Writer Profiles Vigilante On The Hunt In Sudan

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A rebel leader named Joseph Kony and his band of mercenaries — known as The Lord's Resistance Army — have terrorized South Sudan for more than two decades. Kony is being hunted by a man named Sam Childers — a former drug dealer turned Christian missionary. Robert Siegel talks to Ian Urbina, who spent time with Childers in Sudan and wrote a story for Vanity Fair.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A story now from the website of Vanity Fair about a manhunt. The setting: The lush jungles and isolated villages of South Sudan. The hunted is a hunter himself, the vicious rebel leader Joseph Kony.

Kony and his band of mercenaries known as the Lord's Resistance Army have been terrorizing the region for more than two decades. One of their hallmarks: abducting children and then pressing them into service as child soldiers.

The hunter is an American who, like Kony, believes that he is doing God's work. Sam Childers, a former drug dealer turned Christian missionary, believes that God wants him to kill Joseph Kony.

Mr. SAM CHILDERS (Christian Missionary): If a madman came in, a terrorist came in, abducted your family member or your child, and if I said to you, I can bring your child home, does it matter how I bring him home?

SIEGEL: Writer Ian Urbina spent time with Childers in Sudan and wrote the story for Vanity Fair. Welcome to the program.

Mr. IAN URBINA (Reporter, The New York Times): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And it's hard to understand what Childers is all about without understanding what Joseph Kony is all about. So, first, tell us about Kony.

Mr. URBINA: Joseph Kony emerged in the late 1980s, originally as a spiritual leader and then as a political leader of the Acholi people in Uganda. And he quickly took up arms in an attempt to take over the government in Uganda and impose his vision of a Christian theocracy.

SIEGEL: And ultimately did not succeed, but took his case across the border or into an area where, I gather, a border is pretty much of a theoretical proposition.

Mr. URBINA: That's right. I mean, it's one of the problems with him. He and his band have wandered across into Congo and Sudan and Uganda, and no one can seem to catch up with him.

SIEGEL: Well, how did Sam Childers - ex-drug dealer turned Pennsylvania biker pastor - find his calling in Sudan?

Mr. URBINA: Like a lot of evangelicals, Sam - having newly found God - took a missionary trip over to Sudan and began touring that region and saw some horrific things, and it really grabbed him.

SIEGEL: And if he walked into the room right now, our first impression of him physically would be what?

Mr. URBINA: He's got big mutton chops and he's a strapping, you know, huge guy with thick arms and tattoos and speaks in this sort of country drawl. And, you know, lifts weights daily, and wears fatigues and always is wearing a gun.

SIEGEL: Yeah, here he is in Africa as a missionary of sorts, but he also comes off as kind of a born-again bounty hunter. How does he reconcile this mission of faith with the stated aim of killing somebody, Joseph Kony?

Mr. URBINA: Yeah. You wouldn't want to press him too hard on that matter, I learned quickly on my trip with him. I mean, he cites some Scripture that in essence he says permits him to kill. But for the most part, he sees himself following his own semi-religious path. And at the end of the day, by saving these children, he's doing God's work and he doesn't really need to find justification in the Bible.

SIEGEL: He's been at this - this pursuing Joseph Kony - for a dozen years or so. Does he actually stand a chance of ever finding him?

Mr. URBINA: I don't think so. He thinks so. The U.S. military has helped the Ugandan military and the South Sudanese military to try to find Kony and they've had no luck. But Sam thinks that one day he'll get lucky and he'll find him.

SIEGEL: The story of Sam Childers is unique in several respects. On the other hand, it's reminiscent of a whole genre of story which is the Westerner - in this case, the American - who finds a stark battle between good and evil in Africa, goes there and loses himself in the conflicts of that continent.

Mr. URBINA: Yeah, you're exactly right. I mean, what attracted me most to the story was the opportunity for a journey into a man, a man who sort of symbolizes this sort of heart of darkness that you cite. We didn't really ever go anywhere. I don't even know that we got close to Kony's men. But along the way, you learned a lot about the strange and dark struggle that was going on inside this guy who wanted and thought he was doing the right thing.

SIEGEL: Ian Urbina, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. URBINA: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Ian Urbina, who is a reporter for The New York Times, wrote his article about Sam Childers, the man pursuing Joseph Kony in Southern Sudan for Vanity Fair on its website.

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