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Have Aid Relief, Will Travel

November 17, 2002|MARK EHRMAN

Is chivalry dead? Not for Sir Edward Artis, self-styled Knight of Malta. The Vietnam paramedic-turned-humanitarian swashbuckler has spent 30-plus years taking donated food, medicine and other supplies into the planet's hairiest hot spots. Be it Kosovo, Rwanda, Chechnya or Afghanistan, the nonprofit Knightsbridge International, of which Artis is a member, is over the border before more bureaucratic nongovernmental organizations have drafted their proposals. An upcoming documentary feature by Adrian Belic tracks the group in Afghanistan and the Philippines and along the Thailand-Myanmar border. We spoke to Artis, 57, on a stopover at his West Hills home.

What is the deal with the Knights of Malta?

I was knighted in 1993 [by] a group from the U.S. that wanted to reestablish the order in Russia [formed during the 11th century by the Catholic Church, the order splintered during the late 1700s. A Catholic order continues today, but there are dozens of self-styled groups, some focusing on charitable work]. I was invited to join for work I'd done with Afghan war veterans in Russia.

How did you get into this work?

I was a paramedic in Vietnam, and we did what they called MEDCAPs, the Medical Civic Action Program. I left the army in 1973. In 1992, I went to Russia to do a documentary on the Soviet involvement in Vietnam. That's when I met the Afghan veterans. They had nothing, and I knew I could get stuff like prostheses and hospital equipment. When Chernobyl happened, I sent oncology meds. I know how to scrounge. I'm a good pack rat.

Obvious question: How do you ensure that aid reaches its destination?

"Hand to hand, eye to eye, heart to heart." That's a little slogan. You do it in small enough increments. The individual and the food, the blankets, the tents, the clothing. The manner in which we do it, very little is going to get sold. [Though] if a father trades wheat for medicine or something to feed his family, who am I to belittle him?

How do you decide who to help? There is misery all over the planet.

It depends on what is available. What I don't want, and a lot of people that run these agencies have, are warehouses. [My garage] is my warehouse. I have two pallets of medicine coming worth about a million bucks. They only have like nine months left on them. [If] I can get to somebody that needs those quickly, that's going to predicate where we'll go.

What about skimming once you're there?

They always try to skim. You have to finesse. When we go to Afghanistan, we'll have 10-30 bodyguards for the convoy. We feed them. We make sure they have shoes. We pay their salaries. We also give them an equal amount of food at the end of the mission. That way they are part of the team. Nobody works for us. They work with us.

Could anybody get rice, get on a plane to Afghanistan and hand it out?

You could if you wanted to.Those who want to go, find an NGO that will take them. But know that nobody is going to pay you to go.

There's been much talk of evil since the 9/11 events. What is your definition?

Evil is when women and children and elderly are caught in the crossfire and people will not make a move to get them out of the way. A little battle of knuckles now and then is not a bad thing, but you don't want a lot of collateral damage. That's evil to me.

What is the biggest factor putting people in dire straits?

Poverty. I'd like to see redistribution of wealth and access to information and education for everybody. I would love to put Internet cafes all over the world. Solar-powered kiosks where somebody could read a book or a newspaper. Or the Bible or Koran or whatever they want. Ignorance and poverty are the major problems in the world today.

What about Iraq? Do you have an opinion on the U.S. position?

Yeah, I think we should be there. Look, he's never lived up to his 1991 treaty. We keep rattling our sabers with Saddam Hussein, he's going to move his assets. We did it in Afghanistan. For a month, we watched [U.S.] aircraft fly over and drop one bomb. By delaying the full air attack, we allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda to seep out. The next thaw in Afghanistan, we'll start to lose American soldiers. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are in the mountains. The same thing is going to happen to Iraq. I'd rather err on the side of us than see another 9/11. The streets in the U.S. will be like Jerusalem if we are not careful.

You're not a peacenik then.

No. I can wage war as equally as peace. But we're the voice for those who have none. That's why I want to be in Iraq now, preparing the civil affairs side. You have to reconstruct, to deny the people you displaced an opportunity to come back in. The only way is to show people you made a change for the better. You didn't wash your hands and leave. I think U.S. policies in Afghanistan are grossly flawed. We abandoned Afghanistan in 1989 and allowed it to be a petri dish where Taliban and Al Qaeda could germinate. We ended up paying for it on Sept. 11 and we're not done paying yet.

What do you carry on a mission?

I have one rucksack [with a] solar panel that will power my laptop. We have a sat phone that does videos. We keep our Web site up. If [you] can watch a turtle give birth in Costa Rica, I want people to follow us. Not just to see the tragedy, but to see part of the solution.

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