A Hero in Hell. Former Drug Dealer Frees Abducted Child Soldiers in Sudan and Uganda
By Maria Sliwa
Oct 7, 2005 (NIMULE, South Sudan) — With a physique like Jean Claude Van Dam, 42-year-old Sam Childers has hunted alligators in the U.S. and has smacked down miscreants in Africa . This titan, who could easily pass for Hulk Hogan’s younger brother, sold hard drugs in the late 70s and early 80s and was a rider with the Outlaws, a motorcycle gang in Florida . He has since put his notorious ways behind him and now uses his muscular prowess to save lives in Sudan and Uganda.
- Sam delivering food supplies to the children at the orphanage (Maria Sliwa).
On a recent morning, Sam surveys the orphanage he built on the 36 acres of bush land he cleared four years ago in Nimule, South Sudan. His orphanage is a safe haven for children who are captured out of, or are lucky enough to escape from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel paramilitary group operating in Uganda and Sudan, which has been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department. Though Sam’s gut is overstocked with intestinal fortitude, the terror that rages around his orphanage is so frightening that just thinking about it can send a cold shiver of electric sparks up and down his sturdy spine.
Despite the exhilarating jolt of adrenaline he feels while fighting the LRA, Sam says that if he is captured he will likely suffer an excruciating death, as he says he has been warned more than once of the LRA’s intent to brutally kill him.
Yet the possibility of slaughter, which Sam faces daily, could be carried out by those considered the least likely to wield the slightest ferocity. As pint-sized threats — some as young as eight — the child soldiers of the LRA are capable of striking a human target like Sam with fatal precision.
In March of this year, a band of these small predators attacked a group of women who were collecting firewood near the border of Southern Sudan: just a few miles from Sam’s orphanage. The juvenile attackers managed to effortlessly hack off the lips and ears of seven of the victims and abduct several others.
The children of the LRA perform these acts at the bidding of their adult counterparts and make up about 80 percent of the rebel group, according to the United Nations. The LRA has kidnapped more than 20,000 children since 1988 and today its captives constitute the largest army of child soldiers in Africa.
Joseph Kony, the LRA’s founder and leader, is a Ugandan and former Catholic catechist whose ideology is based on Christianity and witchcraft. A recent Reuters article says Kony’s group was first armed by the Government of Sudan. According to Jan Pronk, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Sudan , there are unconfirmed reports that "factions of the Sudan’s military are still sending weapons to the LRA."
Believing that he is a modern-day prophet enforcing the Ten Commandments on earth, Kony tells his followers that God has commanded him to punish anyone who works with the Ugandan Government or refuses to obey his message. Though many of the adult soldiers willingly endorse Kony’s campaign of violence, most abducted children do not know why they are fighting.
"Thousands of children have been raped, brutalized, drugged and forced to inflict unspeakable violence on others," wrote Jan Egeland, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, in the foreword to the 2004 book published by IRIN: "When the Sun Sets, We Start to Worry: An Account of Life in Northern Uganda."
But children are not the only victims. Since the LRA began attacking civilians in 1986, they have forced some 1.6 million people in Northern Uganda out of their villages into internal displacement camps, according to the U.N. Disease is rampant in these camps, as they lack proper food, sanitation and medicine. Civilians are afraid to go back to their villages because of the constant fear of another LRA attack and therefore they remain in the camps.
Last month, Sam and his soldiers went to Magwi, one of the most dangerous towns in Southern Sudan because of its high occurrence of LRA violence.
"It was a suicide mission," Sam says. "Joseph Kony and his men were ambushing villages and butchering civilians, while we were there."
Although he was unable to capture Kony, Sam says that he and his soldiers emerged from the fighting unharmed and brought 25 former child soldiers, ages 4 to 14, to his orphanage.
Despite Sam’s sometimes overbearingly tough exterior, his manner can be surprisingly gentle. When he is at his orphanage, children often tag alongside him. He takes a personal interest in each one, calling them "my kids," and frequently nurses their wounds. Even the more traumatized children can’t help but giggle when he jokes with them.
Sam built the orphanage in 2001. It is managed by village women who cook, clean and take care of the children and by his own soldiers who protect the compound and oversee other day-to-day operations. Sam has used his experience in construction to build dormitories that house 110 children. He has also built showers, outhouses, the beginnings of a school, a pen for four pigs and seven chickens, a cooking area, a church, storage rooms, two security posts and a few guesthouses for short-term visitors who occasionally arrive from the U.S. He even installed a flushable toilet, something that is unheard of in the bush.
Sam and his staff also travel to surrounding villages to distribute food, clothing and medicine.
