How a Chinese billionaire’s dream of making an underwater fantasy blockbuster turned into a legendary movie fiasco.

By Mitch Moxley

The Atavist Magazine, No. 58

Mitch Moxley has written for publications including GQThe Atlantic, and Playboy, and he is an editor at the online magazine Roads & Kingdoms. He’s the author of Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China, about the six years he lived in Beijing.

Editor:Katia Bachko
Designers: Thomas Rhiel and Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Animation: Nadia Popovich

Published in May 2016. Design updated in 2021.




Under a foreboding gray sky, a RAGTAG GROUP OF MOVIE EXTRAS dressed in ill-fitting rubber costumes sprint across the sand. They play an army of bipedal GIANT FISH TROOPS armed with swords and spears running for their lives from an invading battalion of DEMON SOLDIERS.

JONATHAN LAWRENCE, the director, mid-forties, wearing a leather jacket and fedora, like Indiana Jones, surveys the scene. He doesn’t like what he sees…

The script called for an epic battle. In the movie’s third act, the forces of the Eight Faery Kingdoms defend their aquatic empires from annihilation by the evil Demon Mage and his spectral legions. Five hundred extras would play the opposing armies.

But in January 2010, when Jonathan Lawrence, the director of Empires of the Deep, showed up for the shoot, in Qinyu, a resort town in coastal China, he saw only about 20 extras, mostly ornery Russians complaining that they hadn’t been paid in weeks. How would he turn 20 people into 500? On top of that, their costumes—swamp green rubber suits decorated with scales, octopus suckers, and shells—looked like poorly made Halloween getups. Some of them had fins glued to their heads.

Lawrence was in most ways a strange choice to be running a massive film set in China. A 40-something director from Los Angeles with just one feature-film credit, he made his living directing shorts, commercials, and music videos. But then again, ever since he saw Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as a teenager in 1981, he had waited for this chance.

The offer to direct a fantastical adventure movie was a dream come true. Empires of the Deep would be China’s Avatar—a reportedly $100 million production featuring mermaid sirens, Greek warriors, pirates, and sea monsters, complete with cutting-edge special effects and an international cast. The film’s producers hoped that it would break through the cultural barrier that had frustrated producers on both sides of the Pacific for years: a Hollywood-style blockbuster made in China that would captivate audiences around the world.

But the offer came with strings attached. Massive strings. The film’s producer was Jon Jiang, a billionaire real estate mogul and film fanatic who had written Empires and put up much of the funding himself. On set he gave actors preposterous and contradictory directions. But mostly he deployed his assistants to watch Lawrence’s every move and report back to him.

The beach location, which would stand in for Mermaid Island, home of an ancient race of mer-folk, had much of what Lawrence required—a long stretch of coast, endless ocean beyond it—but a few weeks earlier, when he inspected the location, he couldn’t help but notice the row of luxury resort buildings at the edge of the sand. A bit modern for Mermaid Island, he thought.

Lawrence joked to the assistant director that they’d have to build a wall to hide the resort from view.

Lawrence had already seen a lot of bizarre things on set. But the crew building a 15-foot wall based on an offhand joke was perhaps the strangest. The whole point of filming at the beach was to make the fight look realistic; now they’d have to supply the background with special effects. It would have been easier and cheaper to dump a bunch of sand in a studio parking lot and surround it with green screens.

It was Lawrence’s third month in China, and nothing about shooting Empires had been easy. But Jiang called the shots, and his message to Lawrence was simple: Make it work.

In 2007, as China’s economy was on the ascent, I moved to Beijing to cover the new era. When I first read about Empires of the Deep, it seemed like a project that captured China perfectly—the money and ambition, the chaos and audacity—with its Chinese billionaire, mermaids, and hope for global domination.

China had become the Promised Land for American filmmakers, who were increasingly looking to overseas markets to help bolster flatlining profits at home. In China, ticket sales had ballooned to nearly a billion dollars a year and grew by more than 30 percent every year. Due to strict censorship, homegrown Chinese films tended to be bland historical and patriotic epics. The government imposed an import quota, and only around 20 foreign films, mostly Hollywood superhero movies, were allowed to screen in Chinese cinemas each year.

A growing number of American studios and producers came to believe that the solution was coproductions. Filmmakers on both sides of the Pacific would combine forces and use Hollywood and Chinese talent to make movies in China that would capitalize on the mainland’s booming box office while circumventing the quota. But cultural differences plagued the sets, and filmmakers struggled to find a formula that appealed to both audiences while also appeasing the censors. There was Shanghai, with John Cusack; a remake of The Karate Kid starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan; and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, with Hugh Jackman. Coproductions tended to have wooden scripts, flat plots, and shoehorned celebrations of Chinese culture. Few achieved commercial or critical success.

Empires of the Deep was supposed to be different. And yet, as of 2016—after nearly a decade and a reported $140 million—it still hadn’t seen the light of day. I wanted to find out why. Last fall, I met Jonathan Lawrence at a Starbucks in Burbank, California, and he offered to introduce me to some of the movie’s stars in L.A.

On a patio over coffee, Lawrence showed me photos from the shoot on his laptop, his signature fedora casting a shadow onto his stubble. Lawrence has deep-set, stone gray eyes, animated hands, and a kindly demeanor. “Everything I’d done in my career I felt was leading to this,” he told me. He still seemed forlorn about Empires after all this time, adding, “We wanted to make a great movie.”

It didn’t exactly work out that way.

Jonathan Lawrence



Three men gather at a noisy restaurant. LAWRENCE sits across from JON JIANG, about 40 years old. JIANG is thin and rangy like a high school basketball player. He is dressed in a tracksuit with an ascot around his neck. PETER HU, a friendly man in his thirties, is JIANG’s assistant and translator. The table is piled with food, but the atmosphere is tense.

In November 2007, Jonathan Lawrence’s longtime friend Mark Byers told him about a potential project in China. Byers, who was working as Empires’ “Hollywood guy,” wrangling American talent, had arranged a meeting between Lawrence and the movie’s producer at a Chinese restaurant in Hollywood during the annual American Film Market, a major industry gathering.

Byers gave Lawrence a brief summary of the project and its sponsor. Jiang Hongyu, a.k.a. Jon Jiang, had made a fortune in real estate when he was in his thirties by creating suburban developments for China’s new middle class.

Jiang loved the movies: He admired George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson, and believed it was his life’s mission to make big-budget Hollywood blockbusters in China. He wrote television and film scripts just for fun—sci-fi and fantasy, mostly—and he claimed to have watched some 4,000 movies. Now, after several years of writing, he had completed the script for his first feature, which he originally called Mermaid Island. He envisioned a trilogy, with video games and theme parks in short order.

Lawrence might have thought he’d found a kindred spirit. Spielberg was the reason he fell in love with movies; he even attended California State University at Long Beach, Spielberg’s alma mater. But after two decades in Hollywood, his only feature film, an independent sci-fi thriller called Dream Parlor, had never found an audience. His most recent gig was unpaid—three months in Europe filming an Indiana Jones fan film, which he’d accepted out of love for the franchise. Back in L.A., he was looking forward to spending more time with his daughter. When Byers called about Empires, Lawrence was intrigued.

But at dinner, Jiang was distant; he wouldn’t make eye contact with Lawrence and spoke in short bursts of Chinese, which Hu translated into patchy English. Jiang’s tone and body language conveyed a very specific message, Lawrence thought: You’re here for me. I’m not here for you.

Through Hu, Jiang described a fantastical undersea epic with world-class special effects and a poignant love story at the core. The plot would revolve around a Greek hero’s quest to rescue his father, who is abducted by soldiers from a mysterious mer-kingdom, imperiled by the rise of a demon warlord. A tale of good and evil, Empires would be a mix of Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lord of the Rings, and Transformers—which had come out earlier that year and was enormously popular in China—with a dash of Shakespeare. Lawrence was skeptical but allowed himself a flicker of hope: This could be big.

Jiang, for his part, was unconvinced of Lawrence’s bona fides. “Why would I want you if you haven’t done anything of note?” Lawrence remembers Jiang telling him. “If you can go out and make a scene that’s as big as Transformers, I’ll consider you.”

Lawrence left the meeting thinking it was a wash; he had no intention of making a Transformers-like teaser on his own dime. But out of respect for Byers, he agreed to take a look at the script. He made it through the first act but found it bizarre and messy. Lawrence handed it off to his assistant to make a few notes, and they sent the feedback to Jiang.

Lawrence never heard back from Jiang. The job had gone to someone else. Then, in September 2009, Byers called: Empires of the Deep needed a new director. Lawrence signed a five-month contract.

During the flight, Lawrence began revising the script. As Jiang imagined it, Empires of the Deep would tell the story of Atlas, the son of the sea god Poseidon. Atlas is depicted as a pure-hearted young man who is restless and unsure of his own destiny. He has an alter ego, the swashbuckling Silver Eye (think Batman vis à vis Bruce Wayne), who appears during moments of peril. During a celebration in Atlas’s village in ancient Greece, an invading army of mermen knights riding on the backs of giant crabs captures Atlas’s adoptive father, General Damos. A 90-foot-tall lobster absconds with a holy temple—the Temple of Poseidon—in its claws.

Atlas and his drunken, lusty sidekick, Trajin, then embark on a quest across the sea to find Damos and retrieve the temple. On the way they stumble onto Crab Island, where in a mysterious palace they encounter bewitching women, including the beautiful princess Aka, who lure men into bed and kill them after making love. From the script:

Atlas kicks open a door. One of his men lay in bed – cold and dead in a woman’s arms. Blood flows from the punctured neck.


…let it be known that your quest is in vain, for the temple is not yours to possess…

Atlas kicks open another door – and another. Inside each room, there is a similar scene… a beauty over blood and death.


And we are not women, as you suppose, but rather faeries from the sea…

Suddenly, the ground beneath their feet crumbles and the palace fills with water. As they thrash about, they see for first time that the palace is actually built atop a 450-foot-long fish. Just then mermen haul Atlas and Trajin into a “spiral-shelled vehicle” with windows made of transparent jellyfish skin. The vessel is pulled by harnessed sea monsters. The women turn into mermaids.

The duo arrive on Mermaid Island, where the Eight Faery Kingdoms have gathered in preparation for an epic battle against the Demon Mage, who has risen after 1,000 years of banishment, spelling death and destruction for the mer-folk. The stolen temple, it turns out, holds magic powers that are needed to combat the “dark evil” that is about to emerge. The script describes Atlas and Trajin arriving at the kingdom:

MERMAID ISLAND – a strange and otherworldly place… the city continues above and below the water. It is an “archipelago” of rocky outcropping….


What is this place?


A myth, my friend. The legends of the ages are true – an entire kingdom of mer-people.


Hell of a place to die.

In the movie’s bloody third act, as the Faery Kingdoms fight for survival against the demon army, it is revealed that—gasp!—the Demon Mage has actually been Atlas, the hero, all along.

After reading the script multiple times, I still don’t understand how one character simultaneously travels across the ocean to Mermaid Island as Atlas, fights gallantly as Silver Eye, and ushers in the apocalypse as the Demon Mage. But despite its many flaws, Lawrence told me that he was taken in by its childlike delight in its own fantasy world. Just maybe, he thought, Empires of the Deep could capture some of the magic that had excited him so much as a teenager watching Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lawrence could tell that the script had gone through a number of revisions. In fact, Empires of the Deep already had a long and tangled backstory that Lawrence was only partially aware of.


RANDALL FRAKES, mid-fifties, with shoulder-length hair and a thick brown beard, looks out a penthouse office window. The sun is low on the horizon, and there is a spectacular view of Beijing’s smog-shrouded skyline. Beijing is a city bursting at the seams; on nearly every block, a skyscraper is going up.

It all started with the Wolf Witch. In the spring of 2007, the actress Cassandra Gava, who is best known for playing the Wolf Witch in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian, made inquires in Hollywood on behalf of a Chinese producer: Screenwriter wanted. Must like mermaids.

Randall Frakes heard about the project from Gava and threw his hat in the ring. A longtime friend of James Cameron’s, Frakes had been a story consultant on Terminator and had penned a number of B movies, including the 1988 sci-fi comedy Hell Comes to Frogtown.

Jiang offered him $25,000 to develop the story and rewrite the script. Frakes envisioned a campy adventure film like 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. “It sounded kind of Disney, but I wanted to get my foot in China,” Frakes told me when I reached him by phone at his home in Los Angeles. “I thought, This could be fun.”

In 2007, Frakes flew to Beijing to meet Jiang. The tycoon invited him to his office in the central business district. Seated behind a desk in his large suite, Jiang asked Frakes what he thought about the story. Frakes was honest: It needed a lot of work. “It was a theft, a bad quilting version of scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, from some of the Star Wars films, from all the major films that had been successful in the eighties,” Frakes told me. “I recognized them immediately, and he admitted it.” In one part, Jiang described a chase through a mine with the characters riding mine carts. Frakes pointed out that the scene was cribbed directly from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Jiang insisted that it stay in. “He was arguing with me adamantly, like the thing he had written was Holy Scripture,” Frakes recalls. “I said, ‘Your story doesn’t make any sense. People will see it’s a grab bag of all these movies.’”

Jiang didn’t debate; instead, Frakes says, he took Frakes down to the parking garage to show off his Lamborghini.

Frakes spent three weeks in Beijing. At night he and Jiang met in Jiang’s office. Jiang told him that he planned to cast foreign actors in the lead roles and wanted to tailor the movie for international distribution.

Randall Frakes

By the time Frakes got involved, Jiang had already been courting a director: Irvin Kershner, who was best known for directing The Empire Strikes Back and the James Bond film Never Say Never Again. Kershner was in his eighties, and his star had faded; Jiang’s movie offered him the opportunity to get back in the game.

Back in Los Angeles, Frakes met with Kershner at Kershner’s plush mansion in Laurel Canyon. They agreed that the story didn’t work and instead cooked up a modern-day version about a group of characters looking for an alternative energy source who accidentally discover a lost underwater kingdom. “This is the movie I want to direct,” Frakes remembers Kershner telling him.

Frakes sent the treatment to Jiang and argued that the modern setting would play better with Western audiences—namely, sci-fi obsessed teenage boys—and that the story would more naturally lead to video games, serialization, and theme parks. “What is at stake is not something that happened a long time ago, but like the first ‘Terminator’ movie, it is happening NOW, to people like ourselves,” Frakes wrote in the treatment.

Frakes explained that Kershner offered Jiang the best chance for getting the movie made. And Kershner wanted to make the modern version of the movie. But Jiang refused, and both Kershner and Frakes jumped ship. (Kershner died in 2010. Frakes is still listed as the film’s cowriter, though when we spoke he was adamant that none of his ideas were ever used.)

Next, Jiang courted Jean-Christophe Comar, a French director and visual-effects expert, who calls himself Pitof and directed the 2004 Halle Berry vehicle Catwoman. Jiang’s people sent Pitof the screenplay. “The script was just about impossible to read. It was basically a direct translation from Chinese into English,” Pitof told me. “I thought it was quite surreal.” But Jiang offered to pay Pitof $400,000 up front for a year’s work, and the French director agreed.

Pitof believed that the original script was so bad that he would need to start from scratch. He hired Michael Ryan, who had worked on a number of television cartoon series, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers: Animated, to help him draft a new script. Pitof says the finished product was like an improved version of 2010’s Clash of the Titans, with strong visuals and dashes of humor.

Jiang hated it and accused Ryan of being a “bad writer,” as Pitof recalls. After 12 months in Beijing, Pitof decided the project “was bullshit,” he says, and flew back to L.A.

Jiang had cycled through two screenwriters and two directors, all of whom had tried and failed to steer him to some semblance of a coherent story. So now he turned back to Lawrence, the director he’d rejected as not Transformers enough.

By the time Lawrence signed on, Jiang had appointed himself casting director and hired an agency in Los Angeles to find candidates for the leads. Lawrence attended the casting sessions and sent his picks to Jiang, who made the final decisions, sometimes based solely on their photographs or brief audition videos. The part of Aka, the mermaid princess, would be played by a young actress named Shi Yanfei, who had little acting experience and hardly spoke English but happened to be Jiang’s girlfriend.

Maxx Maulion was new to Hollywood when he got cast in Empires. (Courtesy of Maxx Maulion)
Irena Violette had appeared in 13 Going on 30 before she was cast as the mermaid Dada. (Courtesy of Irena Violette)
Steve Polites had just finished theater school when Jiang cast him in Empires. (Courtesy of Steve Polites)

Irena Violette, a Romanian-born former model who’d had small roles opposite Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30 and Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon in Four Christmases, was cast as the mermaid Dada, Aka’s loyal bodyguard. Sharon Stone and Monica Bellucci were reportedly courted for the role of the Mermaid Queen. That role would later go to Olga Kurylenko, a Ukrainian-born actress and model who had starred with Daniel Craig in 2008’s Quantum of Solace and who was the movie’s only bona fide celebrity. She was reportedly paid $1 million.

The role of Atlas went to Steve Polites, a handsome 29-year-old fresh out of theater school in Baltimore who had starred in a 2006 straight-to-DVD horror film called The Murder Game. He was signed on for the trilogy. Trajin, Atlas’s sidekick and the movie’s comic relief, described in the script as a “stocky, fun fellow,” would be played by a 27-year-old actor named Maxx Maulion, a cherubic redhead who had appeared in a few indie shorts and TV movies. Jonathan Kos-Read was cast as the menacing Ha Li King, an ally of the mermaid kingdom. Famous in China after a decade working in the country, Kos-Read was a rare Western actor who spoke fluent Chinese.

Once the film was cast, Lawrence flew to Beijing. On the plane, he tried to reconcile the attempts of the previous writers. Somewhere in the blurry distance he began to see the outlines of a story. He needed to clean up the plot, flesh out the main characters, and bolster the comic elements. The 13-hour flight was too short.



The place is a hub of activity: Dozens of YOUNG CHINESE SPECIAL-EFFECTS ARTISTS are at work, surrounded by mermaid paraphernalia: mermaid murals on glass, oil paintings of mermaids. There’s a large screening room, JON JIANG’s office in the back, and, off to the side, a chilly, dimly lit room where some 60 designers are working on special effects and graphics.

Around 2007, Jiang launched a special-effects company called Fontelysee Pictures to handle the production of Empires. (“Fontelysee” is a garbled transliteration of Champs-Élysées, the boulevard in Paris.) When Lawrence arrived in Beijing, he went straight to Fontelysee’s offices: All around he saw designers working on illustrations depicting finned and fanged sea monsters, phosphorescent mermen soldiers, and vast underwater kingdoms. Many of the drawings were reminiscent of H. R. Giger, the late Swiss surrealist who designed creatures for the Alien series. Artists drafted detailed maps of the kingdoms of Jiang’s imagination and produced CGI trailers to present to financiers, whose money would add to Jiang’s own considerable investment. Chen Peng, who worked in the Fontelysee art department and hired local staff for Empires, remembers the early days as exciting. Everybody bought into Jiang’s vision, Chen told me, which he described as “mysterious” and “unprecedented.” “It’s different from Chinese classical creations,” he said.

On his first day, Lawrence met with Jiang in his office, with its view of downtown and specially designated nap room in the back. Lawrence hadn’t spoken to Jiang since their awkward first encounter in L.A. The real estate tycoon was friendlier and, through a translator, welcomed Lawrence to Beijing. That night, Jiang treated Lawrence and a few members of the crew to an extravagant meal, and Lawrence presented everyone with American-made gifts. Lawrence remembered how Jiang wouldn’t look him in the eye back in Los Angeles; this time he did.

Over the next few days, Lawrence got to know the team. The movie’s assistant director was a stoic man in his early thirties named Hai Tao, and the coproducer, Harrison Liang, had lived in Los Angeles and spent the bulk of his days chain-smoking in the office between Lawrence’s and Jiang’s. Hai Tao and Liang both spoke fluent English and served as the director’s liaisons with the billionaire, struggling to translate directions so confusing that language often failed them entirely.

The script called for massive crabs. (Courtesy of Maxx Maulion)

Soon after he arrived, Lawrence toured a prop warehouse filled wall-to-wall with swords, suits of armor made with actual metal, and the Mermaid Queen’s lavish throne. These were the rejects; Jiang had already ordered all new props to be made.

Outside Beijing was a complex of soundstages where sets for Act I were under construction. Lawrence went to see the set of an ancient prison. Walking down the hallway leading to the dank, dark cells, he noticed that it “looked like a hallway at a YMCA gymnasium”—clean, sterile, and freshly painted. He told the set crew that the hallway had to match the rest of the prison: dirty, decrepit, with roots coming out of the ground. “I need this to look like it was built a thousand years ago!” he commanded. The crew tore it down and started again.

Lawrence also worked on casting extras. Jiang wanted to hire foreigners who lived in China: Those chosen would be paid 8,000 yuan (about $1,200) per month for four months of work. Men had to be at least six feet tall, women five-foot-seven. “European/North American origins are preferable,” one ad read. Some days the office was flooded with actors auditioning for bit parts. Many were Russians or foreign models living in Beijing who barely spoke English. “There wasn’t a large well of talent,” Lawrence told me.

Once Lawrence had oriented himself at Fontelysee’s offices, he holed up in his hotel room, surrounded by storyboards, and turned his attention to the script. He wanted to put some soul into the characters and improve the pace of the plot, removing cumbersome dialogue and exposition. His inspiration was his favorite movie, Raiders. He envisioned Empires as an action comedy, epic and fun. In L.A., Lawrence’s assistant researched the mythology of Poseidon and old Germanic runes, which appear on Atlas/Silver Eye’s skin:

Releasing immense ANGER and dark HATRED, Atlas/Silver Eye mercilessly cuts down all the Mermen Soldiers and in the mix slaughters the Demon Soldiers in savage bloodlust.

He LAUGHS wildly. The RUNES appear all over his body. He releases his true bestiality slashing the monstrous Demon Soldiers… killing one… killing a second… killing a third…

Lawrence worried that audiences wouldn’t root for Atlas, the protagonist whose quest to retrieve his abducted father and the stolen temple propels the narrative forward. He created a romantic storyline involving Atlas and a village woman, as well as a subplot with a child from an orphanage with whom Atlas would develop a father-daughter relationship. Lawrence needed to make the universe of the movie consistent with itself and the plot sensible from beat to beat. But there were a lot of holes. In one scene, Atlas’s father figure, Damos, dies after a major battle in which thousands of mer-people are slaughtered by demon warriors. As the surviving characters mourn, one of the mermaids reveals a magic pill that brings Damos back to life.

Lawrence laughed when he read it. If the mer-folk possessed magic pills that could restore life, why wouldn’t they revive all the others who had been killed? Lawrence rewrote it so that the mermaids revived Damos using a dangerous ancient spell, one that could have grave consequences to the mermaids: They risked their lives to save his. This solution, Lawrence thought, added a sense of jeopardy to the scene.

After spending hours each night working on the script, Lawrence would meet with Jiang to talk about the revisions. Harrison Liang translated the meetings as the two men launched into heated but amicable debates over the script. Then one day, as Lawrence and Jiang were arguing over the magic-pill scene, Lawrence said to Liang: “Tell him ‘Your script is one of the worst pieces of fucking shit I’ve ever read.’”

Liang refused to translate, but Lawrence insisted. Liang passed on some version of the message, although Lawrence doubted it was the literal translation.

Jiang remained calm. “What makes you think you’re a writer?” he asked Lawrence. “You have no credits on IMDb as a writer.”

“Neither do you,” Lawrence said.           


The atmosphere is like the first day of school. The STARS have arrived. STEVE POLITES and MAXX MAULION get their first taste of fame when Fontelysee’s female employees mob them in the office.

In November 2009, Lawrence greeted Steve Polites and Maxx Maulion at the Beijing airport. Lawrence warned them that the movie wouldn’t be like anything they’d ever experienced before. “Nothing is like it is in America,” he told them. “Everything changes here from moment to moment. What is true today will not be true tomorrow.”

The actors drove straight to the Fontelysee offices. To prepare to play Atlas, the hero and the son of Poseidon, Polites had grown out his hair to match the concept art he’d been shown. But at the office, the hair stylists were alarmed by the state of Atlas’s mane. Polites tried to explain that he had hat head, but the term was lost in translation. “This is not how my hair looks normally,” he said. “Let me wash my hair.”

The women spoke in rapid-fire Chinese. They pulled out a wig that looked like “a knock-off Lord of the Rings hobbit wig,” Polites recalls. He was then escorted across the street to a hair salon where stylists permed his hair and bleached it.

Over the course of the next week, his hair changed from orange to green to black and finally to blond, styled in tight curls. He pleaded with Lawrence to step in, but it was too late. Polites looked like he’d had a bowl of instant noodles dropped over his head.

Then he was handed over to the wardrobe department, which had fashioned his costume ahead of his arrival. At the fitting, he drowned in the immense armor that covered his torso, while his pteruges, a skirt worn by Greco-Roman warriors, seemed to reveal a daring amount of thigh; it fell six inches above his knee.

Other characters’ costumes weren’t much better. Maxx Maulion’s Trajin outfit was a burlap toga. The merman costumes were full-body rubber outfits with nubs meant to look like coral. The actors’ faces would be painted green, with fins affixed to their heads. The suits were too loose and needed to be glued to the actors’ skin. (With actual glue. In a blog post, one merman extra recalled that his skin became irritated; when he checked the adhesive bottle, he noticed a warning label that read “AVOID CONTACT WITH SKIN” in large print.)

For the mermaids, the hair department opted for purple skullcaps with what looked like cornrows on top and dreadlocks dangling from the back. The wardrobe team had envisioned the mermaids with plastic seashells covering their breasts, their bodies painted in shimmering blues and greens. But the tails presented a problem: Lawrence wanted to use pliable fins that would delicately wrap around the actors’ legs like a skirt, so they could get around the sets. Instead the costume department devised rigid appendages that would attach to the actors’ thighs. Walking would be a problem.

