a pit latrine that hums with flies. At least we have an estimate of the number of orphans in the area, he points out. It’s not clear why an estimate matters.
“The thing is, I wouldn’t want to be a regular preacher anyways,” he says, explaining that he believes most churches have become babysitting organizations for the wealthy and complacent. The place for true Christians, he says, is on the front line of suffering. The “gospel of involvement,” he calls it. “Plus, guns can teach people about Christianity in a unique way,” he adds, half joking, “especially to people who know more about guns than they do about the Bible.”
A little later we pull to the side of the road for firewood to bring back to the orphanage. A woman and her husband stand there with a listless baby who is gravely ill from parasites and malaria. Childers offers to take the woman and child to the hospital in Nimule. The father shyly declines, saying he plans to take her to a different clinic tomorrow. A look of rage flashes in Childers’s eyes. “I ought to beat you right here, you know that?” he yells. “What kind of father are you? You are not serious about your children.” Childers points to a nearby grave, where the family has already buried an infant. “What is wrong with you?” Childers by now is surrounded by several of his soldiers, guns on their shoulders. He steps toward the man. “I should really beat you,” he repeats. Terrified, the father gives in. We take mother and child to the hospital.
The child recovers; Childers almost certainly saved its life. But the bullying lingers in memory long afterward. I remember once asking Childers whether any villagers had ever declined his offer to take their children, or whether he had ever taken any against their will. He erupted angrily: “You know what? I don’t have time to be distracted by this sort of interrogation.”
A Broken World
Childers often talks about Joseph Kony and Osama bin Laden in the same breath. He says they were both trained in the terrorist camps of northern Sudan. Aside from being untrue, the claim misses a larger point. What makes Kony or bin Laden or, for that matter, Childers himself possible is not that someone has set out to create them. It is that the world is becoming broken in more and more places. In the retreat of government, in the swelling disorder—whether in Sudan or Uganda or even the Alleghenies—there is more and more room in which visionaries with guns can flourish. In a world of expanding anarchy, it is not the meek who inherit the Earth.
After Kony? Childers takes the comb from his back pocket and begins running it through his bushy mustache. At last he breaks the silence, and tells me that he has always wanted to hunt pedophiles. Some behavior is so wrong, he says, that doing nothing to stop those engaged in it is an evil in itself. “Those are people who deserve to die,” he says. And a wide grin stretches across his face.
Ian Urbina is a reporter for The New York Times based in Washington, D.C