"We will go out and de-worm the people, as their bellies get real extended from the worms," he says. "We give out medicines, especially when there are epidemics."
For the past five years, the SPLA has been assisting the Ugandan Government in fighting and capturing LRA soldiers. As both a pastor with Abundant Life Ministries and a SPLA commander, Sam can be seen praying with a group of soldiers before they go out and attack areas where the LRA are active. He stockpiles weapons for SPLA soldiers at his orphanage. Many of his soldiers are also pastors. According to Sam, one of the reasons why the orphanage has remained untouched by the LRA is because the LRA knows it is well protected.
But there is a downside to this. Although there are a variety of medicines available for the children at the orphanage, the soldiers who work in the dispensary have no medical background and do not know how to administer these drugs properly. They also do not know how to prevent illnesses from occurring. Ringworm is contagious and tends to run rampant among the children. Though medicine is administered, those caring for the children don’t wash the children’s bedding and clothing after applying the medicine, so the ringworm easily spreads again. The bodies of some of the children are covered with ashen colored circles from the infection.
"We desperately need a doctor or nurse on staff," Sam admits. "The problem is that whenever we hire a medical person, the conditions are so dangerous out here that they leave in a few months to get a better job."
Despite these problems, Sam says his kids are much better off in the orphanage then in the villages, because unlike the villages, his orphanage provides safety, mosquito nets and three meals a day.
Sam says that his life of crime started to change 24 years ago, when Clyde Carter, a cousin of former President Jimmy Carter, hired him to work on his house. He says he was living in Florida at the time and earned a lucrative income working construction jobs and selling drugs.
"I was heavily into drugs then," Sam says. "I was on heroine, cocaine, every kind of hard drug before meeting Clyde. He was one of the first ones to influence me to stop taking dope."
But seven years after meeting Carter, Sam was still selling drugs for a livelihood until he "hit the wall" one day and decided to come clean. He says his drug dealing was wreaking havoc on his wife Lynn, who became a Born Again Christian in 1986. Sam also became a Born Again Christian in 1991. They were both ordained as ministers with the Full Gospel Assemblies in 1995 and are pastors at the Boyers Pond Shekinah Christian Fellowship church, in Central City, Pennsylvania.
When Sam first heard about the child soldiers in Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda in 1998, he began rescuing them. He says he knew that despite the atrocious acts these children are forced to perform while slaving as soldiers, they could live happy and productive lives once they were freed and placed in a better environment.
Last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands, invited Sam Childers to testify against the LRA. But some observers fear that because the ICC has no enforcement capability, its move to highlight the LRA could fuel the war and disrupt the ongoing attempts for peace negotiations between the Government of Uganda and the rebel group.
Sam disagrees. "Joseph Kony needs to be stopped no matter what Uganda or anyone else thinks," he says. "The U.S. and other countries need to step in and stop this guy immediately. He should never be negotiated with or given amnesty, because he needs to pay for his crimes. When you look at his crimes, it is not against just adults, it’s against little children. I mean raping little children and chopping them up. This stuff is unreal."
Sam does agree that the ICC has limitations and that sometimes it takes years for the ICC to do anything. But he reasons that in such desperate circumstances at least the ICC is doing something as opposed to nothing.
As LRA violence continues to rage and appears unstoppable, some voices are being heard.
In April of this year, a number of high profile people spoke out at a press conference in DC. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.), and actor John Amos, formerly of "The West Wing," along with representatives of World Vision, condemned the LRA, while calling on the international community, led by the Bush Administration, to make the protection of the children a priority.
As he forges ahead in Uganda and Sudan, Sam says he wants to expand his work to other countries where children are also being exploited. During his visits to the bush area of the Congo, Sam received numerous reports that Kony’s rebels were setting up LRA operations and abducting children in that country. Sam says he is preparing to build an orphanage in the Congo and will begin rescuing children there soon.
It is dinnertime back at the orphanage in Nimule. After a long day of freeing children from the LRA, Sam and his soldiers rest their AK 47s against a gray concrete wall in the dining area, wash their hands in a nearby basin, and enjoy a meal of fresh caught fried fish, corn meal porridge and red beans, which they wash down with a mixture of instant coffee, unprocessed sugar and powdered milk.
"The things I have done in my past were really bad," Sam tells his soldiers. "But despite that God protected me, and with his grace I will help the children in whatever way that I can."
* Maria Sliwa often lectures on modern-day slavery, has published on boy slave rape in Sudan and is the founder of Freedom Now News, ( FreeWorldNow.com) an international human rights news service