Looking at the costumes and props, Maxx Maulion—Trajin—kept thinking, Oh man, this is going to be crazy. The Americans began mockingly referring to Empires as “the fish movie.”

Meanwhile, Lawrence was still hard at work on the script, and he asked the actors to meet with him periodically to discuss how to enrich their characters. Polites and Maulion rehearsed their lines in their hotel rooms. The movie seemed only theoretical until the day the cast was invited into a screening room. The special-effects department had made a trailer featuring some of the movie’s early animation and CGI. The graphics looked low budget, but at least there was plenty of room for improvement.

While the preproduction teams got ready to start shooting, Polites and Maulion became fast friends, wandering between the looming skyscrapers of their downtown neighborhood and watching DVDs in their hotel rooms. The pair were on a high; when locals discovered that they were actors from Hollywood, they would ask for autographs. Polites was new to the industry; he had moved to L.A. just a year before he was cast. He worked at a restaurant while he auditioned for acting roles, and Empires was by far his biggest booking. Maulion had had a few small roles in film and TV and only recently obtained his Screen Actors Guild card. Suddenly, he was cast in a leading role—with a paycheck of $70,000, more than he’d ever made.

When I met Polites and Maulion over breakfast on a sunny Hollywood morning in November, they spoke of the optimism of those early days. True, there were things that seemed off—the uncertain schedule, the unfinished script, the weird costumes—but like Lawrence, they believed Empires could be their break. “This was a big deal for me,” Maulion explained. “To book something of this nature was like winning the lottery.”

Jon Jiang on set. (Courtesy of Gilles Sabrie)


In December, Jiang ordered the production to begin shooting. Lawrence was frustrated. There hadn’t been time to rehearse or even to have the full cast do a read-through, but Jiang insisted.

Plus, Lawrence was only about a third of the way through rewriting the script. He shared what he had so far with the cast, the draft peppered with emotional notes. After one scene, in which the characters are transported through an ocean portal to the South China Sea, where they encounter a group of Chinese characters—a scene included to accommodate government censors—Lawrence wrote: “Jiang – I don’t know what to do with this section – it does not fit or serve the story.”

Finally, on page 45:


The production moved to a small town outside Beijing and into a hotel with a karaoke bar and a restaurant that served shark fin soup. The soundstage lot—with sets for Atlas’s home village, a prison that housed captured pirates, and the city square, where the merman/crab invasion takes place—was located nearby.

Before the first take, there was a ceremony at the city-square soundstage to bless the expensive Panavision cameras that had been rented for the picture. Red blankets were placed over them, and incense sticks were lit. A crew member made a brief speech in Chinese.

The first scene Lawrence shot depicts Atlas and Trajin. Atlas picks up an apple and tosses it to Trajin. A horse crosses their path. It was a thrilling moment. “Here I am, a nobody in the scheme of things, an independent filmmaker, here on the set of this big movie,” Lawrence says. “We had a lot of hope at that point, because it was everything we’d ever wanted to do. Massive sets. Huge crew. Film cameras.”

But something would go wrong during each take: the horse wouldn’t cross, an extra would fall down, Maulion would drop the apple. After a handful of tries, they wrapped the scene. Neither Polites nor Maulion thought they actually got the shot they needed, but they shrugged it off. Polites was still trying to make peace with his hair, and his skirt felt obscenely short, but he was living his dream.

This is great, he thought. We’re doing it.

Lawrence learned quickly how the style of filmmaking in China differed from the West. Whereas Hollywood sets are extremely hierarchical collaborative dictatorships, Chinese sets are decidedly unsystematic, improvised operations where problems are dealt with as they arise. Just like in Chinese society as a whole, the concept of guanxi—relations or connections—is enormously important. One’s loyalty depends on who it is one has the strongest relationship with. That might be the director or a cinematographer or a producer—but it’s rarely the audience or the movie’s bottom line, which are generally the two highest priorities for American movies.

Empires’ original cinematographer left before shooting began, replaced with Rao Xiaobing, a veteran director of photography who split time between China and the U.S. Rao, Lawrence discovered early in the shoot, was talented and a respected professional who wielded a lot of influence with the crew, to whom he was fiercely loyal.

At first the plan was to shoot the movie with two cutting-edge digital cameras, but Rao lobbied to shoot on film, an old-fashioned and more expensive option. Lawrence supported the choice—after all, his hero, Spielberg, once said he’d shoot on film until the last processing lab shut down.

Because of the expense, Rao would shoot quickly and move on. The actors often had to complete a scene in three or four takes, whereas on a Hollywood set a director might film dozens. It became clear to Lawrence and others that Jiang had decided to get Empires on film fast. Despite all the money that had been invested in preproduction, the frantic shooting schedule and constant cutting of corners led to the first of many rumors that the budget for the movie was far smaller than the reported $100 million.

Polites, the star, quickly lost the optimism of the early days. He felt the shoot was being rushed; they were rarely given the chance to rehearse a scene. Most of the actors’ time was spent sitting around in costume while shots were set up. As they waited, he and Maulion talked about their next career moves and chatted up the female translators.

The actors had been brought to China on generous contracts that promised cushy amenities, most of which failed to materialize. American actors are used to well-appointed trailers where they can hang out between takes. None were provided. Polites had asked for a gym so he could bulk up, as the role demanded, but his request was ignored.

The Americans had expected a selection of food provided by on-set craft services, but the Chinese productions ate more simply. The cast and crew were given the same thing every day: bone-in chicken, a cup of broccoli, and rice. Maulion, whose character was supposed to be chubby, immediately began dropping pounds. Before bed he would eat peanut butter out of the jar and an entire sleeve of Oreo cookies to keep his weight up. He asked his mom to send him cans of tuna from the States.

On set, tension between Lawrence and Rao began to simmer. Lawrence was a hands-on director when it came to lighting and lenses, and he asked the crew for complicated setups to get the shots he wanted. He had a grand vision for Empires. Rao, however, was more of a realist—this wasn’t a Hollywood movie, and he knew it. The communication problems meant that setting up a shot that would take 45 minutes on a Hollywood set would sometimes take four or five hours, with Rao shouting instructions to the Chinese crew. And then, after all that prep time, the actors would be rushed through the shot.

Jiang did not attend the filming, but he called Harrison Liang frequently, asking for updates and sending instructions for Lawrence and the rest of the crew. Indeed, Lawrence rarely had a chance to talk face-to-face with the billionaire. When Jiang did show up, he would make unreasonable demands, like insisting that a smoke machine make more smoke—a time-consuming process—when the actors were ready to shoot.

But there were moments of camaraderie. Once, Jiang approached Polites, placed his hand on his shoulder, and said, “I want to make you into a big star.” And Jiang was respectful of his director, even if he ignored most of his suggestions. “Mr. Jiang likes you,” Lawrence remembers Liang telling him one day. “He’s never given anybody as much respect as he’s given you.”

Maulion and Polites on the beach. (Courtesy of Maxx Maulion)


In a canvas tent, TIRED ACTRESSES playing MERMAIDS sit in chairs as the makeup team applies full-body paint. Raindrops pelt the roof of the tent.


In January, after a few weeks of shooting outside Beijing, the crew moved to coastal Fujian province, in southeast China. The weather was miserable, with day after day of rain.

Fujian sits on a spectacular stretch of coast, with mountains, rivers, caves, and valleys nearby. The script included many scenes in such locations, but the sites were remote and in some cases dangerous. Lawrence began to grow seriously concerned about the state of the shoot. The script was ever changing and the schedule in disarray, and the challenges of the terrain exacerbated the strained relationships on set.

Irena Violette, the mermaid Dada, joined the production in Fujian. Her boyfriend, Jerred Berg, an actor between jobs, came with her. Violette arrived ready to work and with a sense of humor. Oh well, this is China, she shrugged whenever problems arose. But soon her good humor wore thin, and she began describing herself as “the black sheep” on set because of her disagreements with the crew.

The makeup to complete her costume required hours of preparation every day. But the shooting schedule was so haphazard that sometimes she would spend several hours getting ready and then never shoot a frame of film. Frustrated, she would voice her concerns to the crew. She was furious that the actors had to wake up so early and sit around for hours in makeup when it was obvious that the weather wasn’t going to cooperate.

In particular, Violette and Rao didn’t get along. When Violette finally got in front of the camera, she wanted more takes. Rao refused, claiming that they didn’t have enough film.  

Other tensions arose. At one point, Lawrence saw a crew member being kicked in the head by a camera operator. He rushed to step in, but Hai Tao, the assistant director, held him back and told him not to get involved. The stunt team operated independently of Lawrence, and he wasn’t on hand for most of the stunt shoots. Lawrence had no power over the team, but he heard reports that the stuntmen’s safety was being compromised. There were regular accidents, and one stuntman, after hours of being pulled around on ropes, quit in tears because of the pain.

And still, Lawrence had been looking forward to shooting on the beach. The script described a  thrilling raid led by the Ha Li King, played by Jonathan Kos-Read wearing a tentacled crown on his head, who tries and fails to defend the Faery Kingdoms from the Demon Mage. When Lawrence discovered that the beach was flanked by a resort, and that the crew had subsequently built a giant wall to disguise it, it was too late to find another location. In the script, the Ha Li King’s forces are overwhelmed by the Demon Mage and he surrenders. Lawrence surrendered to the chaos and shot on the beach.

Then a scene took the crew to a cave set, where the script called for Silver Eye, Atlas’s alter ego, to free Greek merchants captured by “Thracian Marauders”—pirates. The crew had prepared a massive, unruly horse for Polites:


The mighty, black horse leaps into the air – its WHINNY NAY is haunting. Silver Eye holds tightly to the reins. The horse and rider seem to fly overhead.

PIRATE CAPTAIN (sounding alarm)

Silver Eye…!

The cave was dark and cold. The crew wore hard hats; the actors did not. The horse was difficult. The script called for the animal to jump over a feasting table, but instead it reared around excitedly, frightening the extras, some of whom were chained to the cave’s wall. Then suddenly a chunk of rock the size of a manhole cover came crashing from the roof and crushed a spotlight.

Meanwhile, based on Jiang’s frustrated missives, which Liang and Hai Tao transmitted to Lawrence, the billionaire seemed to be growing increasingly irked by the foreign cast and crew’s difficulties adapting to the Chinese way of doing things. Jiang believed the Americans were being soft.

Cast and crew on location. (Courtesy of Maxx Maulion)

A few days after the cave scene, Lawrence, Polites, Maulion, Violette, and Berg, along with some of the Chinese crew members and translators, hiked out to scout a shooting location situated on a rocky riverbed. It had been raining for days, and the rocks were covered with wet, slimy moss.

As a safety measure, the crew had laid carpet over the rocks and hired carpenters to build a handrail along a particularly difficult section. Still, there were spots so precarious that the group needed to get down on all fours and crawl.

The hike took an hour, and once they arrived the Americans debated with their translators and a few Chinese crew members about whether it was possible to shoot there at all: The costume and makeup tents had to be set up at a distance from the shooting location, and Irena Violette and the mermaid actors would need to walk over slippery rocks with fins attached to their legs.

Violette was particularly concerned that she might get hurt. Nobody even knew how long it would take to get to the closest hospital.

“If I slip and fall, is there a helicopter?” Violette said.

Lawrence asked one of the translators if the movie had medical insurance. The translator said that it did but that there was no evacuation plan.

“If somebody falls and breaks their neck or their skull, what’s the backup?” Lawrence asked.

“They say they will take the fastest measure,” the translator said.

Back at the hotel, Lawrence fought to scrap the location, and Rao agreed that it was unshootable. But Jiang, who was not on set, was unwavering; the rumor was that his girlfriend, Shi Yanfei, insisted on the spot.

Lawrence appealed to Hai Tao, the assistant director. Could he explain to Jiang that Lawrence didn’t want to shoot under such dangerous conditions? Jiang asked Hai Tao to tell Lawrence that if he didn’t do his job, he’d be fired. He took back his threat, but Lawrence reluctantly went ahead with the shoot anyway.

In the coming days, Chinese workers hauled the gear to the location, carrying it atop bamboo poles. Then the crew set up a tent where the actors could dress and get into makeup.

On the day of the shoot, Violette hiked out at dawn. It was yet another cold and drizzly day. Inside the tent was dark, but there was a heater, so at least it was warm. The artists began applying makeup and affixing fins to her legs.

A few hours later, Rao rushed over. “Come on,” he said, according to Violette, “let’s shoot.” The makeup artists explained that there wasn’t enough light in the tent. They asked Violette to move outside so they could finish more quickly. Violette objected: It was wet and cold, and she was half naked. She asked for someone to bring in another light and finish inside the tent. (When I reached out to Rao to discuss his experiences on Empires, he declined to participate in this article, writing in an email, “I have moved on.”)

A translator told Rao that Violette would not cooperate, and Rao relayed the message to Jiang. Violette insists that wasn’t the case; she simply didn’t want to stand in the cold and risk getting sick.

Violette began to cry. “This is bullshit,” she said, “I’m done.”

She left the tent and walked across the rocks to tell Rao she was quitting. On the way, she ran into Lawrence, who told her that he’d heard that Jiang planned to fire her. “Good,” she said, “because I’m quitting anyway.” Lawrence told her to let Jiang fire her so she could keep her wages.

Violette hiked back to the hotel to pack her bags. She called Harrison Liang; her contract stipulated that production owed her a ticket home, and she wanted one now.


Under the cover of darkness, VIOLETTE and BERG plop down on the riverbank, their feet and pant legs soaked. The night is cold. They change their socks and shoes and begin the long hike down the mountain, hiding in bushes whenever a car approaches.

Two days later, no ticket had arrived. Liang told her that the production would not pay for her ticket and demanded that she repay all of the salary she’d earned so far. He threatened to sue her in a Chinese court. (Liang didn’t reply to requests for an interview.)

Violette and Berg’s passports were at the production office, so Violette called an American consulate for help. The official on the phone advised them to make their way to the nearest U.S. consulate, either in Guangzhou or Shanghai.

The couple met with Lawrence to plan an escape. They decided that in the evening Lawrence would call an all-hands production meeting in the hotel lobby. While the crew was distracted, Violette and Berg would slip out a window.

That night, with the entire production gathered around the director, the couple scurried down a hallway unnoticed. They dumped their luggage out the window and crawled after it. Then they walked down to a riverbank beyond the hotel grounds and hiked along the river until they found a spot narrow enough to cross. They waded through the water, carrying their luggage above their heads, and then climbed up the steep embankment on the other side.

The next morning, the couple reached a police station in a town called Fuding. The police gave them travel papers and drove them to a train station, where they caught the 11 a.m. to Shanghai. “Once we were on the train and the train moved, I felt I could exhale,” Violette says.

That night they checked into the Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai. The American consulate provided them with temporary passports and obtained Chinese exit visas. A few days later, they were on a plane to Los Angeles.

At the mountaintop hotel, Lawrence kept up a ruse that the couple were refusing to come out of their room. During mealtimes, he would take a tray of food into their room and dump it out the window.

Eventually, the crew demanded that Violette return to the movie. Lawrence knocked on the door one last time.

“Hey guys, it’s me,” he said. He went into the room and emerged moments later to face the Chinese crew with the truth. “They’re gone.”

The casting director soon recruited Kerry Brogan, an American actress living in China, to replace Violette, and Lawrence resumed shooting the movie. But a few weeks later, he realized that he wanted out, too. His contract would end soon, and the movie wasn’t at all what he’d signed up for. Plus, he had another project offer, not to mention a young daughter waiting for him back in Los Angeles. Worse yet, the cast and crew, and Lawrence himself, had not been paid in weeks.

He told Jiang that he would finish the picture—for a million dollars. Jiang accused him of extortion. Lawrence was off the movie. He went to Jiang’s Beijing office to arrange for his payment, refusing to leave until the money had been sent. The director and the billionaire said a cordial goodbye. They shook hands, and Lawrence bowed slightly.

The experience on Empires was tough on Lawrence. He took a yearlong sabbatical, but the frustration lingered. “It knocked the wind out of me,” he told me when we met in Los Angeles. “I questioned what I’m doing in this industry.” He describes his time on the set of Empires as “a dark comedy.”

Although Lawrence’s journey had ended, Jon Jiang still believed Empires was poised for global box-office domination. The cast and crew remained in China. Before Lawrence left Beijing, Jiang asked him, “Do you know any other Hollywood directors?”


Last December, I met the director Michael French for coffee in Vancouver to find out what happened on the set of Empires after Lawrence left. French, a laid-back Canadian director of comedies, wore a half smile when we spoke about Empires that suggested I had no idea how much of a circus it was.

A few years before Empires, French had become good friends with Rao Xiaobing on Heart of a Dragon, a biopic he had directed in China. The film chronicles the life of Rick Hansen, a Canadian paraplegic who circled the globe in his wheelchair, focusing on the days Hansen spent in China climbing a section of the Great Wall. The shoot was grueling, but French left with a valuable understanding about how Chinese movie sets operate.

After Lawrence left, Rao reached out to French about the Empires job, and French agreed to take over the project in February 2009. He had one condition, however: He had a work commitment and had to be back in Canada at the end of April. Jiang agreed to the terms.

Michael French

French flew to Beijing and then onward to Fujian. The next day he went down to a beach where he found “a big wall, and mermaids, and people killing each other in the water,” he told me. Jiang’s team forbade French from speaking with Lawrence, so he wasn’t sure exactly how to envision the movie. But he found the script campy, so he decided to direct it as a comedy.

French’s laid-back approach and good relationship with Rao improved the mood on set considerably. Filming was about a third completed when French arrived. He had roughly 100 days to shoot, and he planned to finish the script during that time. To speed things up, French cut big swaths of dialogue from the script; he figured his job was “to fix the leak in the pipe. All I cared about was making my days,” he told me.

Olga Kurylenko, the Mermaid Queen, arrived in Beijing in April to film her scenes. She was well-liked on set, playing her character as a powerful leader preparing her kingdom for battle against the Demon Mage:


The Queen sits on a throne with an empty seat beside her. NOBILITY from the other SEVEN FAERY KINGDOMS stand before her.


My lords and ladies, it has been a thousand years since the nobility of the Eight Faery Kingdoms have all been assembled in one place. I only wish we were here now under more auspicious circumstances.

The faces in the room are grave.


Our darkest hour is upon us. Our only hope lies in the fulfillment of the prophecy. (she rises) We have recovered the sacred temple. But only the Royal Blood will ignite its power. Will you shed your blood for your subjects – for your future?

Like his predecessors, French had to contend with a meddlesome billionaire. One day, Jiang interrupted filming to berate Jonathan Kos-Read, who was playing the Ha Li King. The character marries Princess Aka to secure a royal alliance between the mermaid and Ha Li kingdoms, combining forces to fight the Demon Mage. But Aka loves another. “My heart is weary and my spirit drifts like seaweed uprooted in a storm,” she laments.

Kos-Read saw the king as a ghoulish and conniving figure and played it with a hunched posture. “You are like the boundless sea, my Queen—all who encounter you, high or low, lose themselves in your beauty and grace,” he rasped in a growly British accent. He had already filmed for ten days when Jiang scolded him for his acting.

“Do it liked a prince in Shakespeare!” Jiang demanded.

“OK,” Kos-Read replied, “but there won’t be much continuity.”

Jiang didn’t care, and so Kos-Read tried the scene with an upright posture and a poncy British accent.

“Yes! That’s the character,” Jiang said.

French stood by watching. When Jiang left the set, French offered a solution: They would film each scene with both versions of the character—and forget about Jiang’s vision in the editing room.


A press conference is taking place. On a stage made to look like an ancient temple, MERMAIDS wearing what appear to be swimming caps with dangling dreadlocks dance to heavy drumbeats and flashing lights.

In April 2010, a little more than two months after French took over Empires of the Deep, the cast and director were asked to appear at a press conference in Beijing. Journalists were given 3-D glasses to watch a trailer that featured Kurylenko as the Mermaid Queen. Her words echoed over the auditorium: “The Demon Mage, so long imprisoned by our ancestors, can no longer be restrained!” The trailer looked half finished, the special effects as if they were from a nineties video game.

Shi Yanfei, who plays the mermaid Aka, and Polites took the stage. Kos-Read, the event’s host, announced Kurylenko, who walked down a red carpet leading from backstage in a slim black dress. “Ni hao,” she said in stilted Chinese, “wo ai dajia”—I love everyone. Applause broke out across the theater.

A few weeks later, Michael French’s contract expired. Most of the script had been put on film, but Jiang began adding extra scenes and demanded that French stay through the end, or else he wouldn’t be paid for the last of his work. French was exasperated. “The train was off-track. They couldn’t pay the crew. They couldn’t pay for the cameras. But they could add extra scenes?” he told me. He believed the producers had failed the movie. “There was nothing they could offer that would beat the prospect of going home.”

He told his friend Rao that he was leaving and booked a plane ticket to Canada. On April 30, his birthday, Empires’ third director flew home.

Throughout that spring, Jiang invited journalists to visit the set. “This is a Hollywood film made by Chinese,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “We’ll use our resources to market it so it will succeed. It has to.” To a reporter from The New York Times, he compared himself to George Lucas, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson. “Empires,” he said, was “a very serious love tragedy” that “is a combination of something mystical, something that satisfies your bloodlust, and something sensual.” Jiang boasted that the script went through 40 drafts with the help of ten Hollywood screenwriters, and he envisioned distributing his movie to 160 countries. In Jiang’s office, according to the Times, was a dry-erase board that read “Days until Monica Bellucci shows up on set,” “Days until the Cannes Film Festival,” and “Days until the grand premiere,” all left blank.

The Times reporter also noted a problem that Lawrence had encountered during the earliest days of the film: People weren’t getting paid. At the beginning of the shoot, checks were a day or two late. But as the production stretched on and the budget ballooned by a reported $50 million, pay arrived weeks and even months behind, and in some cases not at all.

Jiang admitted to the Times that some people were getting paid late because of “liquidity problems.” Once, according to French, a group of foreign extras who hadn’t been paid in weeks threatened to walk. Instead of paying them, the production team called the local police to come to the hotel and check their visas—a scare tactic. One day, China Film Group, the behemoth state-owned studio, locked the door to a soundstage because it hadn’t been paid for use of its gear.

No one knows how much of his own money Jiang invested in the project. Some of the people I interviewed think he nearly bankrupted himself, but Peter Hu, a former Fontelysee executive, told me that he believes Jiang relied almost entirely on outside financing and that when it dried up, the payments to cast and crew stopped. By the time the movie was finished, the investors were furious. “It’s not a happy ending,” Hu says. “They lost a lot of money.”

After Michael French left, Jonathan Lawrence heard from someone in Jiang’s office. Would he come back to the movie?


Actors between takes. (Courtesy of Gilles Sabrie)



Empires’ fourth director, SCOTT MILLER, rushes around the set. CHINESE SET BUILDERS are constructing a palace for a banquet scene atop a GIANT FISH, 20 feet high and surrounded by green screens. ACTORS wait for the set to be completed.

The interior is too dark to film; the WORKERS saw off the top of the palace they have just finished building.


I guess that’s one way to get light.

In early 2016, I tracked down Empires’ fourth and final director, the man who saw the movie to wrap. Scott Miller is a Los Angeles–based filmmaker and the son of Warren Miller, the famed producer and director of over 750 sports documentaries. Miller got along well with Jiang, and unlike many of those involved, he has fond memories of the three months he worked on Empires. “It was a blast,” he told me when we spoke over the phone. “I enjoyed it immensely.”

Miller had worked with Harrison Liang in the past and accepted the Empires job with enthusiasm. He saw Empires of the Deep as a love story between Atlas and Aka. It was epic and fun, yes, but what it was missing was emotion, and he added material to build up the romance.

When he arrived in China, morale on set was abysmal. He tried to improve it by allocating more money for better food for the cast and crew. He slowed down the pace of shooting and worked closely with Steve Polites and Shi Yanfei to deepen their portrayals. He watched the footage of the previous few directors and lobbied to reshoot the whole thing to realize his vision. (Miller’s request was denied. The directors and actors disagree about how much each director shot. Most agree that the shoot was almost evenly divided between Lawrence, French, and Miller. But Miller says that he shot a full two-thirds of the movie.

Maxx Maulion couldn’t imagine reshooting the film. By May 2010, he had been in China for six months and saw no end in sight. With three different directors, he had three different takes on his character. Was he a joker? A drunk? A sad sack? He hadn’t been paid in three months—he was owed more than $30,000. He noticed that the production was rushing his scenes and believed that they were trying to film him out of the movie to avoid paying him what he was owed.

Maulion’s agent told him to walk off the set and come back to Los Angeles. He told his friend and costar Polites that he was leaving. He felt guilty, but Polites understood. While he was in the cab to the airport, his phone buzzed with texts: He was due on set in an hour. He didn’t respond.

Polites wanted to stick it out: He was the star, and he was fighting sea monsters. Empires was what he’d always dreamed of doing. A few months later, Polites shot his final scene: a brief encounter in the mermaid palace that required him to get sopping wet. He was ready to go home. Before he departed, he asked the wardrobe department if he could take Atlas’s sword with him as a souvenir. They said no, so he settled for his cape.

Back in L.A., still stinging from his experiences in China, Maulion wondered if Empires would ever be released—and whether his character would still be in the film. The movie was scheduled for a 2011 premiere. But the date came and went. In October 2012, two years after principal photography wrapped, a 3-D trailer appeared online. The website Den of Geek wrote that it looked “hurriedly put together for the Syfy Channel.… Clearly, this was not a film that would make James Cameron fear for his position as the king of the glossy blockbuster.”

YouTube video

After Empires, Maulion wrote and starred in an indie comedy called Tony Tango. In 2012, he promoted the movie at the American Film Market at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. As he walked into the lobby, he noticed a banner for Empires of the Deep.

He searched for the Empires booth and found it downstairs in the international section, where, in a dark, largely empty corner, he encountered Jon Jiang. Maulion greeted him, and the exchange was amiable. Maulion asked if he was still in the movie, and Jiang said through a translator that he was; they’d hired a chubby European man to shoot from behind for the remainder of Trajin’s scenes. There were no visitors to the booth, and Jiang appeared disheartened. Maulion figured he wasn’t having any luck finding a distributor.

