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A Hero in Hell: Former Drug Dealer Sam Childers Frees Abducted Child Soldiers in Sudan and Ugand a By Maria

Sliwa With a physique like Jean Claude Van Dam, 42-year-old Sam Childers has hunted al ligators in the U.S. and has smacked down miscreants in Africa . This titan, who could easily pass for Hulk Hogans younger brother, sold hard drugs in the late 7 0s 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 prowe ss to save lives in Sudan and Uganda. 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 h aven for children who are captured out of, or are lucky enough to escape from th e Lords 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 Sams gut is overstocked with intestinal fortitude, the terror that rages around his orphanage is so frightening that just thinking about it can send a c old 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 LRAs 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-size d threats some as young as eight the child soldiers of the LRA are capable of st riking 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 mile s from Sams orphanage. The juvenile attackers managed to effortlessly hack off th e 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 counter parts and make up about 80 percent of the rebel group, according to the United N ations. 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 LRAs founder and leader, is a Ugandan and former Catholic catech ist whose ideology is based on Christianity and witchcraft. A recent Reuters art icle says Konys group was first armed by the Government of Sudan. According to Ja n Pronk, the Secretary-Generals Special Representative for Sudan , there are unco nfirmed reports that "factions of the Sudans military are still sending weapons t o the LRA." Believing that he is a modern-day prophet enforcing the Ten Commandments on eart h, Kony tells his followers that God has commanded him to punish anyone who work s with the Ugandan Government or refuses to obey his message. Though many of the adult soldiers willingly endorse Konys campaign of violence, most abducted child ren do not know why they are fighting. "Thousands of children have been raped, brutalized, drugged and forced to inflic t 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 i n 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 ram pant in these camps, as they lack proper food, sanitation and medicine. Civilian s are afraid to go back to their villages because of the constant fear of anothe r 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 suic ide mission," Sam says. "Joseph Kony and his men were ambushing villages and but chering civilians, while we were there." Although he was unable to capture Kony, Sam says that he and his soldiers emerge d from the fighting unharmed and brought 25 former child soldiers, ages 4 to 14, to his orphanage. Despite Sams sometimes overbearingly tough exterior, his manner can be surprising ly gentle. When he is at his orphanage, children often tag alongside him. He tak es a personal interest in each one, calling them "my kids," and frequently nurse s their wounds. Even the more traumatized children cant help but giggle when he j okes 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 a nd oversee other day-to-day operations. Sam has used his experience in construct ion to build dormitories that house 110 children. He has also built showers, out houses, the beginnings of a school, a pen for four pigs and seven chickens, a co oking area, a church, storage rooms, two security posts and a few guesthouses fo r 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, clothi ng 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 f ighting and capturing LRA soldiers. As both a pastor with Abundant Life Ministri es 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 fo r SPLA soldiers at his orphanage. Many of his soldiers are also pastors. Accordi ng to Sam, one of the reasons why the orphanage has remained untouched by the LR A is because the LRA knows it is well protected. But there is a downside to this. Although there are a variety of medicines avail able 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 properl y. They also do not know how to prevent illnesses from occurring. Ringworm is co ntagious and tends to run rampant among the children. Though medicine is adminis tered, those caring for the children dont wash the childrens 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 th at whenever we hire a medical person, the conditions are so dangerous out here t hat 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 t

hen 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 Carte r, 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 kin d of hard drug before meeting Clyde. He was one of the first ones to influence m e to stop taking dope." But seven years after meeting Carter, Sam was still selling drugs for a liveliho od until he "hit the wall" one day and decided to come clean. He says his drug d ealing 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 a s ministers with the Full Gospel Assemblies in 1995 and are pastors at the Boyer s Pond Shekinah Christian Fellowship church, in Central City, Pennsylvania. When Sam first heard about the child soldiers in Southern Sudan and Northern Uga nda 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 envi ronment. Last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands, inv ited Sam Childers to testify against the LRA. But some observers fear that becau se the ICC has no enforcement capability, its move to highlight the LRA could fu el the war and disrupt the ongoing attempts for peace negotiations between the G overnment 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 th is 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, its against little children. I mean raping little children and chopp ing them up. This stuff is unreal." Sam does agree that the ICC has limitations and that sometimes it takes years fo r 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 conf erence 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 Wor ld 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 other countries where children are also being exploited. During his e bush area of the Congo, Sam received numerous reports that Konys tting up LRA operations and abducting children in that country. Sam reparing to build an orphanage in the Congo and will begin rescuing re soon. his work to visits to th rebels were se says he is p children the

It is dinnertime back at the orphanage in Nimule. After a long day of freeing ch ildren from the LRA, Sam and his soldiers rest their AK 47s against a gray concr

ete wall in the dining area, wash their hands in a nearby basin, and enjoy a mea l 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. "Bu t 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 r ape in Sudan and is the founder of Freedom Now News, ( an inte rnational human rights news service