“No hard feelings?” Maulion said, shaking hands with Jiang. He still hadn’t been paid for his last three month’s work.

In 2013, one of Jiang’s assistants called Steve Polites and invited him to the Cannes Film Festival to promote the movie. The producers bought Polites a ticket to France and rented him a tux. On the way to the airport, he got a call with news that the trip was canceled. “After that I was kind of like, OK, I’m washing my hands of this,” Polites says.

But Empires wasn’t done with him. The next year he was invited to a screening of the movie at the Sony Pictures lot in Los Angeles. Jiang had reportedly hired Michael Kahn, Spielberg’s longtime editor, to cut the film, and it looked as if it was finally being geared up for release. Polites went to the theater with some trepidation; he was still trying to come to terms with his hair, among other things. He brought along his wife for emotional support.

Although he was amazed to see himself on the big screen fighting sea monsters and demons, much of the film was outright ridiculous. The story was a mess, the plotline didn’t work, and the CGI looked cheap and unfinished. The best the movie could hope for, Polites figured, was to find a cult following. “It’s so kind of wonderfully weird in its own way. It’s so bad it’s good.”

Two weeks later, in April 2014, almost four years after filming ended, he flew back to China for reshoots. Neither Scott Miller nor Rao Xiaobing was there; in fact, Polites didn’t recognize anyone from the original crew. He spent a week in China and did only one full day of shooting. By then Polites’s hair was short, so the wardrobe team picked up a wig for him to wear. He describes it as “Marilyn Monroe–esque.”



Three men and a woman sit around a table in the luxury hotel’s café. JON JIANG wears sweatpants, white sneakers, what looks to be an expensive black lambskin coat, and an ascot tied around his neck. CHEN PENG, his friend and former employee, sits across from him. A jet-lagged JOURNALIST and his FIXER question the billionaire about his missing blockbuster.

In late November 2015, I traveled to Beijing to find out what had happened with Empires of the Deep. After some prodding, Jiang reluctantly agreed to an interview. As we sat over drinks in the hotel lobby, he was friendly, with a nervous bounce in his knee. Drinking Coke with lemon from a glass, he displayed an earnest excitement, especially when he mentioned a new movie he was writing called Parallel Universes, based on the theories of quantum mechanics.

I asked him about the revolving door of directors on Empires. Pitof, he said, was good at special effects and played a positive role in the early stages of the movie. But he kept changing the script, of which he had little understanding. “I thought it would be better to hire a director from Hollywood,” Jiang told me. “It’s very hard to communicate with the French.”

“We wanted it to look as good as Star Wars,” Jiang continued. He said he hired 3-D experts from Avatar and added more than 1,300 special effects—more than Transformers. Postproduction was expensive, and it took years to complete. Jiang said the production was waiting for more investment money. The budget for the movie kept growing, and they struggled to pay for it all.

When I asked Jiang if I could watch the latest cut of Empires, he told me I’d have to wait for the theatrical release. It wouldn’t do the movie justice to watch it on DVD.

On January 21, 2016, a new and improved trailer befitting a slick video game appeared on a Chinese crowdfunding website. The special effects were better than earlier versions, but the teaser didn’t reveal much in the way of plot, focusing instead on sea monsters, mermaids, and epic battle sequences. “The war between good and evil has just begun,” the text overlay read.

The producers were seeking to raise 1 million yuan ($150,000) by March 23 for an undisclosed purpose and were advertising a dubious April 2016 release date. For less than $25, an individual donor’s name would appear in the credits, and for $7,600 a company’s logo could be printed on movie posters and advertisements. The promotional material on the site included a picture of Steve Polites with another actor’s name written underneath it, listed Irvin Kershner as one of the directors alongside Scott Miller and Michael French, and credited Randall Frakes as a screenwriter. It made no mention of Pitof, Jonathan Lawrence, or Maxx Maulion.

Four months later, just 2 percent of the fundraising goal had been reached.


On a frigid winter morning, a JOURNALIST searches for an opening into a padlocked three-story rental office decorated with Greco-Roman columns. He finds a door that’s not quite closed and yanks it open.

Before I left Beijing, I traveled to one of the properties that made Jon Jiang a rich man. It’s called Fengdanli She, which translates to “red maple leaf beautiful house.” Situated on the dusty outskirts of Beijing, six miles north of the Bird’s Nest stadium, the gated community has a faux-European design meant to convey luxury. Although it’s only a decade old, up close the brick homes look cheap and worn, like so many properties hastily erected during China’s boom.

Well-to-do young families bundled in parkas and wool hats strolled past neatly trimmed hedges. Guards in military-style winter hats and oversize yellow uniforms manned the front gates with clipboards. Next to the front entrance was the complex’s former rental office, a three-story white building. The doors and windows were padlocked, but eventually I found a door that was ajar and crawled inside.

The air was cold and still; the building appeared not to have been entered by another human being in years. Used mattresses, discarded office chairs, and filing cabinets collected dust. But among the detritus were other, more peculiar artifacts. In one room there were dozens of swamp green rubber merman costumes hanging on racks. In another, fake pieces of coral littered the ground. There was a chest plate for a Greek warrior, a five-foot-wide starfish, and a helmet with a plaster fin on top. There was what looked like a castle turret made of styrofoam, statues of seahorses, and dozens of spears and axes stacked against a wall.

Jiang told me that he is determined for the film to be more than a collection of dusty props in a warehouse. Ten years after he first shopped Mermaid Island around Hollywood, six years after filming wrapped, and four years after the first trailer appeared online, Jon Jiang’s dream remains very much alive. When we met in the China World Hotel, the man behind the mermaids insisted that Empires would soon be released. It just needed to be approved by Chinese censors, and then he would begin looking for an international distributor. Empires of the Deep was still poised for global success, as it has been all along.

“The world,” he said, “has never seen anything like this before.”



The Mastermind Episode 3: He Always Had a Dark Side


The Mastermind Episode 3: He Always Had a Dark Side

How did a Usenet troll and encryption genius become a criminal mastermind?

By Evan Ratliff


For a man who built an empire in pixels, Paul Le Roux seemed like a digital phantom. After his name surfaced in the press in late 2014, I spent the better part of a year trying to understand him through the same means by which he’d directed his massive pharmacy business: the Internet. Late at night, I would open my laptop and plunge into an online wormhole, searching for clues about who Le Roux had been and what he became.

There I found another Paul Le Roux, from another time—one who’d left his trace in archived copies of long-dormant websites and message boards. This Le Roux had been famous among a small community of hackers and privacy geeks in the early 2000s as the author of an important piece of encryption software. Before encryption was a mainstream idea, before Apple defied a U.S. government request to provide a method to unlock our phones, this Le Roux had written the underlying code of a program that, a decade and a half later, the National Security Agency still could not break.

The question was: Could the Le Roux who politely answered jargon-laden posts about encryption software be the same one who ordered the murder of a real estate agent over a bad deal on a beach house? At first I thought I would never know. The former Paul Le Roux seemed to have disappeared from the Internet in 2004. Encryption experts I contacted had no idea what had become of that Le Roux, and there was no evidence linking him to the man known for drugs and gun running.

One night in October, I had been at the computer for hours when I finally found the missing link. It was a website once registered to the encryption Le Roux, in the early 2000s, and later transferred to a Philippine company controlled by the crime-boss Le Roux. My immediate reaction upon discovering this connection was a sudden and irrational fear: Le Roux was something new, a self-made cartel boss whose origins were not in family connections but in code. Not just any code, but encryption software that would play a role in world events a dozen years after he created it.

I stared at the address on the screen, a post-office box in Manila, left now with a still larger mystery: What had turned the earnest, brilliant programmer into an international criminal, with a trail of bodies in his wake?

One way that hackers and government agencies break into encrypted files and communications is through something called a brute-force attack. The process involves trying every possible combination of letters, numbers, and symbols that might make up a password. Brute-force attacks require enormous computing resources, and the strongest encryption renders them impossible simply by making the number of combinations so large that it would take lifetimes to find the correct one.

When I began my research into Le Roux, he struck me as a kind of encrypted mystery. A few scant details about his criminal existence had been reported in the media, mostly speculations about the mythological size and scope of his empire, but there was little about who he was or how he had built it.

At first I tried my own version of a brute-force attack. Le Roux’s name had surfaced in a court filing associated with the case of Joseph Hunter, his ex-enforcer, and another connected to RX Limited, his prescription-drug firm. I made a list of every name, company, and location in the documents of those cases and began looking them up online, separately and in combination.

Amid the vastness of the Internet, there were an almost infinite number of ways for me to search for evidence of his existence. I would start with a scrap of information—say, one of the thousands of sites affiliated with RX Limited—and trace its connections. Who owned the site and when? Which mailing address was it registered to? Each of those formed a new starting point.

After months of rote data collection, I had amassed tens of thousands of pages of research. There were snippets from long-dead message boards from the early 2000s, Hong Kong legal databases, and obscure newsletters put out by the Australian Federal Police. Here was Le Roux listed as a director of a company in the UK called SSD Software in 2001. There was his name popping up in a 2008 FCC complaint regarding a company in Florida making a marketing call to someone on the National Do Not Call Registry.

The data points were tantalizing, but ultimately the mystery was too complex for brute force. Another way to crack encryption is called a back door. If a government can convince a software maker to create a secret way into a program, and to share that key only with the government, then the secrets protected by that software will reveal themselves.

I needed a back door into Paul Le Roux’s life. Then, two weeks ago, a key dropped into my inbox.



“Hi, interesting story on PLR.” The email began so mundanely that at first I ignored it. It arrived on March 10, from a Gmail address that included the name Lulu. “I look forward to reading your series.” Then came the part that made my hair stand up.

He also had a legitimate Congolese Diplomatic passport in his own name and a Bulgarian passport in another name. He is an interesting character.


For months I had been contacting people that my online searches hinted might have worked with, or even be related to, Paul Le Roux. I’d teamed up with Natalie Lampert, a young reporter in New York City, and together we’d sent emails and Facebook and LinkedIn messages to dozens of people seemingly connected with Le Roux—related companies and addresses, not to mention those with a Le Roux surname. The responses had been discouraging.

Something in Lulu’s email address reminded me of a person I had written to before. I sent that person another message and, a few hours later, got a response:

lol, no problem, please just let’s keep it to the other email.

That didn’t take you long at all

A few days after that email, at 4 p.m. on a Saturday my time—11 p.m. his—Lulu and I arranged to meet online for our first conversation. I was hunched over my laptop in a hotel lobby in Manhattan. When his handle lit up, we exchanged a few pleasantries, but I was eager to dive in. I asked him to start at the very beginning. “So do you know exactly where PLR grew up, what his family situation was?”

“Yeah, of course,” he said. “I am related.”

From there, Lulu and I started chatting* every few days. I can’t say how I’d figured out the connection between his anonymous email and the person I’d emailed previously. I can’t say what service we used to communicate, nor where Lulu lives, nor what he does. Where I was able to, I have confirmed what he told me through other sources—including key information that I verified with former law-enforcement officials with direct knowledge of Le Roux’s case. In a few instances, I have relied exclusively on his account. To corroborate his story, Lulu sent me documents that only someone very close to Le Roux would have, and he described Le Roux’s dealings with individuals whose connections to Le Roux have never been reported in the press. In the end, I came to trust what he told me, some of which was unflattering to Lulu himself.

Paul Le Roux (center) in an undated family photograph.

Paul Le Roux was born on Christmas Eve, 1972, at Lady Rodwell Maternity Home in Bulawayo, the second-largest city in what was then called—by the white minority that governed it, at least— Rhodesia. His birth mother gave him up for adoption. On his birth certificate, a copy of which Lulu sent to me, his first name is listed as “UNKNOWN.” At the bottom, however, the newborn’s fate is outlined succinctly: “Child to be known in future as: Paul Calder Le Roux.”

In our chats, Lulu was genial and happy to talk. “Go for it, mate,” he’d say. “I’m in no rush, just ask.” He fielded any question I put to him, although he was rarely expansive in his replies. He was particularly protective of Le Roux’s birth mother, making me promise not to reveal her name. “Sad and interesting story,” he said. “His real mom’s mom is married to a U.S. Senator.” When I asked him who the Senator was, he said, “That I can’t say, mate. That’ll get me shot.” (I tried all sorts of strategies to figure out if this was true, but for now I’ve had to leave it unconfirmed, another legend following Le Roux.)

Le Roux was adopted by a family living in the asbestos-mining town of Mashava. “His adoptive parents were really nice,” Lulu said. “They loved him very much.” His father worked as an underground mining manager at the giant Gaths and Shabanie mines, which at one point produced 140,000 tons of asbestos a year. He had a younger sister and was well-loved by the extended Le Roux family. “All the cousins adored him,” Lulu told me.

*For The Mastermind book, Lulu agreed to go on the record under his real name, but I am leaving him anonymous here to reflect the original telling of the story. 

In 1980, Robert Mugabe became prime minister of what would now be called Zimbabwe, ending minority white rule in the country. Four years later, when Le Roux was 12, the family relocated to South Africa, where Paul’s mother believed they would find better schools for their precociously smart son. Krugersdorp, their new home, was also a mining town. Le Roux’s father started a company that managed coal-mining operations, and the family was soon well-off.

Lulu recalled that Le Roux was tall, trim, and handsome as he grew into his teenage years, but never particularly social. In a culture where a kid of his size might have been expected to try his hand at rugby, “he hated sport,” Lulu told me, favoring video games played on a console hooked up to the family TV. As a teenager, Le Roux’s love for the game Wing Commander, in which the player pilots a spacecraft into battle, bordered on obsession.

As a teenager, Le Roux became more distant from those around him, drawn into a world of computers and code.

Not long after the move, in exchange for washing his father’s car, Le Roux was given his first computer. After that, “he was completely anti-social,” Lulu explained. From his first glimpse at a computer screen, Le Roux became interested in creating his own worlds. “Every time we went there afterwards he was always holed up in his room,” Lulu said. “I remember going in and seeing lines and lines of numbers.”

I found this image of a teenaged Le Roux jarring. It wasn’t that I was surprised that he could have discovered his identity in computer code. It was that his story sounded more like that of a programmer turned entrepreneur like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg than of a crime boss like John Gotti or Viktor Bout.

Lulu told me that when Le Roux was 15 or 16, in the late 1980s, the local police raided the family home and arrested Paul for selling pornography. (I’d heard rumors of this before, from an employee who worked closely with him.) The family was scandalized but managed to keep the story private. After, Le Roux turned even more inward. He was an excellent student but despised the idea of learning Afrikaans, compulsory in South African schools. “He said it was a dead language and he didn’t want to learn it,” Lulu said. At 16, he dropped out of high school and decided to follow his interest in computers, taking a local programming course. Family lore has it that after he spent one class explaining some technical fact to the teacher, he got a letter saying he no longer needed to attend. He then completed a year’s worth of material in eight weeks.

What propelled Le Roux out of his parents’ home at 17, Lulu told me, was a family trip to the U.S.—Disneyland, the whole works. When they returned to South Africa, “the moment he landed he said he was leaving.” Eight months later, Le Roux departed for the UK. At the airport, his bags proved too heavy to check. He ditched his clothes and boarded the plane with a suitcase full of programming books.


Once Le Roux left South Africa, his life became peripatetic. He moved from the UK to the U.S., where he lived in Virginia Beach.** In the mid-1990s, he followed a girlfriend, Michelle, to Australia, then married her and obtained Australian citizenship. At this point in Le Roux’s story, Lulu’s account began to intersect with the faint digital trail I’d already stumbled across.

In an archive of old message boards from the 1990s, I had encountered a prolific and often abusive user from Australia posting under the name Paul Le Roux. In forums like aus.general and alt.religion.kibology (named after a parody religion—it’s a long story), he was often angry and sarcastic, writing extreme or offensive screeds in an attempt to rile up other users. He was, in other words, a troll: the kind of person you might find on Reddit or in a newspaper’s comment sections, getting high off the reactions of fellow posters to his deliberately provocative opinions.

Le Roux was a harsh critic of his adopted homeland. (I’m reproducing all messages verbatim, including errors, here.) “All of Australia could disappear into the Pacific and the only difference it would make to the World,” he wrote in a typical post, “is the Americans would have one less pussy country to protect.”

“As I recall, the genetic effects of human inbreding are not as desastrous as those of breding with animals,” Le Roux went on. “A lesson Australians have never learned.”

People who later worked for Le Roux, at his call centers and other businesses, had told me he was often openly racist. But it was still surprising to see the level of vitriol that Le Roux would attach to his real name. “People like you should be rounded up, castrated, then shot,” he wrote in response to someone who accused him of racism for asserting that Asians should be “screened out” of the country “for DNA defects.” He continued, “Whats more your sperm could be used to create the ultimate germ weapon. Simply impregnate a countries woman, and within 20 years, you will have a race of ‘people’, which by all accounts, are capable only of collecting the dole.”

Like much trolling on the Internet, Le Roux’s provocations worked. His posts so outraged the boards he was posting on that someone even changed their handle to fuck@you.paul. After stirring the board into a rage, Le Roux would declare that his correspondents had fallen for his ploy. “Firstly let me say that Australians are easy to provoke, anyone says your country sucks and a whole bunch of you diggers jump up to defend it -Pathetic! Your postings (including 2 death threats, numerous flames, and one guy who swears he has my address & phone number) have provided me with hours of amusement.”

In a coup de grace, Le Roux penned a 30-part post on aus.general in which he laid out the “Advantages” and “Disadvantages” of Australia as a nation. He made a point to note that, “I am ZIMBABWEAN. I left Zimbabwe in 1984, and have since lived in several countries including the U.S & U.K.” The “Disadvantages” column included “Internet access is far to expensive,” “pornography laws in Australia are backward,” “banks report on everything you do,” and “movies are about 6 months behind the U.S.”

“Drug laws are primitive compared with Europe,” he wrote in closing. “The way to combat drugs is in fact to legalise them.”

**In reporting the story further for The Mastermind book, I discovered that Le Roux had also spent a small amount of time in Seattle, working remotely for the same UK software company. 

Poring through these message boards was like the game Concentration. I would find one clue, stash it away, and hope to turn over another that matched it later on. Early in the process, I noticed that Paul Le Roux used four different email addresses in his posts. But two of them traced predominantly not to his trollish screeds but to highly technical encryption discussions on other boards. One of the emails,, was connected to a software company called SW Professionals. That same address turned up in the documentation for the encryption software E4M, hosted on the now defunct website That site, in turn, was registered to another of the message-board emails,, and to a company called World Away Pty.

In 1995, World Away’s corporate filing showed a Sydney address for Le Roux; it was one of the stranger coincidences of my research, since I was living just a few miles away from him at that time. More importantly, on the next page, the owner of World Away was listed as Paul Calder Le Roux, born in Zimbabwe on December 24, 1972.

Le Roux’s announcement of Encryption for the Masses. 

Confident in the connection between the two Le Roux’s, I burrowed into the world of encryption. Le Roux, it seemed, had started building E4M—Encryption for the Masses—in 1997. It followed that a talented young man so absorbed with the challenges of code, one who had gotten himself into trouble with law enforcement in the past, would tackle a problem as technically knotty as digital privacy. Le Roux’s software allowed users to encrypt their entire hard drives—and to conceal the existence of encrypted files, so that prying eyes wouldn’t even know they were there. After two years of development, he released it to the world with a post to the board. According to his own account, the software was written “from scratch,” and “thousands of hours went into its development and testing.”

On the website for E4M, Le Roux posted a manifesto. “The battle for privacy has long since been lost in the real world. As more and more human activity becomes computerised, governments are scrambling to preserve and extend their powers,” he wrote. “Strong Encryption is the mechanism with which to combat these intrusions, preserve your rights, and guarantee your freedoms into the information age and beyond.”


In the spirit of the burgeoning open-source software movement in the late 1990s, Le Roux released E4M for free and made the code available for other people to improve. With no income from his two years of labor, he was struggling financially. His marriage fell apart—violently, both Lulu and a colleague of Le Roux’s told me, although it wasn’t clear what that violence entailed. According to Australian records, the couple divorced in Brisbane in 1999. Le Roux relocated first to Hong Kong, then to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. He married a Dutch citizen named Lilian Cheung Yuen Pui, and they had a child.

In 2000, Le Roux launched SW Professionals, his software-development company, nominally based back in South Africa. Its motto was Excellence in Offshore Programming; its website claimed that the company had six employees. “I worked with him about six months,” his cousin Heath Jordaan told me after I found his name on an old staff page for the site. Le Roux, he said, was rarely in South Africa. “I think I saw him for about a week or so that entire time.”

One of Le Roux’s clients was an Italian telecommunications engineer named Wilfried Hafner, who had corresponded with Le Roux for several years about his encryption software. Hafner had founded a company to create a commercial encryption product that would combine some of the elements of E4M with another piece of software, Scramdisk. The new company would be called SecurStar, and its product DriveCrypt. Hafner hired Le Roux to build DriveCrypt’s underlying engine.

When I spoke to Hafner on the phone recently, he recalled that Le Roux was desperate for money at the time. He drove a beat-up car and worked out of a Rotterdam apartment small enough that, on the phone, Hafner could often hear a baby crying in the background. At the time, Hafner lived in the south of France, and he said that Le Roux openly coveted the kind of success that he imagined led to such a home. “He saw that these were rich places, and this was his dream,” Hafner told me. “He said, ‘I am ambitious, I want to have all this.’”

Both Hafner and Shaun Hollingworth, the inventor of Scramdisk, who still works for SecurStar today, told me that Le Roux was a gifted programmer. “He was always very smart,” Hafner said. “He came also with some, how do you say, interesting, innovative ideas. But at the same time, I felt he was a little bit… disingenuous.”

I asked him what he meant, and Hafner told me that in the middle of the development work for DriveCrypt, he discovered that Le Roux was still working on E4M and had incorporated some of his work for SecurStar into his personal project. Hafner was furious. Because E4M was an open-source product, the source code that Hafner had personally funded, he claimed, could now be used by anyone to develop an encryption product of their own. He confronted Le Roux, who he says apologized and asserted that it was all a mix-up. “He was very humble,” Hafner says. But the damage was done, and Hafner terminated Le Roux’s contract.

The two reconciled personally, however, and stayed in touch. Hafner told me that Le Roux was also building a gaming engine for an online casino that he planned to launch in Canada and Romania. To do so, he needed to learn a new programming language. “In one week, he was better than most of the programmers I know that program in that language,” Hafner says. “I know that in the casino industry there is a lot of money,” he continued. “But Paul is not a marketer. I didn’t see how he could bring in the gamers to play.” Around 2002, Hafner lost touch with Le Roux.

By October of that year, SW Professionals was defunct and Le Roux was openly soliciting for work on the forum.

Hi Guys, I’m looking for crypto/or other contract programming work, anybody out there have anything available? if your reading this group probably I don’t need any introduction but I can send my CV as needed.

Paul Le Roux.

Learning that he was adopted “shattered his whole world,” a relative of Le Roux’s says.

It was around this same time, Lulu told me, that Le Roux received some news that “shattered his whole world”: He found out he was adopted. Although many family members had known for years, Le Roux’s parents had elected to keep him in the dark about it. But in 2002, Le Roux traveled to Zimbabwe to retrieve a copy of his birth certificate. On the trip, his aunt and uncle pulled him aside to tell him the truth. “It was the ‘unknown’ part that hurt him the most,” said Lulu.

Not long after, Le Roux appeared on another set of message boards, including and misc.entrepreneurs. He seemed to be launching some kind of moneymaking scheme that required opening a company based in the U.S.


In 2004, a group of anonymous developers did exactly what Hafner had feared: They released a new and powerful, free file-encryption program, called TrueCrypt, built on the code for E4M. “TrueCrypt is based on (and might be considered a sequel to)” E4M, a release announcement stated. The program combined security and convenience, giving users the ability to strongly encrypt files or entire disk drives while continuing to work with those files as they would a regular file on their computer.

Hafner and his SecurStar colleagues suspected that Le Roux was part of the TrueCrypt collective but couldn’t prove it. Indeed, even today the question of who launched the software remains unanswered. “The origin of TrueCrypt has always been very mysterious,” says Matthew Green, a computer-science professor at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute and an expert on TrueCrypt who led a security audit of the software in 2014. “It was written by anonymous folks; it could have been Paul Le Roux writing under an assumed name, or it could have been someone completely different.”

Hafner found an email address associated with the TrueCrypt programmers and sent a cease-and-desist letter, arguing that the software was based on stolen code. The developers did briefly stop additional development but soon started up again. The response of the free-software community could be summed up in an anonymous message-board response to Hafner’s demand: “FUCK YOU, SecurStar—we’ve got it already!”

For the next decade, that mysterious group of anonymous programmers maintained TrueCrypt, with funding from some equally opaque source. TrueCrypt came to be known as the most powerful and reliable encryption solution available. “They improved it, even did quite impressive work on top of it,” says Hafner, whose business was forced to compete with a free product. “Nevertheless, it’s built on our engine.”

In response to the controversy, in June 2004, Le Roux returned to the forum and posted a note defending his E4M work, adding that when it came to the controversy over TrueCrypt and E4M, “the pure speculation here (often stated as fact) is damaging and in some cases libelous.” After that post, he disappeared from the message boards for good.


Le Roux’s departure from the encryption world, at least under his own name, coincided with his entry into the Internet-pharmacy business. Lulu told me that Le Roux said he decided to switch to online pill selling after a lawyer in Costa Rica—where much of the online casino industry was based—suggested that he go into pharmacies instead. In 2005, Le Roux surfaced in Israeli documents registering IBS Systems, one of the companies that would evolve into the customer-service arm of his prescription-drug empire. Le Roux is listed at an address in Rotterdam, alongside a scanned image of his Australian passport. He had linked up with two Israeli brothers, Tomer and Boaz Taggart—according to one former employee, they met in an online forum—to create what would eventually be known in Israel as CSWW and as RX Limited to the U.S. government.

Before long he started on a project requiring advanced technical know-how: a seamless digital pipeline from American doctors to pharmacists to eager drug consumers. RX Limited played on human greed and vulnerability to recruit doctors and pharmacists, like Charles Schultz in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, into the network. But the business thrived on Le Roux’s complex infrastructure, which was able to process tens of thousands of customer questionnaires each week, direct them to doctors to write prescriptions, and then on to pharmacists to ship them.

By 2007, Le Roux had moved his family to Manila, operating out of a house in the upscale gated community of Dasmarinias. From my reconstruction of RX Limited’s digital machinations, I could see that he had evolved his technical acumen to suit his new business enterprises. But beyond that, I wanted to know what the flesh-and-blood Le Roux was like as his empire grew.

“The Fat Man. That’s what we called him.” This was the first thing Gil (not his real name***), one of Paul Le Roux’s former associates, told me when I met him in Manila last December. It was a sunny day, and we sat down outside a Starbucks that he had selected in Makati City, Manila’s upscale business district. He had lit a cigarette and dropped the pack on the table, ready to procure another one. “People are still really scared, because there is a strong belief that there are operations still going on,” he told me. “Money talks in this country. For 5,000 pesos”—around $100—“you could have someone taken out.”

As his nickname implied, Le Roux’s appearance by this point was striking; in the early 2000s, he had been putting on weight, ballooning to 240 or 260 pounds, by Gil’s estimate. “He had a giant head,” another former associate told me when I asked him to describe Le Roux. His hair, generally kept somewhere between a buzz and a banker’s haircut, had by his forties gone from black to silver, framing a set of plump cheeks and small, slightly flared nostrils. Le Roux’s size could be imposing, although opinions varied as to whether he was truly physically intimidating. Many seemed to view him as a stereotypical nerd, a doughy loner with an adept technical mind but few social graces. “He was not a soft, gentle person,” one former associate said.

Like the more magnetic young man Lulu recalled from his childhood, however, Le Roux was not without charm, particularly when it came to newly hired employees, to whom he projected an easygoing image of power and success. “He was the nicest guy when you first met him,” Gil said. “He was always buying gifts for people. His representation of himself, as far as I am concerned, made him seem more legitimate.”

Those who rose within the ranks of what most just called the Company found Le Roux to have an alluring managerial style: He was receptive to suggestions and sent untested people into situations and responsibilities they never imagined. “He gave you space to maneuver,” said a former high-level Israeli employee of Le Roux’s who met me one afternoon at a mall café in Tel Aviv. “You could come to him with anything; you felt like you had an opportunity to do something you liked and make money doing it. That was before he got all twisted.”

As RX Limited earned hundreds of millions of dollars, Le Roux’s lifestyle changed in some ways but remained the same in others. He became known for bragging  graphically to associates about his extramarital conquests. “He lived in expensive houses in exclusive areas, but he didn’t live extravagantly,” Gil said. “He would travel in flip-flops, shorts, just like a bum. Anywhere, he would look like that.”  Lulu recalled that Le Roux told him that RX Limited was bringing  in four or five million a month, but it didn’t show. “He was as tight as they come,” Lulu said. “I assume he was just hoarding it.”

By 2008, the Le Roux who once gleefully posted online under his own name was gone, replaced by a man obsessed with secrecy and holding a pocketful of identities. His activities were spread across dozens of shell companies registered all over the world, with names like Ajax Technology, Cycom, GX Port, and Southern Ace. Le Roux often used the identity John Bernard Bowlins and had a fake Zimbabwean birth certificate and passport to back it up. Some people called him Benny, others went with Boss or even Paul, if they knew his name at all. Le Roux had another fake Zimbabwean birth certificate for a Johan William Smit—it was an ironic alias, Lulu told me, because it’s a popular name in Afrikaans, the language Le Roux dropped out of school rather than learn. Another birth certificate listed his identity as William Vaughn.

Le Roux’s diplomatic passport from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“When I corresponded with him in the beginning, he used the name Alexander,” a South African who worked for one of his companies told me. “When I met him, he introduced himself as John. I only found out after more than a year that he is actually Paul Calder Le Roux. But then again, we all used pseudonyms in the Philippines.”

In his first email, Lulu had told me that Le Roux possessed a diplomatic passport from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a document that helped him avoid customs. Lulu forwarded me a copy of it; the passport was issued in Le Roux’s own name.

Wealth seemed to begin to amplify Le Roux’s natural impulses—greed, impatience, a sense of superiority. Lulu told me that he thought that in 2008 or 2009, something in Le Roux snapped. “He changed at that point,” he said. “I think the money got to him. I personally saw $100 million in his office in Makati. Cash, bud. It was fucking ridiculous. It was in wicker baskets lined up on the side of the wall in his office.” One image in particular stuck with him: He remembered that the $100 U.S. bills were each stamped with a pink rabbit.

Like the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who sells a company for $100 million, only to start another one in hopes that it will sell for a billion, Le Roux made the pursuit of more money, and more power, an end in and of itself. But the kid who had once locked himself in his bedroom, losing himself in code, had gone as far as his technical skills could take him. He wanted to be a different kind of businessman, a lord of the real underworld, not just the virtual one. “He made money on the pharmacies, and then he decided that he wanted to make more money, fast,” the Israeli associate told me. Le Roux wanted to diversify, to be bigger, he said. “The only way to do that was illegal. He was living inside a movie, you could almost say. He always had a dark side, it just developed more with money.”

***For The Mastermind book, Gil agreed to go on the record under his real name, but I am leaving him anonymous here to reflect the original telling of the story. 

Sometime in 2008, Wilfried Hafner logged into his long-dormant chat account and noticed Le Roux’s handle was still active. He messaged Le Roux and the two exchanged greetings and caught up. Hafner mentioned that he was raising money for a new phone-encryption software project called PhoneCrypt. Le Roux remarked that he was now a wealthy man and would consider investing if Hafner sent along his business plan. Remembering how little money Le Roux had had back in the early 2000s, “the picture did not match,” Hafner said. “I didn’t take it seriously.”

“It’s a pity I didn’t believe it,” Hafner said, before stopping himself. “On the other hand, I could have gotten wrapped up in these stories.”


In the years since Le Roux disappeared from the encryption community, the ideas that drove him to develop E4M were slow to penetrate the public consciousness. As more of our lives became digitized, governments began peering into them. TrueCrypt, E4M’s progeny, had become one of the most popular disk-encryption programs, used by tens of millions of people. Yet the significance of encryption remained largely the province of privacy enthusiasts and libertarian hackers.

All of that was about to change. In November 2012, a man with the online handle Cincinnatus decided to throw a party in Hawaii. The idea arose out of an email exchange with Runa Sandvik, a developer and expert on the online software Tor, which allows its users to mask the physical location of their computers on the Internet. After she gave a Tor tutorial on Reddit, Cincinnatus sent Sandvik an encrypted message.

Cincinnatus told Sandvik that he lived in Hawaii. Sandvik mentioned that she would be there on vacation the following month and could give a talk on Tor. Cincinnatus suggested they host a “cryptoparty,” a phenomenon that had arisen around that time among technology- and privacy-conscious activists. Such events were a chance to “teach beginners how to use the commonly available tools that tap into the incredibly powerful technology of cryptography,” as Cincinnatus’s invitation would explain. The date was set for December 11. “I never imagined,” Sandvik later wrote in an account of the events published on, “that the innocuous emails we exchanged might one day be of interest to the U.S. Government.”

Unbeknownst to Sandvik, her fellow party planner was hatching a much more elaborate education scheme. Four days after he contacted Sandvik, Cincinnatus sent an email to the journalist Glenn Greenwald. “The security of people’s communications is very important to me,” he wrote. In a series of emails, he suggested that Greenwald set up an encrypted means by which sources could contact him.

Cincinnatus organized the cryptoparty at a hacker space called HiCapacity, located in the back of a furniture store in Honolulu. The event was well attended, with “a solid mix of age groups and genders,” as Cincinnatus later recounted. When Sandvik arrived around 6 p.m., Cincinnatus introduced himself as Ed and told her that he worked at the computer-hardware company Dell. Ed kicked off the evening by welcoming the attendees, then invited Sandvik to give her presentation on Tor.

When she was finished, Ed pulled out his laptop, plugged it into the projector, and began his own instructional talk about TrueCrypt. In Ed’s presentation, Sandvik later wrote, he “pointed out that while the only known name associated with TrueCrypt is someone in the Czech Republic, TrueCrypt is one of the best open-source solutions available.”

On a website for the party, Cincinnatus posted an “after-action report.” “I’m making a note here,” he summarized, “huge success.” (As multiple correspondents have informed me post-publication, Snowden was referencing a meme from the video game Portal. )

Six months later, in June 2013, Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras published the first of a still-ongoing series of articles that grew out of their contact with Cincinnatus. In time they revealed that his full name was Edward Snowden, that he had worked in various capacities at the National Security Agency, and that he had downloaded and handed over a trove of documents from the NSA in an effort to blow the whistle on what he believed were egregious privacy encroachments by the U.S. government. Among them was a document revealing that TrueCrypt was one of a small number of encryption programs that had withstood the NSA’s efforts to crack it.

What Snowden and the rest of the world wouldn’t know for another two years was that Paul Le Roux, the man whose code formed the foundation of True Crypt, was at that very moment in the custody of the U.S. government. Le Roux was in a bind, facing the full force of a U.S. federal prosecution for any number of his extraordinary array of crimes. The only way out was to spill his secrets.

The Mastermind Episode 2: I’m Your Boss Now


The Mastermind Episode 2: ‘I’m Your Boss Now

When you don’t know who your boss really is, a dream job can turn into a nightmare.

By Evan Ratliff


One morning in early 2009, a 26-year-old manager of an Israeli customer-relations call center named Moran Oz found himself treading water in a hail of bullets. A moment before, he’d been sitting on the deck of a small yacht, cruising just out of sight of the Philippine shoreline. Then he was in the water, the boat was pulling back around, and the three men he had thought were his boss’s business partners were standing above him. Two of them were armed, and one began firing into the ocean close to Oz. “That was for the sharks,” one said when the shooting finally stopped. “The next time will be for you.”

The man was holding a satellite phone. “You are stealing from Paul,” he said. “You need to tell us where you put the money.”

Oz felt disembodied and panicked for time. Whatever they thought he’d done, he told them, it was all a mistake. “If I’d done anything,” he said, “I would’ve told Paul.”

The yacht club outside Manila where Moran Oz’s strange journey began. (Google Maps)

When I first heard the outlines of this story, from an attorney in Minneapolis last fall, I initially had a hard time believing it. Later I would learn of incidents even more difficult to comprehend, but at the time it sounded too much like something out of a movie. Then I remembered a couple of things that Joseph “Rambo” Hunter, one of Paul Le Roux’s enforcers, had once said in a conversation recorded by the DEA. “This is real stuff,” he told a new member of an assassination team. “You see James Bond in the movie and you’re saying, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ Well, you’re gonna do it now.”

Then, amid a string of boasts about intimidating and killing people who stole from Paul Le Roux, Hunter said: “We ah… not kidnapped a guy, but we conned him to come with us. We put him in the ocean, shot at him.”

As I tracked down former employees of Paul Le Roux—in Israel and the U.S., the Philippines and Hong Kong and Zimbabwe—many of their stories followed a similar arc. At one moment they’re involved in workaday, seemingly legitimate tasks. Some never even heard the name Paul Le Roux; others thought of him as a brilliant but eccentric and occasionally obnoxious boss. Then something happens—a message arrives, a rumor reaches their ears, they’re told to meet three strangers at a marina—and they realize they’re involved in a sinister world beyond their comprehension. At that point, they face a moral and practical question of how to proceed. For some, how they confront that moment will mean the difference between freedom and confinement. For a few, it will be the difference between life and death.

As one former associate of Le Roux’s, and friend of Moran Oz’s, told me as we sat at a bustling café inside a mall in Tel Aviv, the majority of his colleagues were “good people, educated about the difference between good and bad.” We’d been talking for an hour about his experience with Le Roux, and for the first time he seemed genuinely dismayed. “That’s what is really sad about this,” he said, “good people getting sucked into something just because they felt threatened.”



To understand how Moran Oz ended up in the ocean off the Philippine coast, I traveled to Tel Aviv to talk with his friends and colleagues—both inside Le Roux’s organization and out—along with the accountants and lawyers who had represented him. Many had spoken to Oz in detail about his experience and agreed to talk to me on the condition that I not use their names, out of fear that by revealing their identities they could end up in a similar predicament as Oz.

Such was the case with Oz’s childhood friend, whom I met on a beautiful afternoon in February, in an office park at the center of Tel Aviv’s vibrant startup scene. He was as eager to share his detailed recollections of Oz as he was desperate to make sure that he didn’t come to share his friend’s fate.

Moran Oz grew up in Jerusalem. He was the sort of kid everyone wants to be around, the friend told me: “The kind of guy who could miss class and then waltz in and get an A.” In February 2005, Oz had just graduated from high school and completed his compulsory service in the Israeli army. He was visiting an uncle in New York, pondering what to do next with his life—go to school? start a business of his own?—when another friend called to say that his brother-in-law had launched a company in Israel and was looking to hire. The only requirements were a good command of English and a basic understanding of computers. Oz flew home and took the job.

The man who hired him was named Boaz Taggart. He’d started the business with his brother, Tomer, who lived in Los Angeles, even though their company—Beit Oridan, it was called—was based in Jerusalem. It was the kind of business that was thriving in Israel at the time, benefiting from the country’s sound technological infrastructure and widely English-speaking population. Generally known as call centers—although much of their work happened over email—companies like Beit Oridan served as the customer-service arms of larger organizations based outside Israel, often serving customers in the United States. In this case, the larger organization was a network of websites that went by names like RX Limited and Alpha-Net, and sold prescription drugs to American consumers over the Internet.

On those sites, customers filled out a questionnaire asking about their medical history and symptoms, ordered their medication of choice, then paid by credit card. The questionnaire was transferred to an American doctor, previously recruited by the company, who would write a prescription based on the answers. The prescription would then be transferred to a pharmacist—also recruited by RX Limited and located in the U.S.—who would use a FedEx account supplied by the company to ship the drugs to the customer. Both the doctor and the pharmacist received a fee for each order.

For Israelis like Oz, whose medical needs were met by the government, RX Limited seemed like a reasonable stopgap for America’s poor health care system. As one former Beit Oridan employee told me, their belief was that, in America, “if you work for a company and you are fired after 40 years, you cannot go to a doctor and get the prescription for your heart pills. So what we did was provide the doctor and the pharmacy.”

Oz also had the impression that the RX Limited network was compliant with prescription-drug laws in the U.S. For instance, a database held the order history for every customer and tracked the dates and amounts of their last purchases. If a new order showed up more quickly than a drug should have been consumed, the customer couldn’t get a refill until the appropriate amount of time had elapsed.

Occasionally, the company ran into what Oz and his colleagues thought of as regulatory hitches in the U.S. If a prescription could no longer be mailed from a certain state, the system removed it. If the rules around a medication changed, the system seemed to change accordingly. Occasionally, Oz would hear about American affiliates being inspected by the local pharmacy board; they would go offline for a few days, then reappear in the system.

Oz’s job, however, didn’t require any knowledge of pharmaceuticals, nor of the technological infrastructure behind RX Limited. He arrived each morning at Beit Oridan’s office, quickly reviewed the prescriptions uploaded by doctors in the U.S., then clicked a few buttons to send them to one of RX Limited’s participating pharmacies, allocating orders according to each store’s daily capacities. The rest of the Israeli staff was responsible for communicating with doctors and pharmacists, and for customer support: dealing with password problems, lost shipments, expired credit cards, and incomplete questionnaires rejected by doctors.

In 2005, when Oz began, the company had eight American pharmacies operating in the system, taking 8,000 orders a week. But it was growing quickly, and after a few months the number of employees doubled. Among the new hires was a man named Alon Berkman, whose primary responsibility, at least at first, was to provide accounting support for the American pharmacists and doctors. Beit Oridan’s employees were instructed to adopt American-sounding names and to say that they were located in Utah. Oz’s handle was Ron Martin; Berkman’s was Allen Berkman.

One of the people on the other end of those communications was a 74-year-old pharmacist in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, named Charles Schultz. Schultz had been in the business for a long time; following a stint as an Army medic during the Korean War, he’d opened his first pharmacy in 1964 and ran it with his wife, Jeanne. After a few false starts, they built Schultz Pharmacy into an established business, set on a quaint street in downtown Oshkosh, hugging the western shore of Lake Winnebago. In the 1980s, he bought a pharmacy called Medicine Mart in Monroe, a town 100 miles south of Oshkosh. For decades, Schultz was a respected businessman in the two communities, a good boss and tireless worker.

In the summer of 2006, Schultz received a fax from a company he’d never heard of, Alpha-Net Trading, with an address in Costa Mesa, California. The letter offered him an enticing business opportunity: Alpha-Net could augment Schultz’s in-store sales with online prescriptions, without any investment from him. His role couldn’t have been simpler. If he became an Alpha-Net affiliate, all he would have to do was log in to the company’s system, fill prescriptions written by American doctors, and ship them using Alpha-Net’s FedEx account. He’d then be reimbursed by bank transfer for the wholesale cost of the prescription, plus $3.50 for each one filled.

The offer arrived at a particularly vulnerable time for Schultz. His business had been in decline for a decade or so as big-box drugstore chains began to crowd out the little guys. His family, meanwhile, was beleaguered by health problems. His son suffered from a neurological disorder that required nearly full-time care. And Schultz himself had been struck by a series of small heart attacks, brought on in part by the stress of keeping his business afloat and the long hours spent shuttling between the Oshkosh and Monroe stores.

At first, Schultz ignored the offer. Then he conducted a bit of online research to determine if it was real. Finally, he got in touch with the company’s recruiter. Schultz said he had doubts about the ethics of the operation. But the recruiter quickly dispelled them, sending Schultz copies of the licenses of the physicians writing the prescriptions and explaining that Alpha-Net didn’t sell controlled substances. “If an online pharmacy is asking you to ship controlled drugs, you better put your fees away for a lawyer,” Alpha-Net’s reps were trained to tell prospective pharmacists, “because you are going to jail.”

Alpha-Net and its dozens of affiliate websites offered a range of prescription medications—everything from Propecia, the hair-loss drug, to generic forms of Viagra. But its three biggest sellers were Ultram, Soma, and Fioricet. Ultram was the brand-name version of an opioid painkiller called tramadol. Soma, also known as carisoprodol, was a muscle relaxant often prescribed for back problems. And Fioricet, recommended for tension headaches, was often prescribed to treat migraines. To further put his mind at ease, Alpha-Net gave Schultz the number of a former DEA agent in Florida, who assured him that none of the medicines he would be shipping would cause problems.

In the summer of 2006, Schultz signed up both of his pharmacies, and before long he was filling thousands of prescriptions a month. His bank account received increasingly frequent wire transfers from Hong Kong in amounts that grew to the tens of thousands of dollars. Someone at the top was clearly making tremendous amounts of money selling online prescriptions. Who that might be, Schultz didn’t have the first idea. “Alpha-Net said that its operation was legal and legitimate,” Schultz would later explain in a sentencing memo that his attorney filed in federal court in Green Bay, after the DEA had shown up at Schultz’s door, altering his life forever. “I wanted to believe them.”


Boaz and Tomer Taggart told their employees that they had a third, silent partner in the busines—a programmer Tomer had met after posting an ad in an online forum. That programmer handled the infrastructure of the company, part of which he outsourced to two contractors in Romania. The day-to-day operations, though, and the future plans for the company, were determined by the brothers. In July 2006, however, Oz returned from a vacation to discover that Boaz had been ousted from the business. No reason was given for the falling out between the brothers, but from then on Tomer would be in charge, running the operation predominantly from the U.S.

After Boaz’s departure, the business continued to grow. Oz and Berkman recruited friends to work with them, extolling the flexible shifts and good pay, which was generally about 15 percent higher than other call-center jobs in Israel.

Then, one afternoon in the fall of 2007, an instant message popped up on Moran Oz’s computer screen. “I’m your boss now,” wrote someone calling himself Paul Le Roux, a name Moran had never heard before. There was no explanation, no pleasantries, simply a statement that he’d been in charge with Tomer from the beginning, but now Tomer was out. “From now on,” Le Roux said, “you report to me.”

Oz called Taggart, who quickly explained that Le Roux was a South African programmer living in the Philippines. Taggart was stepping aside for this formerly silent partner, he said. When Oz asked him why, he said only that he had been working too hard and wanted to see his daughters grow up.

At first the new boss didn’t alter the atmosphere in Jerusalem. The business was the same, the customer-service concerns unchanged. The company kept growing, retaining its high pay and decent hours. Oz’s and Berkman’s responsibilities began to expand.

As for Paul Le Roux, he always claimed to be too busy to travel to Israel and conducted almost all his business over the company’s chat system, in a gruff style utterly devoid of small talk. He didn’t joke, and he never asked questions about the lives of his employees or offered up any information regarding his own. He was more concerned about information security than Boaz or Tomer ever had been; he insisted that Oz and Berkman encrypt their hard drives, at first with a program called E4M (which stood for Encryption for the Masses), and then with one called TrueCrypt. But otherwise, as far as Oz was concerned, a boss was a boss.

A few months later, Le Roux declared that he wanted to meet Oz and Berkman in person, in Manila. Oz’s childhood friend told me that at first, the new jet-setting aspect of the business made Oz’s position sound “like a dream job.” The pair flew business class to Manila via Hong Kong. A driver fetched them from the airport and deposited them at a luxury condo located next to a synagogue.

Paul Le Roux was an absentee boss, based in Manila. (AC Productions/Blend Images/Corbis)

They met Le Roux for a series of dinner meetings at the Hard Rock Café, located in a mall in Makati, the upscale shopping and business district in the center of Manila. “These Jews can’t eat any of this!” Le Roux joked with the waitress. “Just get them some chips.” I learned about those meetings, and others that would come later, from former employees who worked closely with Le Roux. They would speak with me only on the condition of anonymity, concerned that discussing Le Roux might come back to haunt them.

In the fall of 2008, Le Roux brought Oz and Berkman back to Manila to tell them he would be opening a new call center in Tel Aviv, which he wanted them to staff and oversee. “Money is not an issue,” he told them.

Shortly after that meeting, Le Roux sent an advance man, a British citizen named Robert McGowan, to Israel to register the new company—called Customer Service Worldwide, or CSWW—under McGowan’s name. Beit Oridan, which had formerly been renamed IBS Systems, became SCSM. (The company was meant to be called Customer Service Management, one employee told me, but the name was taken. So a meaningless “S” was tacked onto the front.) When I recently got a hold of the government’s official records on the various iterations of the companies, I found photocopies of not only McGowan’s British passport but Le Roux’s Australian one. It seemed curious that a man so concerned with secrecy would leave such a blatant clue in the paper trail of a possibly illegal enterprise.

CSWW opened in 2009, housed in an 11-floor building not far from the government center of Tel Aviv. The Israeli national government’s Money-Laundering Prohibition Authority was located on another floor of the building. Under the new system, CSWW would handle customer service in Tel Aviv, while SCSM would manage accounting and company infrastructure from Jerusalem. Neither CSWW nor SCSM made any money themselves. To cover the two companies’ expenses, Le Roux was soon wiring $300,000 a month from a bank in Hong Kong.

None of that was unusual in the call-center industry, according to Dov Weinstein, an accountant I met with in Tel Aviv. Each month, he said, Oz made a list of the company’s expenses, and Le Roux sent a payment to cover them. Oz had brought in Weinstein, an experienced CPA and a friend of his father’s since Oz was a child, to make sure the company’s books were being done correctly. “They mentioned all the time that there is a South African guy,” Weinstein told me. “If you ask me, I think that maybe they did not trust him.”

As RX Limited grew, Le Roux opened call centers beyond Israel. The company’s volume of orders created an endless stream of customer-service requests, and RX Limited adopted aggressive email marketing techniques to recruit more. In the Philippines, Le Roux’s call centers were given names like Dial Magic and Global I-Net Bridge. (Eventually he added one in India as well.) To fill the managerial positions, he turned to Oz and Berkman. Oz’s childhood friend told me, “His boss was always asking him to recruit people, Israelis, to go to the Philippines.”

In one sense, Le Roux’s trust of Israelis seemed odd. Among employees he was widely known for his openly racist views. “For Paul, everyone was a ‘nigger.’ I was a ‘white nigger,’” one call-center manager told me. “Or a ‘floppy,’ which is a South African term for nigger.” But Le Roux reserved special vitriol for the people in whose midst he lived, “calling Filipinos monkeys—to their faces.”

Israelis seemed to be exempt from Le Roux’s personal animus. “I don’t think he particularly liked Jews,” the call-center manager said. They were simply the “cheapest, honest, smartest labor that he could find.”

Eventually a kind of pipeline developed, with one Israeli following another to Manila. In January, I tracked down one of those transplants, Yehuda Ben-Dor, an Israeli-American whose LinkedIn profile suggested that he had been high up in the Philippine version of CSWW. Unlike many former employees, Ben-Dor—who now runs his own call center in the Philippines—told me by phone that he’d be happy to talk on the record. “My understanding was that this was all legal,” he said. “There was nothing fishy about it.”

Ben-Dor was living in Tel Aviv, he told me, when he answered a local ad for work in the call center there. He took the job and quickly moved up to manager. In 2010, his boss asked if he wanted to transfer to the Philippines. “I wasn’t the first to come over here. There were many others before me who had been coming over to man them,” Ben-Dor told me, referring to the call centers. “The thing with Paul’s company was that the attrition rate was pretty high, people come and go, and he was always looking for new people. I was the next guy, so to speak. I didn’t know anything about the Philippines at that time.”

Within a few days of arriving in Manila, and never having met Le Roux in person, Ben-Dor found himself overseeing ten call centers with more than 1,000 employees. “They didn’t tell me anything about the job,” he said, “basically just that they needed Americans or English speakers to train the Filipinos.”

Le Roux provided apartments to the Israeli transplants. “He had a lot of condos,” Ben-Dor said. “He moved people around in them for some reason, like musical chairs. When I was first here, I was working in a house in Taguig, and then he said, ‘I need you to move over to the Fort’”—a financial district in Manila also known as Bonifacio Global City—“so I moved over to a condo in Global City. Then he said, ‘OK, I need that one, so I need you to move to another one.’ I was like, why does he have all these empty condos?”

Le Roux was as much a mystery to employees in the Philippines as he was to those back in Israel. He owned a pub called Sid’s in Manila, a dumpy expat hangout, but was rarely seen there. “I don’t believe that he had a social life,” one former call-center manager told me. “It’s not like he would go to the country club or meet other expats of his age. He was a workaholic, from what I understood, 18 to 19 hours a day. At no point did I ever meet anybody that was introduced as his friend.”

Le Roux paid Israel-level salaries in the much cheaper environs of Manila, offering a standard of living that was hard for recruits to turn down. And he seemed willing to spend on quality employees. “He would start very, very low,” the manager told me, “but you could negotiate with him easily. He had this intimidating physical presence, so people would be afraid to ask for more. But when you understood that money meant nothing to him, then I thought, Why not ask for a significant pay raise? The numbers, the money, wasn’t important.”

Ben-Dor told me that in nearly two years working for Le Roux, he saw his boss only a handful of times. Once “he called me up and asked me to just come on over to his condo,” Ben-Dor said. Ben-Dor described the apartment, a massive, empty space, with Le Roux sitting alone at a desk—the only piece of furniture there. He was flanked by stacks of servers, Ben-Dor said, like he was at the helm of some sort of command center. Le Roux dispensed with greetings.

“How’s it going?” Le Roux asked.

“It’s going good,” Ben-Dor told him. He began rattling off numbers, eager to prove that the call centers were performing well, but Le Roux cut him off.

“Well, let me know if you need anything,” he said.

The meeting with the boss he’d barely met, who had moved him to the Philippines and housed him and placed him in charge of over 1,000 people, was over in five minutes. “You called me all the way over here to tell me that?”

“Yeah,” Le Roux told him. “I just wanted to meet you.”


For Charles Schultz, the pharmacist in Oshkosh, the relationship with Alpha-Net was everything they’d promised. The system provided him with a regular stream of prescriptions, written by doctors all over the country. Alpha-Net representatives, whom he knew by names like Mike Gilmore and Will Morris, straightened out any problems when they arose and stayed in touch by phone and email. On one day in July 2010, Schultz Pharmacy filled and shipped 973 prescriptions. On another, in December 2011: 575. Schultz would later admit that he knew that the volume of prescriptions coming his way strongly implied that doctors weren’t examining the patient questionnaires thoroughly. But he never heard from any authorities, and his business was finally on level footing.

By the end of 2011, Schultz’s two pharmacies had shipped over 700,000 prescriptions. Alpha-Net had wired over $27 million from various accounts in Hong Kong to Schultz’s bank. Most of the money was to cover the wholesale cost of the drugs, but $3.3 million came from the per-prescription fee that Schultz received, which the company had raised in 2007 from $3.50 to $4.

Among the hundreds of thousands of shipments Schultz sent out, it would take only six of them to unravel his life. A customer in Minnesota placed a half-dozen orders for Soma and Fioricet through five different Alpha-Net-controlled websites between 2007 and 2010. The customer’s questionnaires were handled by four different doctors, whose prescriptions in turn were filled by Schultz Pharmacy and Medicine Mart. That customer was a special agent for the DEA.

Some of RX Limited’s affiliate websites.

The DEA had stumbled into the path of RX Limited almost by accident. In an investigation into a pharmacy in Chicago in 2007, agents had discovered that the business appeared to be shipping large amounts of prescription drugs using a single FedEx account. When they obtained records from FedEx, they found something more astounding: Approximately 100 pharmacies across the country were using that same account number. All of them were predominantly shipping the same three drugs: Fioricet, Ultram, and Soma.

That fall agents from the DEA started making undercover, or “controlled,” buys of prescription drugs on RX Limited–related websites. Helpfully, when each delivery arrived, it came labeled with the doctor who had written the prescription and the pharmacy that had filled it. The websites made sure to emphasize, as a court filing later noted, that they “did not sell controlled substances, that their drugs were dispensed by board certified and/or licensed physicians and/or pharmacies, and that RX’s customers did not need to see a physician in person or have a prior prescription in order to purchase prescription drugs online.”

There were dozens of RX Limited websites from which to make controlled buys, with names like,,,, and The agents began, in October of 2007, with a site called An agent logged on as a customer, filled out a questionnaire, and ordered 30 tablets of Soma. The prescription was filled by a pharmacy in Monroe, Wisconsin, called Medicine Mart, owned by Charles Schultz.

After the boat incident, people close to Moran Oz told me that his demeanor changed. The childhood friend I spoke to in the office park said that Oz wouldn’t tell him what happened on his trip, only that, speaking of his boss, “I don’t think I should be working with this guy.” The friend tried to persuade Oz to come work with him at a startup, but Oz said he couldn’t. “He was different, like he was shut down,” the friend said. “He was suspicious. We didn’t know of what.”

To Oz, it also seemed that Le Roux was different after that trip. He was always short on social graces, but in the ensuing months he became increasingly vicious, threatening employees when something wasn’t done in the way he’d asked. “Alon better answer the phone or he won’t have a hand to do it with or a tongue to speak,” he once told one of Berkman’s coworkers.

Among the managers at his call centers, there were now constant whispers about the boss. “I heard he was doing human trafficking, he was doing arms trades, he was having people killed. It sounded like a comic book, and I didn’t know what to believe and not to believe,” one former call-center manager in the Philippines told me. “I heard that he had an airplane business where he was making airplane engines and hiring people to fly to other countries to smuggle drugs. It was too surreal to believe that this guy was actually getting away with stuff like this. I didn’t know what of it was credible information. I could only confirm what I knew.”

The more I heard from former employees and associates of Le Roux’s, the more I wondered why they didn’t just walk away. Some did. Another former call-center manager in the Philippines, who met me at a Starbucks in Makati one afternoon, told me that over several years it gradually dawned on him that Le Roux’s primary interest was in pushing his businesses as far into the darkness as possible. “There’s a difference in doing a gray businesses and just being interested in illegal business,” the manager said. When he asked Le Roux why he didn’t build on his growing fortune by expanding his call-center services and selling them to other companies, Le Roux professed not to be interested. The manager decided he wanted out. “I didn’t want to be working for a guy that was more interested in illegal businesses than legal ones,” he told me.

The question of why more people among the dozens who mananged operations for Le Roux didn’t abandon him, once they started to learn troubling facts about him and the business, is one that defense lawyers and prosecutors are grappling with now. The answer for some of them, as Oz’s attorneys explained it to me, was simple: They believed Le Roux would kill them if they did. I heard much of Oz’s story sitting in a conference room one morning last November, in the Minneapolis office of Joe Friedberg. Friedberg and Robert Richman, both prominent local attorneys who specialize in high-profile criminal cases, currently represent Oz. They told me that it wasn’t just Oz who was intimidated by Le Roux. Omer Bezalel, an operations manager at one of the Israeli businesses, had once attempted to leave Le Roux’s employ. “Two guys showed him pictures of his family,” Friedberg said, “and said, ‘You aren’t going to quit.’”

Around 2011, Le Roux began to disappear for long stretches. None of the high-level employees whom I spoke with knew at the time where he was or what he was doing, only that when he resurfaced he would be more threatening than before. “The fact that he was underground was scarier,” the Israeli call-center manager said. “When he was overground you could talk to him. But when he came back it wasn’t reasonable. He was so angry, and the questions he was asking didn’t make sense. He would just explode. Whatever he said, you said, ‘OK, OK,’ and then hoped that he would forget it.”


In 2011, the U.S. government declared distribution of the drug Soma across state lines illegal. It was one of RX Limited’s tentpole pharmaceuticals, and when pharmacies refused to ship it, a third of the company’s business evaporated overnight. Federal prosecutors would later allege that in the four-year period leading up to August 2011, RX Limited had shipped $300 million worth of drugs.

Le Roux decided to close the Tel Aviv office and move all customer service to the Philippines. Oz and Berkman helped unwind the operations, shipping the computers and office furniture to Manila. The process lasted into 2012, when Le Roux announced that he was downsizing the Jerusalem logistics office as well. He told Oz that the company had lost its credit-card-processing service and needed to scale back further.

The transfers that normally came in from Le Roux’s accounts in Hong Kong started arriving from new and strange places. Then they became sporadic, according to Dov Weinstein. Soon the company lacked the funds to pay severance owed to laid-off employees. When Oz complained, Le Roux wired two-thirds of the money and—in a move that seemed to defy his increasingly dark character—pledged to send the rest soon.

From 2009 to 2011, Moran Oz oversaw a call center in Tel Aviv. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Le Roux designated a new point man in the Philippines for the Israeli companies to communicate with, a Filipino whom Oz and Berkman had never met and knew only by his online handle: Persian Cat.* It struck them as strange; Le Roux had never trusted locals to run any part of the business before. But Oz, already stung from having to lay off most of the company, was desperate to get the remaining severance. He stayed in touch with both the Persian Cat and Le Roux, who kept promising that the money would arrive.

*Later, while researching The Mastermind book, a source indicated to me that “Persian Cat” was a moniker used by Nestor Del Rosario, a former Le Roux call center manager who had also been pulled into other sides of the business, including arms sales to Iran.

In March 2012, DEA agents showed up at Schultz Pharmacy in Oshkosh armed with search warrants. Schultz immediately admitted his involvement and handed over his computers and records. He also agreed to maintain his relationship with his Alpha-Net contacts, and he let the agents record telephone calls. He gave the agents a room to set up in at the pharmacy and served them coffee.

The DEA had in its possession RX Limited’s largest supplier, an 80-year-old pharmacist in Wisconsin. Schultz had little in the way of information about the larger scheme he’d been a part of—some names and phone numbers, emails back and forth about prescriptions and accounting. But the agents were pulling at the threads of the business, hoping to find one that led to whoever sat at the top.

A statement by Gretchen Klass, Charles Schultz’s daughter, in a report submitted by his lawyers before his sentencing. 

Then, late in the summer of 2012, Paul Le Roux disappeared again. Moran Oz and the other Israelis stopped hearing from him. Rumors swirled that he had gone underground because authorities had intercepted one of his boats carrying arms or drugs. Oz, Berkman, and others pressed Persian Cat for information, but he professed to having no idea where Le Roux was or what had happened to him. The transfers from Hong Kong and the other accounts stopped entirely. “We knew something had happened,” one former manager told me. “We prayed that he was dead.”


Le Roux would sometimes give Israeli employees who had relocated to the Philippines entirely new duties, employing them in parts of the business they had previously known little about. Tales of Le Roux–sponsored operations in exotic locales began to filter back to the call centers in Israel.

Oz got his childhood friend, Asaf Shoshana, who had served in an elite Israeli military unit called the Duvdevan, a job working for Le Roux in the Philippines. Not long after he arrived, though, Shoshana reported back to Oz that he had been put in charge of a logging business in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Another Philippine Israeli, Shai Reuven, told a friend that he had been assigned to run an elaborate operation to procure gold directly from African mines. Still others were being hired to guard houses that Le Roux owned in Hong Kong.

Sometime in 2007, an Israeli-American named Levi Kugel, a friend of Berkman’s, was invited to come to the Philippines and work for Le Roux directly. Kugel was put in charge of a call center but soon began working closely with Le Roux on projects far beyond the prescription-drug business. “It was love at first sight,” one employee told me of the way Le Roux and Kugel hit it off. By 2008, Oz was hearing stories that Kugel, who was operating under the name Steve Lebaron, was being sent around the world by Le Roux on mysterious business related to Zimbabwe.

Periodically, Kugel would return to Israel, and he and Oz began casually discussing the idea of going into business themselves. Kugel was an American citizen, and the two of them talked about the benefits of starting their own wholesale pharmacy in the U.S. RX Limited’s business had grown so quickly that it often had trouble finding enough pharmacies to fill its orders. By opening their own, they reasoned, they might make a great deal of money and also save Le Roux some in the process.

In early 2009, Oz got a call from Le Roux saying that he had taken on new Brazilian partners and wanted Oz and Berkman to come to the Philippines to meet them. When they arrived, though, Le Roux told Oz, “Alon needs to take care of something. You’ll come with me.”

Le Roux said he wanted Oz to join the Brazilians on a short trip to inspect a potential new call-center site on an island called Cebu. They’d travel on one of Le Roux’s yachts, a full-day trip by boat. The next morning he picked up Oz at the hotel in his BMW. They stopped for breakfast at McDonald’s, then headed west toward the coast. Le Roux owned several boats that he kept docked in Subic Bay, a city two hours from Manila that had housed a U.S. military base in the early 1990s and remained a magnet for international expats, particularly former military types.

Le Roux pulled into the marina, where he put Oz up in a hotel for the night, paying the bill in advance. The Brazilians would meet him the next morning, he said, on the dock next to the yacht they would be taking to Cebu.

The whole thing felt off to Oz—the Brazilians, the boat, Le Roux driving him personally. But by this point, he had little choice but to go along with it.

When Oz arrived at the appointed dock the next morning, three men were waiting to meet him: an older white-haired American or British man named Dave and two Latino-seeming men** who rarely spoke. Dave invited him on board and said he was eager to talk business. It was a small yacht with three bedrooms. Dave said he’d take one, Oz another, and the Brazilians would share the third. It was sunny and warm as they cruised leisurely out to sea. Oz sat on the back deck, taking in the view.

After about a half-hour, with the shoreline now just out of sight, Dave came to the back of the boat and asked Oz to get up for a moment, he needed to get something from the compartment beneath him. Seconds later, Oz was falling overboard.

He assumed at first that he had tripped—he remembered, and quickly regretted, that he’d slid his cell phone into his sock—but then when he looked up, he was confused to see the boat moving away from him. It turned, though, and pulled alongside him. Oz looked up, expecting a ladder to be thrown over so he could be hauled aboard. Instead he saw Dave holding a gun, and before he could process what was happening, bullets were piercing the surface of the water around him.

Then the shooting stopped, and Dave told Oz that they knew he was stealing from Le Roux and they would kill him if he didn’t say where he’d stashed the money.

Oz thrashed about in the water, trying to understand what could possibly have had led to this moment.

Dave now held a satellite phone, from which he seemed to be relaying his interrogation. Dave listened on the phone and then spoke to Oz in the water below him. “We know you are talking to Levi,” he said.

Now Oz understood. Somehow the business he and Kugel had discussed had gotten back to Le Roux. Why they were accusing him of stealing he didn’t know, but bobbing there in the water Oz frantically explained that he and Kugel were just talking, that they’d hatched this idea of a pharmacy on the side that could be good for everyone. “I would have told Paul if we had done it,” Oz said. “I would never do something behind his back.”

Perhaps Dave had never intended to kill Oz, only to terrify him. Or maybe Oz talked his way out of his own execution. Whatever the case, eventually they pulled him back on board and motored to a small, isolated island, where they anchored for the night.

Thirty-six hours later, they headed back to the marina. “You need to understand that we can reach you everywhere, in Israel,” Dave told Oz. He warned that if they ever caught Oz stealing from Le Roux, or even suspected it, they would kill him. “Whatever happens,” Dave said, “we will get to you.”

The next day, Le Roux picked Oz up for the drive back to Manila. In the face of Oz’s confusion and anger, Le Roux denied knowing anything about the incident. He had nothing to do with it, he told Oz. It was the Brazilians, and they were men that Le Roux had to listen to.

Before he dropped Oz back in Manila, Le Roux left him with a warning. “If you are thinking to go to Israel to close the office, I would suggest that you don’t want to deal with these guys. They will find you. Do whatever they say. By all means, don’t go back and panic.”

**It would turn out that it wasn’t so much that Oz believed the pair looked South American, just that he assumed as much because of what he’d been told. In research for The Mastermind book, I discovered that the two men were in fact Joseph Hunter and another member of Le Roux’s mercenary enforcement team working for Dave Smith.

Read the next installment in “The Mastermind” series.

The Mastermind Episode 1: An Arrogant Way of Killing

Joseph Hunter in the custody of Thai police. (AP/Sakchai Lalit)

The Mastermind Episode 1: An Arrogant Way of Killing

A journey to understand how a real-estate agent in the Philippines became the target of a criminal mastermind.

By Evan Ratliff


Jeremy Jimena had just started his shift when he found the body. At 6:30 on the morning of February 13, 2012, Jimena, a garbage collector in the Philippines, had set out with his driver on their regular route through Taytay, an industrial city an hour east of Manila. It had rained most of the night, and a light drizzle fell as they turned down Paseo Monte Carlo, a quiet road with no streetlights. Their first stop was a large vacant lot overrun by low shrubs, a green carpet of vines, and a scattering of banana trees.

The field wasn’t an official pickup spot, but local residents often dumped garbage there anyway, and the collectors had informally added it to their route. There was a small pile of trash that morning spilling into the road: two large grain bags filled with waste and a bulging, rolled-up bedspread. Jimena hopped off the truck and approached the pile. When he leaned down and grasped the damp edge of the blanket, he saw a human foot.

Jimena dropped the blanket and ran, shouting to the driver, and the two of them left the truck and sprinted to the municipal headquarters, 200 yards away. There they told Ricardo Maniego, the local head of security, what they found. Maniego called the police and brought a long cord to rope off the area, like he’d learned in first-responder training.

The crime scene in Taytay on the morning of February 13, 2012. 

Nearly four years later, in December 2015, I sat with Jimena outside the municipal headquarters. He is a small, wiry man with jet black hair and a wisp of a mustache. He looked off in the distance as he recounted the story, his eyes wide and mournful. He’d known right away that the foot was a woman’s, he said, but couldn’t remember much else. “I was shocked and disoriented,” he said.

After he’d shown Maniego the body, Jimena had returned to his route in a daze. He never spoke to the police, he told me, and never learned who the woman was. But for years, he had dreamed of her every night. “She’s screaming, asking me for help,” he said. “Sometimes she is wrapped in a blanket. Sometimes it wakes me up.”

I came to Taytay that afternoon because I believed that the woman Jimena had found was a small thread in a much larger story. Somewhere between a pile of American legal documents and a two-paragraph story about Jimena’s discovery in a Philippine newspaper, I had noticed a hazy connection between the body and a man named Paul Le Roux, a South African who was reputed to be the most prolific international criminal of the 21st century. The scant information I could find on Le Roux suggested his involvement in weapons shipments, gold smuggling, and online prescription-drug sales. But he was also a kind of phantom, reportedly captured by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in 2012 and then disappeared to work as a valuable asset. My attempts to find out who Le Roux really was, and why the U.S. wanted so badly to keep him a secret, had led me from New York to Manila and then to this vacant lot, where I suspected that Le Roux’s ghostly influence had once been manifest.

The investigative division of the Taytay police is housed in a neglected cinder-block building on the side of a hill in the town’s historic district. I went there with a local Filipino-American journalist, Aurora Almendral, on the same day I met with Jimena. Almendral and I walked past a woman stapling Christmas decorations to the wall, through a pair of swinging doors, and into a cramped room with four officers’ desks. An air conditioner rattled in the window, and three detectives pecked away on ancient-looking computers.

Almendral, who had been helping me since I’d arrived in the country two days earlier, tried to rouse one of the detectives and explain, in Tagalog, why we were there. (The Philippines’ official languages are English and Filipino, which is a standardized form of Tagalog.) The chief of police had promised to show us where the body was found, but that morning he’d been called away by a kidnapping incident. The other cops, largely indifferent to our desires, had no idea when he would return. The original officer on the case, they said, had left the force and become a sailor.

While we waited, I stared at an oddly menacing police “Loyalty Pledge” that hung framed on the wall. “Remember that an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness,” it read.

If you must growl, condemn andeternally find faultWhy! resign your position.And when you are outside,Damn to your hearts content.But as long as your a part of the institution,Do not condemn it.If you do, the first high wind thatcomes along will blow you awayAnd probably you’ll never know why.

After some coaxing from Almendral, an officer named Abigail Del Monte agreed to pull the case file. She returned from a back room and proceeded to flip through it idly at her desk, as if trying to discern why I had flown 8,000 miles and then driven three hours in the Philippines’ punishing traffic to visit a four-year-old crime scene.

Twenty minutes later, another detective, George Arada, wearing jeans and a denim jacket, showed up and suddenly the mood shifted. “You’re here for the Catherine Lee case?” he said. “OK, let’s go.” We offered our slightly beat-up rented van and driver for transportation, and Del Monte decided to join as well. We picked up Maniego, the local watchman, and drove over to the vacant lot.

Maniego showed us how he’d marked off the area back in February 2012. “The body was moved a little bit by the guy who picked up the blanket,” he said, officially. “I didn’t find out anything about who she was, because my job was just the immediate response.”

We walked over to an older woman selling drinks at a roadside stand next to the lot; she said she remembered that day, too. “I saw the body,” she said, “but it was covered up, so we couldn’t see who it was. Three streets down, somebody had been missing for a couple of days, so we thought it could be them.” Later, word came back from the cops that the body belonged to a real estate agent from another part of the country. When I asked what happened to the neighbor, the drink-stand woman said that the family of the missing person had been renters, and not long after they’d moved on.

I walked around taking photos, looking for signs that Jimena’s horrible discovery had somehow transformed this otherwise ordinary place. A group of young kids stopped to watch us, and I wondered if the incident had become part of their childhood lore. Whatever mark the body had left, I couldn’t see it. We piled back into the van, and on the drive back to the station I asked Arada and Del Monte whether they often encountered dead bodies in Taytay, a city of just under 300,000 people. “Sometimes over five in a month, but not over ten,” Arada said cheerfully. “It’s kind of a well-known place to dump bodies. Don’t tell the chief!” He laughed. The cases were difficult to solve, he said. The bodies were often mutilated or “broken up and stuffed in garbage bags.”

I asked if I could look at the case file, and to my surprise Del Monte handed it to me. Photos taken at the crime scene showed the body, unwrapped, lying facedown with its feet in the road, a crowd standing at the edge of the cordon.

The facts were spare: a team from the national police’s Scene of Crime Operations division had arrived at 7:50 that morning to examine the woman, who’d been found wearing a black jacket and jeans. An autopsy report listed the cause of “instantaneous death”: gunshot wounds under each eye.

The investigators had little trouble identifying the victim as Catherine Cristina Lee, a real estate broker from Las Piñas City, an hour south. She was found with her identification, as well as a Nokia smartphone, an Anne Klein wristwatch, a silver bracelet, and a pair of rings, gold and silver. She had not been robbed; there was no sign of sexual assault.

Deeper in the file, I discovered that I wasn’t the first person to travel to the Philippines and ask questions about the body. On one page were handwritten notes from a February 2015 meeting with a special agent from the DEA’s Los Angeles office, along with a copy of his business card. A follow-up report stated that two Americans had been arrested in connection with Lee’s murder. One of the two, according to the notes, had confessed, claiming that a Filipino local had supplied the murder weapon and the vehicle used to dump the body. At the bottom of the page, someone had written: “Hunter ordered.”



A few days after Catherine Lee’s body was discovered, her husband contacted the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and requested that the agency look into her case. The ranks of local and national police in the Philippines are rife with corruption—“planting evidence is pretty much a regular occurrence,” the country’s former interior secretary Rafael Alunan told me—and the NBI has a better, though not perfect, reputation for integrity. The agency is required by law to take over cases at the request of victims’ families, and often those requests stem from concerns that local officers have been paid off, or worse. In targeted killings, as the Lee case appeared to be, it’s not unusual to hear whispers that cops themselves were in on the job. Contract murder is a thriving industry in the Philippines; having someone killed can cost as little as 5,000 pesos, or around $100. But police work pays poorly, and as much as 60 percent of the national police force lives below the poverty line. In 2013, Human Rights Watch documented police involvement in a death squad responsible for almost 300 killings over a six-year period in one city alone.

At NBI headquarters in Manila, the Death Investigation Division was housed in a drab, tiled-floor room with the insipid fluorescent lighting that marks bureaucracies worldwide. On the wall was a whiteboard outlining agents’ assignments, organized by nickname: “Cardinal,” “Undertaker,” “Mechanic,” “Hitman,” “Braveheart,” “Snakedoc,” “KGB.” Almendral and I went there one morning to see an agent named Rizaldy Rivera, a garrulous cop with a waist-length ponytail and a talent for sharpshooting. A natural showman, he urged us to check out his videos on YouTube. (Later I did; the clips—including one in which he cuts a credit card in half at 20 yards with a handgun, aiming over his shoulder using a compact mirror—are impressive.) Most people called him Zaldy, but his nickname around the NBI offices, he said, was Slayer, bestowed after he lucked into three shootouts early in his career, one of which left a bullet in his thigh.

It was Rivera who handled the Catherine Lee case after her husband had requested that the NBI take over the investigation. “I cannot provide the real names of the witnesses, or their addresses and photos, in order to protect them,” Rivera told us as Almendral and I sat in a pair of plastic lawn chairs in his cubicle, across a desk completely devoid of papers or equipment. Otherwise, he said, “I can probably answer any question that you want me to answer.”

He started at the beginning, talking above the sounds of an NBA basketball game from a television somewhere just out of sight. Over the course of an hour, Rivera laid out everything he knew about Catherine Lee’s murder. He spoke in the matter-of-fact style of a cop who had seen his share of vicious crimes. But at times, he sounded genuinely mystified that someone like Lee could end up a target.  

Catherine Lee in an undated photo. 

In early February 2012, Catherine Lee received an email from a Canadian man living in Manila named Bill Maxwell. Maxwell said that he and his colleague, Tony, were looking to invest in real estate. They had searched online for a broker and found Lee, a well-known agent whose territory ranged throughout the southern part of the Philippines’ main island, Luzon. A few years prior, she had served as president of her local chapter of the Real Estate Brokers of the Philippines. “She won several trophies and awards,” Rivera said. Lee, who was 43 but looked younger, with a pixie haircut and a welcoming smile, “had good friends and made a good living,” he said.

Lee worked from her home, an attractive house in an upscale community in Las Piñas. She and her husband had purchased it not long before, with the help of a particularly large commission she’d earned. Much of her business came to her over the Internet—enough, at least, that she would be unlikely to think twice about scheduling a meeting with a client by email. “She never bothered to check the background of these people,” Rivera said. “That was her undoing.”

Bill and Tony didn’t specify what type of property they were looking for, only that they wanted a place farther south than Las Piñas; it could be commercial or residential, a vacation property or a ready-to-build lot, as long as it was a solid investment. For two days, she drove them from property to property, but the men weren’t ready to commit. For their third outing, on the morning of February 12, Lee met Bill and Tony on the outdoor patio of a Starbucks in Las Piñas, not far from her home. They were joined by three other real estate brokers she’d enlisted to help with the search.

The Canadians arrived in a silver Toyota Innova van. Bill was around six-foot-one, with a beard and a prominent belly. Tony was clean-shaven and wore a baseball cap. The group drove to a gated community called Ponderosa, a former flower farm located 40 miles south of Manila, where they examined a lush lot available for residential development. For lunch they stopped at a nearby spot popular with the locals called Mushroomburger, where they were joined by two property owners Lee knew at around 3:30 p.m.

The group then traveled to another farm about eight miles away, in Cavite. They arrived at 4:30 and wandered around for an hour. When it was time to leave, the brokers and the property owners departed in one car; Lee joined Bill and Tony in the Innova van. Sometime in the next ten hours, Lee was shot four times in the head at close range, rolled up in a blanket, and deposited in a pile of garbage.


Rivera pieced together Lee’s movements from interviews with her husband and everyone she had encountered that day, as well as information found on her laptop and phone. From her friends and a security guard at the gated community, he gleaned enough of a description of the two men to generate a pair of sketches. But when it came to the actual identity of the assailants, he hit a wall. “It was very hard to check with the immigration bureau in the Philippines,” Rivera said. “Because Bill Maxwell and Tony, the names were fictitious.”

As for physical evidence, there was little to go on. The Toyota van had no plates, although the security guard was able to supply the number from the van’s temporary registration sticker, given to newly purchased vehicles. When Rivera tried to trace it back to a Toyota dealer in Manila, nothing matched. He concluded that the car was probably rented and the number faked. Without the van, there would be no fingerprints, hair, or fibers.

One aspect of the crime stood out to Rivera: Lee had been shot once under each eye, with what forensics had determined was a .22-caliber handgun. “In our experience,” he said, “if you shoot a person dead, you don’t normally use a low-caliber firearm.” Hit men in the Philippines, he said, typically used “Armalite weapons, hand grenades, or a .40-caliber pistol. This is one of the few times that I discovered that the caliber was a .22 Magnum.” To Rivera, the weapon said something about the crime, namely “that it might be a type of signature killing.” He believed that Lee’s death was not a crime of passion but a professional murder committed by someone looking to send a message. “That’s an arrogant way of killing, putting two bullet holes beneath the eye,” he said. “That’s not how you normally execute a person.”


During his investigation, Rivera came across the case of a female customs agent killed in a similar manner. That case stalled, however, when the victim’s family declined to cooperate with the authorities.

After a few months, Rivera’s case dried up, too. Other murders required his attention. But like Jimena, he was haunted by the brutality of Lee’s killing. “I couldn’t sleep soundly at night. I was thinking about that case,” he said. “But the fact is, I cannot just proceed without solid evidence.”

For three years the file languished, until April 2015, when Rivera got a call from the U.S. embassy. The DEA had some information regarding the Catherine Lee case, an embassy liaison said. Almost two years earlier—18 months after Lee was murdered—the DEA had arrested a former Army Ranger who had been working in private security overseas. That arrest had led them to Rivera.


In July 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, covering Manhattan, filed a sealed indictment charging Joseph Hunter, a 48-year-old decorated former U.S. soldier, with conspiracy to murder a law-enforcement agent. More specifically, Hunter stood accused of forming a team of international assassins to take out a snitch and a DEA agent on behalf of a Colombian drug cartel. On September 25, Hunter was captured in a raid on a safe house in Phuket, Thailand, and extradited to the U.S. Two members of his alleged assassination squad, for which he’d accepted résumés over the Internet, were picked up simultaneously in Liberia as they prepared to carry out the hit. The fourth and fifth were caught in Estonia on charges of arranging a drug deal. When I read the unsealed indictment a few days later, the whole thing sounded as if it were concocted by a dramatist with a flair for international intrigue.

The federal indictment of Joseph Hunter. 

In a way it was. The DEA’s entire operation was a version of what’s called a reverse sting—or, in more common terms, a setup. The “Colombian drug lords” were paid informants playing well-rehearsed roles. The snitch and the DEA agent didn’t exist. The “safe house” had been wired for sound and video. For months the DEA had been stringing Hunter and his team along, arranging small gigs like guarding drug shipments in the Caribbean before springing their trap.

When the Department of Justice announced Hunter’s arrest, a wave of media coverage followed—not least because Hunter’s nickname in the field had been Rambo. After the headlines died down, the case embarked on the long slog toward trial. Federal cases often take years to wind their way to a jury, and very few ever make it there. Ninety-five percent end in a guilty plea, because even the best defense lawyers rarely have the wherewithal to face the power of a federal prosecution—particularly one with the kinds of resources that had been brought to bear on the Joseph Hunter case.

On December 21 2014, however, a reporter at The New York Times named Alan Feuer broke a strange new detail in the case. Hunter, he reported, had been working for a mysterious cartel boss named Paul Le Roux, who had once commanded a criminal empire of incredible power and scope. Le Roux had been arrested in 2012, Feuer revealed, and was now working for the U.S. government as a closely held confidential informant. By December 30, the Daily Mail had declared Le Roux “the most successful criminal mastermind you’ve never heard of.

This second wave of press coverage preceded a pivotal motion in the case, filed by Hunter’s lawyer in Manhattan. It argued that the indictment against Hunter should be dismissed because the sting operation had been initiated by Hunter’s former boss, referred to by the government only as a confidential witness, or CW-1. Hunter had participated in his alleged crimes, the motion asserted, because he believed that his boss would kill him if he did not. The U.S. government’s use of a criminal as vicious as CW-1, the filing asserted, “shocks the conscience.”

Anyone paying attention now knew that CW-1 was Paul Le Roux. His name, however, remained redacted in every court filing. Any case files that might exist detailing Le Roux’s own arrest were sealed.

Then, four weeks later, Hunter suddenly pleaded guilty. There would be no defense that he had acted out of fear of Le Roux, no unmasking of his boss in court. Indeed, there would be no trial at all. Over the course of 2015, all of Hunter’s codefendants pleaded guilty, along with five defendants in a related methamphetamine-smuggling case. Their files were sealed and shelved, the guilty parties dispatched to federal prison or awaiting their sentence.

I’d been following the case largely through court documents. In the spring of 2015, as the trail on Le Roux went cold, I decided to reread everything that had been filed, thousands of pages across more than a dozen cases. Despite the secrecy surrounding Le Roux, it turned out that a great deal of information had been lodged in those documents. There were, for instance, scattered transcripts of recordings taken of Hunter and his team—two former German soldiers, a Polish ex–military sniper, and a fellow former American serviceman—from microphones hidden in the safe house in Phuket. On those recordings, Hunter can be heard preparing his team members to carry out jobs for the supposed Colombians. Hunter refers to killings-for-hire as “bonus work.” (In the transcripts that follow, the abbreviation “U/I” stands for “unintelligible.”)

Hunter: There’s a uhm… there’s a bonus for you [U/I] assassination so if you’re interested in that, you can do it. If you’re not interested and you don’t want to do it, but there’s big bonus money. I don’t, I don’t know [U/I] I say big, but it’s like for [U/I] it’s twenty five thousand and if it, if it’s [U/I] depending on the threat level, the price goes up.

Male 3: Good.

Hunter: So you guys have a problem with that?

Male 3: No.

Hunter: So there’s plenty of bonus for us. So you guys are in?

Male 1: Uhm-hum.

Hunter refers to his boss as “Benny,” or sometimes just “the boss,” and says that he pays up to $25,000 “for the bonus rate.” Hunter boasts about the kind of bonus work he’s done in the past or paid others to do—crimes that, as I read through the filings, didn’t appear to be part of his prosecution by U.S. authorities. “That one year, we killed nine people,” he says at one point, adding: “We only hurt bad people. Right? Everybody that stole money, or conned the boss or whatever.… These are all wrong people so you don’t have to worry about hurting innocent people.”

Even from Hunter’s casual bragging, I was astonished by the scope of the criminal activities his boss seemed to have enlisted him for.

Hunter: When we did it, we did it all. We, we hand grenaded, threw it, hand grenaded the people’s houses. We ah… not kidnapped a guy, but we conned him to come with us. We put him in the ocean, shot at him; he gave us the money back ah… assassinated people. Ah, what else we did? We smuggled gold. We smuggled weapons. Ah… We took weapons from Jakarta to the Philippines on the ship.

One time I went to Sri, Sri Lanka to buy hand grenades. We have guys in Somalia buying weapons that are making an arm… they were. They was making a army in Somalia because we were gonna invade an island; Maldives just… You can’t make it up.

Male 3: Yeah.

Hunter: Not even in a movie. This is real stuff. You see James Bond in the movie and you’re saying, “Oh, I can do that.” Well, you’re gonna do it now. Everything you see, or you’ve thought about you’re gonna do. It’s, it’s real and it’s up to you. You know how the government says if you work through the government [U/I] we don’t know you. Same thing with this job. No different right? So, that’s how it is. Same thing you do in the military except you’re doing for these guys you know? If you get caught in war, you get killed, right? Unless you surrender if they let you surrender or if you get you know, the same thing. This is… Everything’s just like you’re in war [U/I] now.

Paul Le Roux, photographed at a Brazilian airport. 

Here was an American ex-soldier, assisted by other Americans, acting as part of a rogue military-spy operation on behalf of an international criminal figure who, prior to December 2014, the public had never heard of. “El Chapo” Guzman, head of the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, was by this time a famous figure worldwide. The notorious Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, arrested in a sting in Thailand and convicted in 2011, had been the subject of magazine articles, and a Nicolas Cage movie was based loosely on his exploits. But judging from the brief flurry of stories about Le Roux and the fragmented contents of the case files, he seemed to have a criminal appetite more voracious than either of them. In one Times article, a DEA agent called Le Roux “Viktor Bout on steroids.”

A surveillance photo of Le Roux, taken in an airport in Rio de Janeiro, surfaced from a Brazilian newspaper; it was purportedly the only image of him ever published. It’s a grainy shot of a doughy white man in a royal blue polo, with what appears to be tousled bleach-blond or silver hair and a darker, trim beard. He wears a slightly amused expression and, with the photo blown up, almost looks as if he’s winking at someone.

The thing that eventually led me to the Philippines was practically a footnote in the federal indictment against Hunter. Based on the recordings, prosecutors believed that Hunter “had in fact previously committed acts of violence for pay—including, among other things, arranging for the murders of two female real estate agents.” An afterthought to the case itself, the detail had lodged in my brain when I first read it back in 2013, and I kept returning to it. Why had international assassins for hire, working for a man with a worldwide criminal network taken the time to murder two real estate agents?

One of the murders, it turned out, was easy enough to understand. In the transcripts, Hunter described hiring a pair of hit men to kill a customs broker who’d failed to make good after accepting a bribe. “I guess that they had some kind of business with [the boss],” Hunter says in one transcript. “They get stuff through Customs right? They paid her and she didn’t do it.” After putting her under surveillance at home, unnamed assassins hired by Hunter discovered that the broker also worked as a real estate agent. They asked her to show them some rental properties, Hunter recounts, selected the best one at which to leave a body, and then asked to see it a second time. “They didn’t even go inside. They shot her at the door. Left her there, but it was raining that day so … there was no people out,” Hunter says. “They did it perfect no problems.”

Hunter then goes on to describe the killing of the second real estate agent, one that, by his standards, didn’t go as smoothly.

Hunter: I had two guys, two other guys that wanted bonus work. They did the job, but they did it sloppy. I fired them. I sent them back home.


In mid-summer of 2015, three DEA agents met with Agent Rivera at the Death Investigations Division. “How can I help you guys?” Rivera told me he’d asked them. Rivera walked them through what he’d learned about the case, using a PowerPoint presentation to recap the investigation’s key points. When he finished, Rivera asked them jokingly, “From one to ten, how would you rate my investigation?” Everyone laughed. He asked them why they were looking at the Lee incident. “For the U.S. government to be interested in the death of Catherine Lee, it means something,” he said. “The Drug Enforcement Administration of the U.S. is a powerful organization. It handles global drug issues. So, in my mind, I can surmise that the death of Catherine Lee might have been connected to a drug cartel.”

When I visited him later that year, Rivera pulled out an iPad clad in a red case and tapped open the presentation. “Probably I can show you this, but not all,” he said, emphasizing that the witnesses would be in extreme danger if their identities were made public.

The DEA agents confirmed that Rivera’s hunch had been right: Bill Maxwell and Tony weren’t the men’s real names. They were not Canadian, nor did they live in the Philippines. The DEA related to him their suspicion that they were two Americans, 41-year-old Adam Samia and 47-year-old Carl David Stillwell, who lived in the small town of Roxboro, North Carolina.

The DEA agents had arrived in Manila with evidence from Hunter’s email and the recordings taken at the safe house in Thailand. Hunter, it seemed, had used his network of defense-contractor contacts as a mercenary-recruitment service on behalf of his boss. Sometime in 2011, the U.S. was prepared to allege, he had pegged Samia and Stillwell as potential hires for bonus work. “Boss says you are on standby until the other guy is ready and you guys will come here together for Ninja stuff,” Hunter wrote Samia in the fall of that year, according to the prosecution’s filings. “We want you guys, but are just waiting until you and your partner can get on the same time table.”

By early December, Hunter reported back to the boss via email that the travel dates were set for January. “Adam will be leaving on the 8th and will be here on the 9th and the other guy will leave on the 10th and be here on the 11th. The WU”—Western Union, according to court filings—“of $1,625 goes to Adam Samia Roxboro, North Carolina USA.”

The plan was for the pair—whom Hunter referred to as “Sal” and “J.T.”—to fly to Manila, take taxis to a predetermined location, and get settled. The instructions were almost absurdly detailed, given the trip’s ultimate goal. “The taxi should cost like 220p with the tip,” Samia passed along to Stillwell on January 9. A few weeks later, Samia emailed Hunter an update, mixed with a chipper plea for additional cash:

Hey Bro we are going to need some OP funds ($3000.00) we both are just about broke we have spent all are money on finding a place to live, the car, phone load, food, taxi’s looking for a place to live, internet, stuff for here an more. I got them to throw a bed an ac so the boss does not have to buy them trying to save were I can!

Hunter, meanwhile, was requesting the necessary weapons for the job from the boss: “1 MP5 SD,” a semiautomatic rifle, along with “1 Rifle Silenced with optics” and “1 .22 or 380 Pistol Silenced.” Hunter set his charges up with more money, along with the weapons and a laptop bag “modified to hold the tool for concealment.”

By February 2, the DEA believed, Samia and Stillwell had begun tracking their target, following her car and staking out her home from a hardware store across the street. “She goes home there,” Samia allegedly reported to Stillwell, “but [is] always out of the house.” At some point not long after, they finally made contact with her and started looking at properties. Hunter, as he would describe it later in taped conversations, had given them detailed instructions on how to proceed with the hit: Get her into a car, drive a quarter-mile down the road, shoot her with a silenced handgun, and wrap her in a blanket.

“What these guys did, they didn’t listen to me,” Hunter says in one recorded conversation. “They went to all these different houses with her, where there was people living in the houses. So every house they went to, people saw them together. They saw their faces. They saw the real estate agent. So they went… They did this for like three different days. So like one hundred people saw them.”

One hundred may have been an exaggeration, but Hunter was right that enough witnesses had seen two men with Lee that Rivera could generate sketches of them.

Hunter: So I got them on the plane. They were Americans so I got them back to America and then ah, I, I never… I didn’t give them anymore work because they put everyone in danger. I told them “You know how they would get caught? If the police and the Philippines was smart and not lazy, all they had to do was take the witnesses to the airport and look at each picture [U/I] of the foreigners and, and then that’s “Oh, that’s the guy!” Then they have his… they have his passport, his photo, right, but the police in the Philippines aren’t smart and they don’t… they’re lazy. They don’t do nothing. So those guys were lucky.… You got to use your brain in this job.

According to the DEA, on February 14 Samia and Stillwell emailed their expenses to Hunter. On the 27th, Samia let him know that “JT is rolling state side the 29th of FEB, I am heading out the 6th of March, I will drop [off] the car the 5th.” They wired their payments home and caught flights back to the U.S.


Rivera introduced his DEA visitors to the witnesses he had interviewed about Lee’s last days. The agents showed them photos of the two Americans, Rivera told me, “mingled with seven or eight different photos of seven or eight different individuals, to check if the witnesses recognized or could identify the picture.” Five witnesses picked out the same men, Rivera recalled, saying, “‘Yes, this is the guy who rode with us.’ ‘This is the guy who rode with Catherine Lee.’ ‘This is the other guy who was with Catherine Lee the day she was last seen alive.’” Rivera said that after those sessions, one of the DEA agents faxed a report back to the States. The next day, Samia and Stillwell were arrested in Roxboro.

Carl David Stillwell (Courtesy of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office)
Adam Samia (Photo: Orange County Sheriff’s Office)

Local media reports described the pair as well-liked local guys who ran a small gun-paraphernalia company together.They traveled to gun shows to market accessories of their own invention, including a bra that doubled as a holster, called a Bosom Buddy. Agents seized over 150 weapons from Stillwell’s home. But aside from a few pictures on Samia’s Facebook page showing him brandishing and firing a variety of weapons—the kind of gun love that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in most rural communities in America—they did not otherwise give off the impression of being international assassins. “Just knowing that these people have been in our community,” a neighbor told reporters, “I never would have guessed it.” The day after their arrest, the pair were transferred to New York to be prosecuted alongside Joseph Hunter. Both have pleaded not guilty to murder-for-hire, among other charges.

For his part, Rivera seemed pleased with the arrests, but he also expressed frustration about his own continuing investigation. The agents had told him about the Filipino who allegedly supplied the weapon and vehicle, but he still didn’t have enough information to track them down. He pointed out to me that the NBI hadn’t gotten any credit for the arrests of Samia and Stillwell, while at the same time suggesting that such credit was unnecessary. “We were not included. We were happy about that, it’s no problem with us. We have nothing to gain with being famous.”

It did seem odd to me, sitting in a cubicle at the Death Investigations Division, that the U.S. government would put this much effort into prosecuting two Americans for a murder of a Filipino woman outside Manila. Why not just extradite the pair to the Philippines, where the crime occurred, and hand them off to the NBI? Perhaps it was related to something more fundamental about the case that I still didn’t understand: Why was Catherine Lee important enough to fly two men across the world and pay them $70,000 to kill her?

It was because of “the Mastermind,” Rivera told me. “He is in U.S. custody.” Rivera would only identify this Mastermind at first by alluding to his role as the head of a powerful crime syndicate. But he did tell me the motive behind the murder. Rivera said that the Mastermind had enlisted Catherine Lee to purchase vacation property in Batangas, a coastal region south of Manila. He had given her money, at least 50 million pesos, or almost $3 million. “But the deal never materialized,” Rivera said, “because the person who Catherine Lee instructed to do the verification of the land, to arrange the deeds and everything, went off with the money.”

That person, some kind of fixer Lee worked with, had also been killed, Rivera believed. “The body was never found,” he said.

And then the Mastermind had ordered Lee’s murder, too.

A previously unpublished photograph of Paul Le Roux.

I asked him if he would tell me the name of the Mastermind, and at first he demurred. He did have a name, he said, but he didn’t want to say it. “Maybe it’s an alias.”

“If I tell you the name that I think it is, will you tell me if that’s the person?”

“I will confirm,” he said.

“Paul Le Roux.”

Rivera slammed his fist down on the table, then held my gaze for several seconds in silence. “Hey, they did not inform me that,” he finally said with a smile that was hard to read. The DEA, he said, would “neither confirm nor deny it.” Then he lowered his voice to a whisper. “This Paul Le Roux,” he said, “is a very badass guy.” He widened his eyes. “A bad guy,” he said again. “That’s it.”

Update: On March 6, prosecutors released a bombshell motion in the case, claiming that Carl David Stillwell retained cell-phone photos dated the day of Catherine Lee’s murder—photos that “appear to depict, among other things, a white van similar to the one in which (according to witness accounts) Lee was murdered and a wounded human head.”

Read the next installment in “The Mastermind.

Satchel Paige and the Championship for the Reelection of the General


How the best baseball pitcher in the American Negro leagues came to play for the cruelest dictator in the Caribbean.

By Jonathan Blitzer

The Atavist Magazine, No. 57

Jonathan Blitzer has written for the Oxford AmericanThe New Yorker, and The New York Times, among others.

Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Thomas Thiel
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checkers: Juanita Ceballos and Jika Gonzalez
Illustrator: Kelsey Dake
Photographer: Tatiana Fernández Geara

Published in February 2016. Design updated in 2021.


On a warm April day in 1937, Satchel Paige sat in his room at a boarding house in New Orleans, listening to voices drift up from the lobby. Word around the establishment was that some guys with foreign accents and Panama hats were looking to talk to him. Paige had asked around, but no one knew who they were. He was used to being pursued. He was the most famous black baseball player in the country and the ace pitcher for one of the best teams in the Negro leagues, the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

The season opener was scheduled for April 25, and Paige had arrived alone, in his Green Packard convertible, without his teammates or his coaches knowing whether he was going to show up at all. He liked making people wait. He did it to batters, who suffered through his famed hesitation delivery; to his wife, Janet, who finally issued an ultimatum after three years of dilatory courtship; and to his fellow Crawfords, who struggled to stay loose midgame while he sauntered out to the stands to smoke and spar with the fans. They all put up with his antics because he was the best there was, and he knew it.

Satchel Paige

By the spring of 1937, he had earned hundreds of wins and multiple no-hitters. He dominated the black circuit during the spring and summer, lending out his services to white semipro teams for pocket money along the way. In the off-season, he barnstormed across the country and played winter ball in California, where he pitched against big leaguers like Jimmie Foxx and Dizzy Dean, who came away saying he was the toughest pitcher they’d ever seen. He was every bit the showman that he was the ballplayer. As a youngster in his home state of Alabama, he’d once called in his outfielders to sit in a half-circle around the mound, with runners on base and two away. He wanted to get the final out of the inning on the strength of his arm alone. When he struck out the batter on three straight pitches, his gambit instantly took on the cast of legend. “If you can do it, it ain’t bragging,” Paige used to say—he even bragged about bragging.

Paige rented a room at a battered boarding house with a pointy, shingled roof on Dryades Street, in downtown New Orleans. It was one of only a handful of places in the city that accepted black lodgers. Paige had been ducking in and out since he got there, rushing to the team’s practices and exhibition games in preparation for opening day against the Crawfords’ crosstown rivals back in Pittsburgh, the Homestead Grays. It would be the start of a season-long “diamond war,” as one newspaper wrote, and New Orleans was chosen as neutral turf for the showdown.

Unlike the white Major Leagues, with top-dollar salaries and the media’s undivided attention, the Negro leagues consisted of one improvisation after another; operations were underfunded and undersubscribed. Getting fans to turn out depended more on spectacle than on the quality of the play itself. Gus Greenlee, the owner of the Crawfords, profited from a healthy rivalry between the two teams. In addition to Paige, he was peddling a novelty act: a right-handed catcher who reclined in a multicolored rocking chair behind home plate. Greenlee was sure that his team’s new catcher would “start throwing and rocking his way to fame,” he said, adding, “He’s liable to be as big an attraction as Satchel before the season’s gone.”

Soon after Paige got to town, his teammates told him about the men who had been lurking by the fields and asking about him. Paige began to notice them in the bleachers, flitting forms in the distance that would mass when he took the field and then scatter when he walked off. Wherever he drove, he felt that he was being followed. Paige figured he knew what it was all about: another offer, possibly to play somewhere south of the border like Puerto Rico or Cuba. “The pay was always good down there,” he would later recall in his memoir. “Down there, nobody was locking their doors to Ol’ Satch.” Whoever these guys were, though, he would have to avoid them. He didn’t want to be tempted away by their offers. Janet was pressuring him to stay put after he had traveled to Puerto Rico without her, canceling their vacation so he could pick up an extra paycheck, and she was still upset with him.

Now, from up in his room, Paige could make out the sounds of Rs rolling and vowels flattening out, like he remembered from the Caribbean. He thought he heard his name and bolted upright. Dressed in his usual attire, a flashy suit and fedora, Paige grabbed his car keys and scrambled down the stairs to the alley where his car was parked. The rooming house shared a driveway with a shoe-shine parlor called Globe Trotters. Sun glinted off its sign and into Paige’s eyes as he wheeled out. He’d almost made it to the street when, suddenly, there was a screeching of tires and a black limousine slammed into view, blocking his way. A door opened and out stepped a short man, with brown eyes and black hair oiled back to accentuate a mild widow’s peak; he was fair skinned and wore a cream-colored linen suit.

“I’m Dr. José Enrique Aybar,” he said as Paige cautiously got out of his car. “I direct the baseball team in Ciudad Trujillo.” The men in Panama hats, it turned out, were from the Dominican Republic.

“I’d heard of sick clubs and ballplayers that looked pretty sick,” Paige later remembered, “but I never knew there was one so sick it needed a doctor to manage it.” He fixed his gaze on Aybar. “What can I do for you, Doc?”

“President Trujillo has instructed me to obtain the best pitcher possible for his team, and our scouts recommend you,” Aybar said.

“I’m glad your scouts like me, but I figure I’ll just stay with Gus Greenlee.”

“We are very interested in winning,” Aybar said. “We will give you thirty thousand American dollars for you and eight teammates, and you may take what you feel is your share and divide the rest.”

Paige was stunned. “Do I get to see the money?”

In the pantheon of American baseball, Satchel Paige has always occupied a special place. He was one of the game’s all-time greats and also one of its most shameless and storied self-promoters. A whole mythology surrounds him and his exploits; he talked almost as fast as he pitched. In photos his mischievous smile made him seem invincible. A few years ago I learned, by chance, that he had played for one of the most infamous Latin American dictators who ever lived. It struck me as the kind of story only Paige himself could concoct, a tale so gaudy as to seem camouflaged in the annals of sports. I decided to investigate what happened when these two outsize individuals collided.

I began with Paige’s famously self-aggrandizing memoir, Maybe Ill Pitch Forever, in which he breezily recounts his first meeting with Aybar. There’s an insouciance to the anecdote that is vintage Paige. But while he portrayed his Dominican suitor as straight-laced and blandly solicitous, Aybar was the emissary of one of the most violent and dangerous men of his day. Paige didn’t know that at first. (In his defense, neither did the U.S. government.) Some accounts of their meeting have Aybar wielding a pistol to drive home his offer, although Paige was apparently unimpressed. Perhaps so far from the Dominican capital, where he held tremendous power, Aybar did not seem threatening.

In his later years, Paige talked openly about his anxious impressions of General Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the country from 1930 to 1961, but by then the story had already been buffed to a high sheen. I always wondered if it wasn’t meant to be blinding. Paige liked to tell tales—zany and quippy and heaped high with bravado. But a plaintiveness shone through. I was lured to the legend of Paige’s greatness by his own storytelling, only to find a fissure in the monument he’d built to himself.

Paige was all but synonymous with black baseball, and yet it often seemed that his towering celebrity in the Negro leagues hardly registered in the vehemently segregated world beyond. The feeling dogged him from his early days but seemed to gain force in the 1930s, when he was maturing as a player. One day, while playing winter ball in California, he was contacted by scouts from the Yankees, who wanted to test a young prospect named Joe DiMaggio by trying him out against Paige’s pitching. DiMaggio joined a team of pro players culled from some of the best Major League rosters, while Paige’s teammates consisted entirely of high schoolers and amateurs. Paige struck out 14 batters on the day and knocked in his team’s only run, single-handedly carrying the squad into the tenth inning, but the game was remembered for a fluky infield hit he surrendered to DiMaggio with two outs and a runner on third. The scouts cabled back to New York to relay DiMaggio’s definitive new credential—“Hit Satch One for Four”—launching his pro career. “I got more notice for losing that game than I did winning most of my other games,” Paige said afterward.

While the Yankees were signing DiMaggio, Paige slunk off to continue barnstorming, which brought its own problems. Being black meant something different every place he went. In Bismarck, North Dakota, he played alongside white teammates—something that would have been unfathomable in the South. He was the toast of the town for his dominance on the mound in the Midwest, and yet he and his wife had to live in a semi-furnished railway car on the outskirts of town. “Having to live like that ate at me,” he said after he got back to Pittsburgh. “The blood gets angry.” By the mid-1930s, white baseball stars were starting to publicly question the league’s policy on segregation, but nothing came of it: Pro owners either wouldn’t take the risk of being the first to sign a black player or simply couldn’t fathom eliminating the racial barrier.

When Paige accepted Aybar’s offer, a young journalist named Ollie Stewart, writing for the Baltimore Afro-American, saw Paige’s defection as more than a mere dollar proposition. “While some newspapers and sports writers were hammering away (verbally) to open the gates of white baseball leagues to colored players, Satchel Paige and a few other guys got tired of waiting for the miracle to happen and quietly shipped off to Santo Domingo to cash in on their talent,” he wrote at the time. South of the border, Stewart said, “the color of your bills seems all that counts.”

If you’d asked Paige why he did it, he probably would have winked and told you about the money-filled briefcase Aybar brought back, as promised, after their chat in the alleyway. But there was something else he was questing after, something harder to pin down. He was willing to trade a city he knew for one he didn’t, to give up his bankable celebrity in the States for a chance at a different life, and to cash in on his reputation by cozying up to the strangest allies he could find. In the process, he very nearly brought an end to the Negro leagues for good. What’s stunning even now is Paige’s willingness to risk so much. At 30, married and in his sporting prime, he decided to leave behind the world that made him.


The precariousness of black baseball gave rise to a paradox: The league was made and run by strongmen and swashbucklers who projected power in spite of their unequal status. Perhaps the lone figure in the game who could rival Satchel Paige for brashness and bravado was Gus Greenlee. Like Paige, he was over six feet tall and commanding, but where Paige was wiry, with a winsome nonchalance, Greenlee was thickset and imposing, 200 pounds and fleshy faced. He had come up hard, from the South, and clawed his way north toward prominence. Greenlee dropped out of college, abandoning his family to come to Pittsburgh, where he began driving a cab and selling bootlegged whiskey, earning the nickname Gasoline Gus.

By the time Paige met him, Greenlee was a power broker of black Pittsburgh. The Caliph of Little Harlem, they called him. He was a veteran of the First World War, an impresario, and a business owner, all self-made. He owned the Workingmen’s Pool Hall, the Sunset Café, and Crawford’s Grill, which took up nearly a whole city block and played host to the city’s black elite. But running numbers was his lifeblood. He pulled in $25,000 on a good day, which allowed him to finance the one thing that gave him his special sense of purpose: his ball club. He bought the team in 1930, then recruited top-flight talent to build the premier outfit in the game: Satchel Paige; a clean-up-hitting catcher by the name of Josh Gibson; and a center fielder, James “Cool Papa” Bell, who was said to be so fast that he could switch off the lights and be in bed before the room got dark. The league’s scattershot quality made Greenlee an instant titan. He wasn’t just a club owner; he was the president of the league, having revived it after a string of bankruptcies.

Perhaps the lone figure in the game who could rival Satchel Paige for brashness and bravado was Gus Greenlee. 

But by the spring of 1937, Gus Greenlee was in a bind. One of his employees was snitching. The cops kept busting up his numbers rackets, and it was bleeding him dry. Much to their annoyance, he’d already told Paige and his teammates that they’d have to go to New Orleans on their own dime. He’d pay them for their opening games, but they were in charge of their own accommodations and travel until then. Greenlee’s troubled finances exacerbated a long-standing worry that Paige would spring from his grasp and even take some of his teammates with him.

In March, Greenlee traveled to New York for a weekend meeting with other club owners and league officials. They packed into a small office at the Tammany Democratic Club on Seventh Avenue to hash out details of the coming season. One thing they could agree on was a need for stronger contracts, since all of them were concerned about losing their top players. Team owners were always cutting deals to lure players away with better salaries or bonuses; it was known as contract jumping. Greenlee was the worst offender, but even he was growing battle weary. All the teams were hurting as the Depression dragged on. Ticket sales had slumped by the end of the previous season, and practically every club was in the red.

The meeting was civil. No more breaking contracts, the owners decided. What was true for the players had to be true for the owners, too. “No infringement of territory rights,” Greenlee declared. The league commissioner, Ferdinand Q. Morton, nodded vigorously. “That’s right, no nosing in,” added Cum Posey, the debonair owner of the Homestead Grays. He glared at Greenlee as he said it. Greenlee had been pilfering some of Posey’s best guys, then trading them back at a profit. The latest was Josh Gibson, whom Greenlee sold back to Posey for $2,500 while they were all still seated around the table.

As opening day approached, Greenlee was cautiously optimistic that the new contract agreements meant he could stop worrying about Paige. By 1937, Greenlee had already banned Paige from the Negro leagues once before for breaking his contract and accepting more money from other teams, but, desperate for Paige’s star power, he’d taken him back.


Dr. José Enrique Aybar

Aybar was an unctuous negotiator. He trotted out a parade of luxuries to ensure that Paige appreciated the significance of being summoned by a head of state. “I never seen a man with such power,” Paige remembered. He was describing Aybar but thinking of Trujillo. “He flies us down to Ciudad Trujillo on a big plane, and we ain’t put out no place to let other passengers on. No, sir. We got right of way. And what’s more, we don’t even have passports.” Janet Paige would follow several days later—Aybar was paying for her trip, too. Paige’s personal catcher, a bruiser named Bill Perkins, was also along for the ride. All they knew was that they were playing for Trujillo.

Each year, the Dominican Republic celebrated a baseball tournament that divided the country into four regional rivals. Clustered around Santiago, in the north, were supporters of the Eagles of the Cibão region; in the east, fanning out around the port city of San Pedro de Macoris, were those faithful to the Estrellas de Oriente, whose mascot was a giant elephant; Santo Domingo, the capital city, which had been recently renamed Ciudad Trujillo, was cleaved in two by those loyal to the Escogido Lions and the Licey Tigers. Stars from across Latin America flocked to the Dominican Republic to play, and the nation happily succumbed to baseball fever.

In February 1937, a council of businessmen convened in the capital to plan the year’s tournament, and the proceedings took on an air of solemnity and anticipation. Trujillo had recently announced presidential elections for the following year; he enjoyed the formality of the vote, all the better for his personal pageantry. The tournament, as one of the signal events on the national calendar, would need to reflect his supremacy. The council decided on a fitting title: “The Championship for the Reelection of Rafael Trujillo.”

Soon after, the owners of the Tigers and the Lions—long-standing cross-town rivals just like Greenlee’s Crawfords and Posey’s Grays—combined forces to represent the city. If Santiago and San Pedro de Macoris could summon fearsome and gigantic beasts to represent their clubs, Ciudad Trujillo’s image was bigger still: The club was called the Dragons, and Aybar himself signed on as its vice president. Winning the tournament was an obsession for Aybar—a gift he wanted, and felt he needed, to deliver Trujillo himself.

Aybar was a rabidly loyal supporter of Trujillo precisely because he’d once been a traitor to the cause. He was a dentist by training but also something of a kingmaker—a member of the reigning political party and a frequent speaker at its meetings. When Trujillo first came to power, after a coup he’d orchestrated in February 1930, Aybar had been one of his most vocal naysayers. The son of a poor postal clerk who had a reputation for cattle rustling, Trujillo was an uneducated tough; as a teenager he enrolled in the country’s national guard, which had been set up and run by U.S. marines in the early 1920s, when the Americans occupied the country. Quietly but tenaciously, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming head of police. Trujillo wasted no time in consolidating his power, and he gave the national police a new name: the Dominican Army. But even as Trujillo grew in stature, Aybar doubted his staying power. Trujillo called for an election in May 1930 to shore up his legitimacy. A month before the vote, Aybar gave a speech in which he said that Trujillo was like “the product of an abortion; he had no viability at all.”

If uttering those words had felt, for a moment, like an act of grandiloquent heroism, it had promptly become a liability. Rumors that Trujillo was systematically eliminating his rivals spread in the run-up to the vote. The military stormed meetings of political opponents, jailing and killing critics. Politicians outside Trujillo’s orbit fled the country, while judges tasked with overseeing the vote abandoned their posts and sought asylum at the American embassy. Gangs loyal to Trujillo rode the streets of the city in dark, unmarked cars, wreaking havoc.

By August, with the city shaken and smoldering, Trujillo had won the election with more votes than there were eligible voters. From that moment on, Aybar labored hard to make his loyalties clear. Before long, the local press started calling him the Dominican Doctor Goebbels. He hounded Trujillo’s critics and devised elaborate schemes to eliminate anyone who could damage the dictator’s popularity. By 1937, he was a member of Trujillo’s inner circle, even creating a special security detail for the leader, drawn from students at the university where he was dean of the dental school.

The streets were full of soldiers, armed and draped in military fatigues, when Paige arrived, on April 18. He touched down 50 miles east of the capital in a Pan-American hydroplane with a twin tail and four propellers mounted on each wing. As it skipped across the Higuamo River, people ran to the bank to wave it in. A group of men from Aybar’s club greeted Paige as he climbed out, enthusiastically shaking his hand before piling together into a car.

I can only imagine what Paige must have been thinking on that drive. The trip was more than an hour long, so there would have been plenty of time for him to reflect on his situation. But Aybar mostly kept him in the dark. Paige must have known a little Spanish from stints playing in Latin America, but not enough to ask his hosts hard questions. “If that man don’t like you, you wake up and you’re movin’,” he later wrote of Trujillo. “And from what I seen it don’t take much for him not to like you.” Trujillo’s sway was unmistakable, even in the jumble and fog of his arrival. It was waiting for Paige like an announcement on the facade of the hotel where he was staying: Hotel Presidente, a three-story structure with a rooftop garden overlooking a park in the center of town.

Last summer I visited the National Archives, in Santo Domingo, to root through old newspapers and steal a glance into Paige’s life in the capital. There were two main dailies back then, El Listín Diario, which came out in the morning, and La Opinión, which was sold around lunchtime. There may not have been an explicit policy of censorship at the time, but the papers were visibly constrained just the same, the style cramped and canny. Both trafficked in the mainstream news of the day: headlines about the Spanish Civil War raging in Europe, obligatory panegyrics to Trujillo, and society pages with wedding announcements and photos of tiara-wearing doyennes. Tucked in the middle of each broadsheet was the sports section. The columns teeter and veer, the tiny type packed densely around scant photos. The sports pages of La Opinión were looser and more playful, and they brimmed with commentary and humor pieces. Journalists were savoring the drama well before Paige arrived in the capital.

When the council overseeing the tournament first met, its members made a fateful decision: No limits would be placed on the number of players each team could import from abroad. This immediately set off an arms race. In each city, influential businessmen and political figures rushed to recruit the best talent. Dominican players alone weren’t enough to assure victory; the teams looked mainly to Cuba, Latin America’s baseball capital, to secure the most competitive rosters. “We would have imported white American league players,” Aybar told the press, but “the salaries paid them by the big league magnates made it impossible for us to do better.” Not so for black American players.

From the start of the tournament in March, the competition was stiff. The Estrellas de Oriente, the champions from the 1936 tournament, already boasted the country’s greatest star, the fleet-footed center fielder Tetelo Vargas, who was joined by an array of decorated Cuban moundsmen. Santiago was reportedly paying the highest sum in the history of Latin baseball—about $1,000 a month—for the Cuban legend Martín Dihigo, a player so complete and dominant he was known as El Hombre Team, because he played every position on the diamond, and often hit third in the batting order, the spot reserved for the deadliest hitter in the lineup. The Dragons, meanwhile, had assembled a squad that consisted of a smattering of Dominicans and Cubans, a costly lot whose combined star wattage was dim. 

There was a certain irony to these recruiting sprees, given Trujillo’s fanatical patriotism. His rhetorical platform had trumpeted the dignity of the nation above all else. Yet, in the baseball tournament meant to serve as the principal advertisement of his reelection, there were a surfeit of Cubans. One sports reporter groused, “It’s simply a drag-out fight among the regions in which each one tries to spend more money buying ballplayers from abroad.” The stakes were too high to spare any expense but too expensive not to imperil nationalist dogma.

An artifact of the 1937 championship. (Courtesy of Orlando Inoa)

The schedule, which consisted of about forty games, was straightforward: three matchups each weekend in two separate ballparks. There’d be a double-header in one—a game in the morning at 9:30, a break for lunch, and an afternoon game at three; then, later that evening, the players would pack into a caravan of automobiles, complete with team-supplied chauffeurs, and travel to one of the other two cities represented in the tournament for the Sunday game.

The Dragons were having trouble just staying out of last place by the time Paige arrived. Fans were disgruntled, and the sports pages of the Ciudad Trujillo newspapers were riddled with invective against the hometown losers. There was a sinking feeling in the capital that the Trujillo club had thrown its money after a bunch of lackluster prima donnas.

Paige’s debut with the Dragons came on April 25, the same day that he was supposed to be facing the Homestead Grays in New Orleans. It was the first game of a double-header against the Estrellas de Oriente. The papers described Paige as being “at least 6 feet 7 inches tall,” a good four inches of exaggeration; with him, they claimed, the Dragons were easily “the best baseball club ever assembled in all time in the capital.” A few days before Paige flew in, another American star, Herman Andrews, had arrived on a steamer and had been clobbering the ball in the Dragons’ weekday warm-ups. Two thousand fans showed up to watch him take batting practice, and he rewarded them by hitting seven home runs out of the park and straight into the sea behind the stadium. The team’s president announced that he would employ divers and install inflatable docks to catch all the balls.

The promise of a big offense, in the form of Andrews, coupled with legendary hurling from Paige, worked the capital into a frenzy. The Café Hollywood, a downtown bar with a carefully curated aristocratic feel, was selling tickets for the weekend’s games and had already raised prices for Paige’s big day. The local newspaper sold five-cent baseball cards of the players in anticipation.

Paige and Perkins wore their Trujillo pinstripes on the street. There wasn’t a clubhouse at the stadium, so they changed at the hotel, slinging their spikes over their shoulders and walking south, in flip-flops, down Calle Pina toward the sea. Swarms of fans buzzed around them, calling out to Paige and asking for autographs.

Trujillo had rebuilt the stadium four years earlier, after a hurricane razed the capital, killing thousands and reducing the city to rubble. When Trujillo was through, every cornice of the city seemed to bear his fingerprints. The baseball stadium rose like a shrine, with three tiers of seats spread along the first- and third-base lines which came together in a V that touched behind home plate; the outfield was spectacularly framed by the sea. In right field, just beyond the fence, was the partially submerged hull of an American battleship with four gigantic stacks, called the USS Memphis, which had crashed on the rocks in a storm in 1916 and had never been hauled away. It was a fixture of the landscape, and a target in deep right field for batters, as was a sign nearby, erected behind the center-field wall, that read: National Championship for the Reelection of President Trujillo, 1938-1942. Long Live the Benefactor of the Fatherland. Anyone who hit it received a $25 reward. In Paige’s view, there was something menacing about the layout. “The diamond was in a place that looked something like a bull ring, only there’s no bull fights down there,” he told an American journalist years later.

The battleship USS Memphis loomed beyond right field. (Courtesy of Cuqui Córdova)

Seven thousand fans packed the seats for Paige’s first game, filling the stands with the steady rumble of cheers and stomping feet. The grass on the field looked thick, and there were mounds of dirt around each of the infield bags.

Paige strolled out to the mound to take his warm-ups, kicking his foot high in the air and rearing back with a twist of his torso before uncoiling toward the plate. He was lanky, and his uniform sagged around his slender frame. But there was a majesty to his figure as glimpsed from the stands, where his easy, fluid movements made him look like a pulsating force field, gliding and snapping in his motions. It was Paige against the Cuban ace Ramón Bragaña—a battle between the King and Prince of the plate, the papers said.

Paige took the mound first. He circled the hill, flipping the rosin bag in his hand before tossing it aside and dragging his cleats down across the rubber. His eyes burned as he zeroed in on Perkins’s mitt. Paige rocked back with his left foot and raised his arms straight above his head, then let them slump down to his chest as he readied himself for a kick of his leg. Time stood still through these preliminaries, and Paige liked to make the batter flinch, blowing the ball in just as he was getting antsy. Paige and Perkins were the perfect match of bravado. Paige had written FASTBALL on the sole of his left cleat, so that it was the last thing the hitter would see as Paige’s enormous foot came tumbling toward him off the mound. Perkins, for his part, had written THOU SHALL NOT STEAL across his chest protector.

There was a majesty to his figure as glimpsed from the stands, where his easy, fluid movements made him look like a pulsating force field, gliding and snapping in his motions.

Tetelo Vargas led off, and Paige walked him, then forced the next three batters to ground out to the infield. He eased into his rhythm, striking out the Estrellas’ captain in the second inning, then its shortstop in the third. As he walked off the field, Dragons fans threw money onto the diamond in rowdy appreciation.

The game was scoreless through three innings, but the Estrellas put a run on the board in the fourth. The Dragons answered with three of their own in the bottom of the inning; by the sixth they were up six to one, and Bragaña had been taken out.

Then Paige began to falter. It started when Tetelo walloped a double to center, followed by a home run by the Estrellas’ shortstop in the top of the seventh inning. “He hit it to the Memphis,” fans shouted while the runners rounded the bases and Paige kicked at the dirt. A message had been sent: Paige, and the Dragons, were not invincible. In the eighth, Paige gave up another run after allowing two more hits and put runners on first and second. It was clear that the time had come to pull him from the game.

By now the Dragons’ lead had narrowed to two. Paige’s replacement, a surgical Cuban right-hander named Rodolfo Fernández, walked the bases loaded and let up a double, which scored three. The Dragons were now down one, and the score held going into the bottom of the ninth, when Silvio García, the Dragons’ third baseman, ignited a two-out rally to tie the game and send it into extra innings.

The teams battled into the bottom of the 11th, the score even, as the Dragons loaded the bases. The Estrellas brought out a hard-throwing left-hander named Manuel “Cocaina” García to face Herman Andrews, who’d already struck out three times. The Dragons manager, in turn, replaced Andrews with a right-hander for a better hitting matchup.

Cocaina worked from the windup, blazing the ball in with a windmill delivery. His first pitch was a ball—then his second and third. With a 3-0 count and the winning run on third, he delivered his next pitch, which drifted out of the strike zone. He walked the batter, forcing in the winning run.

The Dragons streamed onto the field in celebration, and the fans climbed down from the bleachers. A chorus of “Hero” reverberated around Silvio García, feted for his game-tying double. From the dugout, Rodolfo Fernández noticed that the runner who had just been walked had not made it to first base in the crush of festivities, and the umpire had still not officially called the game. Fernández shouted and pointed, and for a second the celebrating stopped as people looked quizzically at the wildly gesticulating pitcher; the runner, hearing him, spun around, ran to first, and touched the bag, and with that the Dragons won 8–7.

Paige’s debut had ended in a no-decision—technically he neither won nor lost, because the score changed so many times after he exited the game—but his reception afterward was cold. The pro-Dragons press in Ciudad Trujillo lambasted his “poor” outing in barbed headlines, and there was half-serious speculation that the team would have to lower ticket prices back to pre-Paige levels. The next game was a week away, and Paige would have to prove himself anew.


For months I’d been on a quest to find the scorecards from the 1937 tournament. I first heard about them from a Dominican memorabilia seller living in Miami, whom I’d met on the recommendation of a chiropractor out of Dallas with a Negro league obsession that he nursed in his spare time. These were the kinds of people I was meeting, the sort you could cold-call one afternoon with a wildly random question about 1937 only to find an unflappable voice on the other end of the line who’d cut you off—politely—to recite the batting orders of the teams in question. I eventually learned that the scorecards did exist but had been sold to an auction house in Pennsylvania, then, in 2014, acquired by an unnamed buyer for $6,658.33. After that the trail went cold, and I flew to Santo Domingo to see what I could turn up.

It was there that I met Cuqui Córdova, an 87-year-old amateur historian who has amassed, in his cozy family apartment, the largest collection of Dominican baseball memorabilia in the world. In three manila file folders, tucked away in a desk-side drawer, were his records of the tournament. And there, wedged between photographs of Paige, Aybar, and the USS Memphis, were ratty photocopies of the scorecards. In neat, sometimes florid longhand, designated spectators noted with letters and symbols the schematic developments of the games. “R-SS” meant that the batter hit a ground ball to the shortstop (in Dominican parlance, the R stood for “rolling”), “2B” that he hit a double. English words were written into the cramped little boxes reserved for each batter, often with phonetic miscues like “aut” instead of “out” (spelled like it sounds to a Spanish speaker).  Each scorer had his own style, telltale penmanship, or preference for how to space out the markings on the page. With the scorecards, it was like a light suddenly went on. The plays of every game were illuminated, but there was also an unexpected effect—doubt over Paige’s reconstruction of some of the action. Now I could see past his serial embellishments and, with the additional aid of the newspapers, right onto the field itself.

A scorecard from the 1937 championship, part of Cuqui Córdova’s collection.

A week later, in Ciudad Trujillo, the Dragons had hosted the Estrellas and lost badly. “We played like we never seen a baseball before,” Paige said. The next day, he was back on the mound in Santiago against Martín Dihigo and the Eagles. The matchup, which featured three new black Americans making their debuts for the Santiago squad, brought thousands to Enriquillo Park. “It ain’t no cakewalk,” Paige later described it. “We got a flock of colored Americans on our team, but they got as many on theirs. How them babies could hit that ball!”

The game was scoreless when Dihigo came to the plate in the bottom of the third, tapping his cleats with a reddish bat and wiggling into the box. The fans rose to their feet. Paige may have been the famed ace, but Dihigo was the pride of Latin baseball. Theirs was shaping up to be the matchup of the tournament—Paige all brash and flashy, an American through and through, and Dihigo a paragon of quiet grace and command.

Paige was sweating on the mound. He looked at the ball in his mitt, focusing in on the stitching, with the word Wilson written between its seams. He had to paint the corners against Dihigo; a single mistake could be costly.

Paige reared back and delivered, his long limbs popping and whirling toward the plate, ropy and cyclonic. He fired one strike, then another. He clocked in a curveball off the plate to see if he could tempt Dihigo to fish (no luck); he tried to sneak in another and missed. The count was two balls and two strikes. He paced around the mound and glared at the runner on first, then remounted the rubber in the stretch, his shoulders facing third and his arms dangling down at his sides as he looked in for a target. Perkins didn’t give Paige any signs. When they first met, back in Birmingham, Paige had told him, “I’m the easiest guy in the world to catch. All you have to do is show me a glove and hold it still.”

Perkins got set, his mitt upturned and steady behind the plate. Paige whistled it in, and just as the ball crossed the plate Dihigo strode effortlessly forward with his left foot, extending his arms out to meet the pitch. With a smooth, compact swing Dihigo connected, and the ball soared into the outfield. Antonio Castaños, the Dragons’ right fielder, camped under it, bounding back farther and farther toward the wall, but the ball kept going, clear of the right-field fence for a two-run homer.

By the seventh inning, Paige had been yanked. The Santiago fans were dancing in the bleachers, clapping and moving their hips to a merengue called “Leña,” the Spanish word for kindling, in a tribute to the team’s hot bats. Aybar had warned Paige about the stakes, and Paige had only half believed him. Now he could see that the teams were evenly matched.

Back in the capital later that night, Paige sent a cable to Cool Papa Bell in Pittsburgh requesting reinforcements. Paige had conferred with Aybar, who gave him special dispensation to offer money—$800 a head—to Bell and three others to join the team: an outfielder named Harry Williams, the pitcher Leroy Matlock, and shortstop Sam Bankhead. A few days later, Bell cabled back. “Satchel, they treatin’ us so bad here we’ll come down. But make it a thousand, and we’ll stay eight weeks.”

Gus Greenlee

In Pittsburgh, Gus Greenlee’s team was dwindling before his eyes. By late May, eight of his top players had left for the Dominican Republic. He knew more would follow. Scouts were sneaking into games to scope out recruits and approaching them on the sly to lure them to Ciudad Trujillo with more money than Greenlee could ever offer them. “Haiti pirates,” he called them. At Crawfords games he prowled the stands, searching the crowds for interlopers. He also deputized his public relations man to make his own rounds badmouthing Paige as one of the ringleaders of the exodus.

The departures fueled a debate in the black press. Paige sympathizers saw him as a businessman angling for a good deal. All through the 1920s, baseball fans had gotten used to reading about marathon contract negotiations for white players, like Babe Ruth, whose astronomical salaries were national news and beyond reproach. There was no reason why Paige, who was black baseball’s equivalent hero, shouldn’t enjoy the same privileges, argued Ollie Stewart, the sportswriter for the Afro-American.

The opposing side was made up of supporters of Greenlee and the club owners, who claimed that Paige and the others were ingrates for abandoning the leagues that had made them. Most of the local papers had long been loyal to the club owners anyway, and the tone of their screeds was personal and cutting. The pitcher whose name was once synonymous with black baseball had come to symbolize the disloyalty threatening to do the whole sport in. “Satchel Paige has gotten more out of Negro baseball than anyone ever connected to Negro baseball,” Cum Posey wrote in his regular column in the Courier. It was a rare moment of agreement between him and Gus Greenlee, two rivals united against a common scourge. “Negro baseball does not owe him anything. He owes negro baseball plenty.” Like the other club owners, Posey was losing players to the Dominican Republic, but it was the broader pattern that concerned him. It wasn’t just the 1937 season but the risk that black baseball could go out of business.

The pitcher whose name was once synonymous with black baseball had come to symbolize the disloyalty threatening to do the whole sport in.

Meanwhile, the Dominican race for American talent was gaining speed. On May 4, two days after Dihigo hit his deep home run off of Paige in Santiago, the Estrellas’ owner, a businessman named Federico Nina, arrived in New York. “Pleasure” is all he proffered to the agents who processed his papers, before proceeding to the Hotel Hargrave on 72nd Street to meet up with Luis Mendez, the Dominican consul. Both men were short, with dark hair and brown eyes, and had a preference for light-colored suits and wide-brimmed hats. Together they left for Pittsburgh, where the Crawfords and Grays were playing a series at Greenlee Field. Nina had his eyes on a trim right-hander named Ernest Carter, one of Greenlee’s guys, but he was also in the market for infielders, and Pittsburgh was a fount of talent.

The following Saturday, they took their seats in the stadium’s bleachers. Greenlee had men scanning the stands; he’d gotten a tip that two foreigners had been driving around Pittsburgh asking for directions. But in a stadium full of black spectators, the Dominicans blended right in. When Nina arrived in New York, the agents at customs had recorded his race as “negro.” Greenlee’s henchmen would have to keep their ears open for any stray Spanish overheard in the stands.

It didn’t take long for the two to be found. Greenlee called a local alderman, telling him that a “raid” was in progress and that foreign agents were lurking around the city with the aim of breaking legally binding contracts—a crime, he claimed, that was tantamount to conspiracy. The alderman called the cops, while Nina and Mendez, none the wiser, followed Carter to the Crawfords Grill for the post-game celebration. Before long the three were repairing to Carter’s hotel off Wylie Avenue to talk about an offer. Carter’s manager, the barrel-chested Oscar Charleston, a wily outfielder and veteran of the leagues, watched as they left the restaurant and followed them to the hotel.

Nina and Carter had just shaken on the deal—$775 for eight weeks of play—when Charleston burst into the room, shouting insults. He towered over Nina, wagging his finger in the diminutive Dominican’s face. “I came here to whip you,” he shouted. “But since you’re so little, I won’t do it. Why don’t you go into the white leagues and get your players?”

The police arrived and cuffed Nina and Mendez, who were stunned by the turn of events. The charges against them were bloated and dramatic, bearing evidence of Greenlee’s handiwork: The two had “unlawfully, falsely, knowingly and maliciously conspired, combined, and confederated and agreed to induce, entice, and take from the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Inc., and Homestead Grays Inc., certain baseball players and employees of the said corporations under written and binding contract.” Their acts were “dishonest” and “dishonorable,” and redounded to the “prejudice of … the National Association of Negro Baseball Clubs.” Included among the charges was the list of players Nina had been courting: four from the Crawfords and two from the Grays. The players, in the language of the allegations, were “the property” of these two teams; luring them away was on par with theft.

Nina and Mendez spent two nights in jail before posting $1,000 bond; by the time they were released, the jailing had become a major diplomatic incident. Mendez had contacted the Dominican consul general, who spoke with the U.S. State Department. Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, personally wrote him back to say he was looking into the situation. Calls were made, cables sent. The Allegheny County district attorney spoke with the alderman, and finally a judge dismissed the charges. The two Dominicans were free to go home, which they did—taking Carter and several other ballplayers with them.

As Greenlee and the other club owners saw it, there was only one viable option for stemming the tide of departures: They had to convince the U.S. government to intervene. The next week, team owners held an emergency meeting in Philadelphia, where they voted unanimously to circulate a resolution among sympathetic national congressmen. Their message was clear, if desperate: “Be it resolved that these actions on the part of the Dominican baseball promoters and permitted by the officials of the Dominican Republic BE AND ARE HEREBY CONDEMNED. Be it further resolved that steps be taken to have these practices STOPPED.” In their view, the ideal outcome was for the State Department to order Trujillo to fly Paige and the other players back. They bombarded their representatives, arguing that the congressmen risked insulting their black constituents unless they took action to save black baseball. The Dominican affair, Greenlee’s lawyers told two Pennsylvania Democrats, “involves a matter of great importance not only to us as club owners, but also to the American Negroes generally.” Meanwhile the league’s commissioner, Ferdinand Morton, beseeched New York senator Robert F. Wagner, an outspoken fan of black baseball, to intervene on the owners’ behalf. “All the work which we have done to secure for the colored ball player a decent wage will go for naught,” he wrote.

For all their fervor, they hit a wall. According to the American attaché in Santo Domingo, Nina and Aybar were acting out of private interest, so there wasn’t much room for diplomatic intervention abroad. But there was enough political will to find some sort of solution. In late June, Hull’s deputies met with the owners in Washington.

The meeting’s minutes and internal memos, catalogued at the National Archives, reveal that the government officials were eager to help Greenlee and his counterparts in good faith. But their cooperation highlights a major contradiction at the heart of the American government’s attitudes toward black baseball and its black citizens. If the government’s openness to the interests of the Negro leagues indicated a conciliatory approach to the black community, it also emphasized just how limited that benevolence truly was. The government had never taken serious interest in integrating professional baseball, and it would be 17 years before the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to legal segregation. Yet there was the secretary of state, hosting black club owners in the country’s capital.


Rafael Trujillo

For the players in Ciudad Trujillo, the week between games was long and full of temptations. They went to nightclubs and cabarets, to brothels and swanky bars with names like the Rialto and the Encanto. They danced to five-piece bands that played merengues, which Trujillo had recently declared the national music, and in honor of the Americans, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington tunes were sometimes interspersed in the lineup for a dose of straight-ahead Yankee swing.

Race translated differently in the Dominican Republic. The black Americans were absorbed right into the teeming, multiracial scene. Sometimes, as a kind of Caribbean grace note, they were even called gringos. Still, there were ugly moments. The pitcher Bert Hunter, who was playing for Santiago, struggled with his control early in the tournament and became an immediate target for testy fans. He was heckled and called King Kong. When he finally settled into his groove after a few games and won the fans over with a commanding victory, he lumbered past the first-base line, swinging his arms up and down in mock imitation of a gorilla, and yelled back at them, in broken Spanish: “¿Ah, sí? ¿Ya no King Kong? ¡Ahora gran pitcher Hunter! ¡Mucho bueno!(“Oh, yeah? No longer King Kong? Now the great pitcher Hunter! Very good!”)

His rage confused the Santiago faithful, who understood racial innuendo by a different standard: To them, as to Trujillo, being “black” meant being Haitian. There was a long strain of racial antipathy toward the country’s neighbors to the west, and Trujillo, whose family was partly Haitian, took pains to emphasize his own affinity with Europe. He enacted harsh anti-immigration laws to keep out Haitian fieldworkers and even took in leftist refugees from the Spanish Civil War, an anathema to a right-wing strongman, simply to “whiten” the complexion of the population. His obsession with merengue was a more benign example. He much preferred it to Afro-Cuban dance music like the rhumba because it reminded him of an old-world, European-style waltz. Satchel and Janet Paige danced it, delightedly, without knowing the fetishism it stood for.

The high-society allure of the capital exercised a particular tug on the players. The aspiration of achieving celebrity commensurate with their talent, so baldly squelched in the States, was finally a reality. The journalist Ollie Stewart, who’d traveled to Santo Domingo to cover the tournament for the Afro-American, saw life there as practically utopian. “If there is a future for colored Americans (and I am convinced more than ever now there is a bright one) it is in this part of the world—in these islands now being developed, now coming into their own.” In his view, there was one person to thank for that: Rafael Trujillo. “President Trujillo rebuilt the city, made it sanitary, built streets, roads, put in electric lights, good water, drained off mosquito-infested swamps and brought peace to the republic,” Stewart wrote, echoing, ironically if only unconsciously, the kind of contemporary tropes being used overseas to prop up dictators like Mussolini. Behind closed doors, Trujillo was summoning his aides for advice on how to dispose of the Haitians crowding his borders. But on the streets, all Ollie Stewart could see were storefronts decorated with photos of the American ballplayers.

The aspiration of achieving celebrity commensurate with their talent, so baldly squelched in the States, was finally a reality.

The players themselves were lulled as well. Not only did they have their hefty monthly salaries; they also walked around with their pockets flush with cash from a raft of tournament-wide incentives—$10 bonuses for won games, $10 more for home-runs, $40 for the winning pitcher. Bill Perkins traveled with an entourage to keep the fans off. “He was such a heavy lover, this precaution was taken to keep the women away from him,” Stewart observed. When Paige walked the streets with Janet he was mobbed, with boys perpetually trailing him and women shouting insults at his wife. “You’re not beautiful, we’re beautiful!” they yelled, as if trying to peel Paige away.

The festive mood had grown somber by May. The Dragons were losing, stuck in last place in spite of the tens of thousands of dollars spent on their success. While Federico Nina was trawling for talent in Pittsburgh, his Estrellas blew out the Dragons in back-to-back matchups in San Pedro de Macoris, outscoring them fourteen to three. After another string of losses, this time to Santiago, the Dragons’ management adopted special “disciplinary measures” to “submit the players to solid training and to wean them from all the whiskey and beers.” The newspapers called out Paige, Andrews, and Perkins by name as repeat offenders. Excessive drinking now led to fines, which the papers catalogued as though the whole of the capital was acting as the team’s chaperone. The week after the Dragons eked out a lone victory against Santiago, Andrews and Perkins each had to pay $6.25 for a night of debauchery that had led to a missed practice.

The Dragons’ manager resigned, “in light of the fact that the club needs someone who can dedicate more time to the discipline and organization of the operation,” as he put it. Two other businessmen, who vowed to redouble their supervision of the team, took over in his stead. Their first move was to institute a curfew. “It was almost like we was in jail,” Paige complained in his memoir. “We was kept at a hotel and had to be in bed early. No matter what we done—like if we went in swimming—there was soldiers around and nobody could speak to us.”

I was stunned when I came across this account in Paige’s memoir. Paige’s complaint about the soldiers chimes with what is easily his most infamous, if also most beguiling, anecdote from the time. In the midst of one tight game, while he was on the mound, Paige says, Trujillo ordered troops to surround the field. The dramatic subtext is clear: If Paige hadn’t come through with a win, he wouldn’t have survived to tell the tale.

The other players remembered swimming and fishing, even horsing around on the beach, but none of them mentioned these stifling armed watchmen, nor, for that matter, the same sense of imminent disaster. What likely fueled these discrepancies was Paige’s sourness about anyone telling him how to live at all. There’s no question that the Dragons’ owners were bothered by Paige’s lifestyle; he had been an exceptionally expensive acquisition, and the team’s management, understandably, felt he was overindulging. Paige was used to getting what he wanted from Greenlee, and that wasn’t how the Dominicans operated.

But it’s also true that Paige was feeling the pressure more than most, since Aybar had been portentous with him from the outset. He was earning big money—$1,200 a month for three months, plus several hundred more as a bonus—to bring the capital its championship. “We was President Trujillo’s ball club and we got to win that championship, because if we won’t win maybe the people won’t reelect him again,” Paige said. “It’s that important.” Mostly, this was Aybar talking. Like any proper courtier of his era, he could be more Trujillista than Trujillo—more of a booster for the regime, and more of a menace.

Paige looked and acted unflappable, but to judge from his memoir he truly was getting nervous. The troops he saw on the street may very well have merged in his mind with the curfew and the new battery of restrictions from the team’s management. Aybar had convinced him that Trujillo was lurking behind every out of every inning and that the consequences would be grim if Paige couldn’t turn things around for the Dragons.

An advertisement for a game between the Dragons and the Eagles.

Paige wasn’t the only one to feel the pressure. The tournament had been charged from the start, with fans sometimes storming the field in protest when a call was made against their club. But by May, players, coaches, and managers were all getting tense as play tightened.

The Dragons responded by cleaning house. On May 19, management announced a “new Unified Front,” headed by Aybar, to strengthen team discipline. The phrase was meant to have a political ring to it, and Aybar decided to run the club like it was an extension of the government. When a fresh batch of American recruits arrived in San Pedro de Macoris to play for the Estrellas, soldiers escorted them to the capital, where they suited up for the Dragons. Nina made more than one trip back to the States to plug the gaps in his roster, and when he returned he was arrested and thrown in jail for a week before he could go home.

Two days after the Dragons’ new initiative was announced, Cool Papa Bell, Leroy Matlock, Sam Bankhead, and Harry Williams arrived on two private planes chartered by Aybar. It was the biggest single importation of new recruits to date. An entourage waited for them at the landing strip, complete with the team’s captain, the new director of discipline for the club, a member of the executive committee, and a lucky Ciudad Trujillo fan brought along to pose for the press. The team officials immediately presented the four players with tournament registration papers to sign, and they set out for the Hotel Presidente. “Forty-five days ago, none of this seemed possible,” one news article declared; the capital had become a kind of magnet for the premier black American talent of the day. The arrival of four more players was touted as an immediate achievement of the new Unified Front.

The Dragons’ next home game, against the Estrellas, was a triumph. Paige gave up just two hits that made it to the outfield, and Cool Papa Bell smacked a single and stole a base, the fans gawking at his speed. His trademark was a chop-like swing of the bat that grounded the ball straight into the dirt so it would careen up high into the infield. In the time it took for the ball to drop into a fielder’s mitt, he’d already be standing on first. Everyone cheered as he scampered to the bag. When Bell reached base, it was like his team had a run in the bank; he was so fast, he could score from first on a bloop single to even the shallowest part of the outfield.

The Dragons notched one victory, then another. The Eagles were holding firm, but the once champion Estrellas were beginning to buckle. In June, Ramón Bragaña, the team’s star pitcher and best hitter, was suspended for ten games for getting into a fistfight with an umpire. A week later, the Estrellas lost 20–5 to the Eagles in a game held in honor of the birthday of Trujillo’s son, Ramfis. Nina was savaged in the press for seeming to have thrown the game to save his best players for their next matchup, later that day, against the Dragons. It was an unfair charge that stemmed from an indisputable reality: Against the expanded ranks of the Dragons and the Eagles, the Estrellas were outgunned and overmatched.

The Santiago Eagles. 

In a few short weeks, the momentum had shifted: the black American players were dominating the competition, and by the middle of the summer the newspapers had taken to calling the tournament the World Series of Black Baseball, championship billing that Gus Greenlee and the other club owners had for years tried in vain to drum up in the States. By the end of May, even more players had arrived to shore up the ranks of the Eagles—the pitcher Chet Brewer, the second baseman Pat Patterson, and outfielder Roy Parnell.

The Dragons, meanwhile, were on an upswing of their own. After the arrival of Bell, Williams, Bankhead, and Matlock, the reliever Robert Griffin joined the team on June 1, and there were rumors that Josh Gibson would be coming later that same week. The Estrellas managed to scrounge up a few black players—the hard-hitting second baseman George Scales and, later, Ernest Carter—but they didn’t have the firepower to match their rivals. Between May 22 and June 12, the Estrellas lost five of seven games and sank into last place. The Dragons passed them on their way up into second place and were now within striking distance of the Eagles.

By now, Paige’s and Aybar’s fortunes were entwined. Each victory the Dragons notched brought Paige one step closer to making it out of the Dominican Republic safe and triumphant. At the same time, it meant ever better publicity for Trujillo. Paige labored on the field, while Aybar conspired off it. And all the while the team in Trujillo’s name became like another medal on the general’s decorated lapels. His hold on the country tightened as he consolidated monopolies in the salt, tobacco, and lumber industries; the list of his assets grew larger by the day. His wife, meanwhile, was put in charge of a business that forced state employees to pay her a 2 percent service charge to cash their paychecks. Together, Trujillo and his family gained control of 40 percent of the country’s wealth, and his reign was only just beginning.   

As Paige’s luck on the diamond took a favorable turn, he began to question whether he even wanted to return to the States. “I would be willing to go to South America and live in the jungles rather than go back to the league and play ball like I did for ten years,” he wrote in an op-ed that ran in the Afro-American later that summer. “The opportunities of a colored baseball player on these islands are the same or almost the same as those enjoyed by the white major league players in the States. That’s something to think about it.”

Practically all his old teammates were in Ciudad Trujillo with him anyway. Josh Gibson arrived on June 11, and fans turned out by the thousands to watch his debut the next day. The Dragons were facing the Estrellas at home, and Cocaina García kept Gibson hitless, but barely. In the sixth inning, Gibson crushed a line drive straight back up the middle and right at the pitcher. The ball sought García out like it was personal, and he flailed his glove to knock it away from his face. Gibson had arrived ready, his swing unkinked and fluid. The next day, he hit a double against the Eagles, and the game after that he pounded a double and a triple.

The Dragons and Eagles were pulling away. By June 21, the Dragons were 13-11 and the Eagles 11-10. The Estrellas had sunk three games under .500. The baseball council decided to narrow the tournament’s final three weeks to a competition between the two leading teams; it declared the Estrellas’ chances mathematically impossible, given their current record, and took the team out of contention, thanking Nina and his guys for their service. Tetelo Vargas and Cocaina García left for Venezuela, Ramón Bragaña for New York. For the Dragons, this cordial exit didn’t mean that there was a graceful way that they, too, could lose the tournament—in fact, just the opposite. Now the Dragons and Eagles would have to square off on center stage.

The Dragons with Dr. José Enrique Aybar (second row center; Satchel Paige is seated to his left).

Aybar sent away for new uniforms from Havana, one last frill for his team in the final stretch. The Dragons didn’t need any fresh motivation, though. The team was finally gaining momentum. The players were on a tear, besting the Eagles in a string of matchups. And with three games left, in the final week of June, they needed only two more to clinch victory.

The Eagles fought back. In the first game of a double-header on July 4, in Santiago, they kicked off the bottom of the first inning with a six-run rally against the usually untouchable Robert Griffin. Martín Dihigo pitched for the Eagles. The Dragons didn’t get on the board until the sixth inning; then they exploded for three more runs in the seventh and came back to within one run in the top of the ninth before the American Clarence Palm, in to relieve Dihigo, closed them down. The final score was 8–7, and the Eagles had managed to withstand the Dragons at their offensive best. Josh Gibson had hit for the cycle—a single, double, triple, and home run—but it wasn’t enough.

In the afternoon game, Paige was back on the mound, strong as ever, but his counterpart, the ex-Crawfords pitcher Chet Brewer, was better. He threw a one-hitter, in which the Dragons eked out two paltry runs on three Eagles fielding errors. The Eagles survived elimination yet again.

In the customary week off before the next game, Brewer, who’d been stationed in Santiago throughout the tournament, came to the capital to relax for a few days. He and Paige were likely to face off again in the coming weekend, the latest in a career-long rivalry between the two players. They were reluctant friends, close after all their years together. “None of us got any publicity when Satchel was there,” he once said. Brewer was soft-spoken and even-keeled, but he felt some resentment toward Paige. “I pitched against Satchel a lot of times. We just about broke even on wins,” he said. Yet “they always starred Satchel. He had all the billing.”

One evening, Brewer walked over to the Hotel Presidente to see if Paige and some of the other guys wanted to have a drink, but they weren’t there. In broken Spanish, he asked a boy in the street about the ballplayers; by this point, everyone knew them in the capital. “They’re in jail,” the boy replied.

Paige had complained before about feeling, at certain moments, like the Dominican Republic was one big prison cell, but that had been an exaggeration. This time it was literal. It wasn’t even the first time he’d been locked up for baseball—he’d once found himself in jail in Pittsburgh while Greenlee and another owner fought over who had claim to the pitcher. (Keen on some extra money, Paige had signed contracts with both of them.) This time, though, it had to have been terrifying. For all Paige knew, he’d been put on lockdown by order of the dictator himself. On top of that was an even scarier association: a black man, in 1937, stuck in a jail cell.

It’s impossible to reconstruct exactly how Paige wound up there, but it seems safe to assume that Aybar ordered it. Brewer figured that someone in the upper echelons of the team’s management had decided to lock up Paige before his big start to make sure a night of carousing wouldn’t dull his performance. The pressure put an added strain on Paige as he suited up the next morning. “You’d have thought war was declared. We were guarded like we had the secret combination to Fort Knox,” he said. Paige was no stranger to the spotlight, but he was starting to wonder about his safety. Say the Dragons didn’t win, he recalled thinking—we’re here without passports!

From left: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Bill Perkins.

There was another game the following week, and the Dragons, behind Leroy Matlock, would have a chance to secure the championship. Before the Dragons walked onto the field, Aybar took the team aside and got everyone quiet. Then, in a soft but firm voice, he gave them a laconic piece of advice: “You better win.” Paige, his voice a little shaky, piped up. “What’a you mean, we better win?” he asked. Aybar’s response was sterner still. “I mean just that. Take my advice and win.”

The Dragons took their warm-ups, and Paige glanced around at the stands. “Some of them guys the president had watching us sent shivers up and down your spine. They was that tough looking. They packed guns and long knives, and I know they could use ’em. We didn’t want to give them a chance,” he said. He had plenty of time to take stock. Leroy Matlock got the start and Paige watched from the bench. Matlock was in fine form in the early innings; from the looks of it, Paige’s services might not be needed at all.

Brewer was back on the diamond for the Eagles, even though he’d gone the distance the previous game. This was another advantage for the Dragons—their bullpen allowed each of their starters a comfortable amount of rest. If it wasn’t Paige on the hill, it would be Matlock; if not Matlock, Griffin; and if not Griffin, then Rodolfo Fernández. The Eagles had a slightly tighter rotation, especially since the Cuban southpaw Lefty Tiant had gone back home a few weeks before. Their signal ace was Brewer, who, for his part, showed no signs of fatigue. He gave up first-inning hits to Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, but that was to be expected; each of the next two innings Brewer retired the Dragons in order.

The din in the stadium grew steady, with shouts and cheers blanketing the ballpark; in its evenness, the noise almost seemed to fall away, and a kind of silence reigned over the diamond itself. The teams went back and forth through the second, third, and fourth innings. One squad stole a few hits, then stranded its runners on base when the opposing pitcher hunkered down.

In the bottom of the fifth, Brewer had fallen into a rut—he’d walked the lead batter and then surrendered the game’s first run. With one out, he gave up three consecutive hits to load the bases. Martín Dihigo had seen enough. The player-manager trotted in from center field, where he’d started the game, and relieved Brewer himself. By now Dragons fans were in hysterics. Dihigo took his warm-ups with an easy, rolling motion and barely even a kick of his leg. Sam Bankhead, who was due up, stood a few feet off the plate and took practice swings in sync with the pitches as they came in. Dihigo signaled he was ready, and the umpire waved Bankhead over to the plate.

Dihigo wound up and delivered, and Bankhead unleashed a mammoth swing. The ball shot off his bat, rising steadily over the infield, then the outfield; it easily cleared the fence for a grand slam. Money, hats, and flowers rained onto the field. The Dragons scored three more runs by the end of the inning and were up eight to zero going into the sixth.

Paige came into the game in the top of the ninth inning with the Dragons leading by five. There was one out, and runners stood on first and second. A cushy lead like this could be dangerous for Paige, who was best when pitching with a sense of urgency.

Feeling that victory was within reach, the local fans called out to Paige to put the Eagles away. “The more the fans yelled, the harder I threw,” Paige said. “I bet I never did have a better fastball only I never see any better hitters than them guys.” The first three batters he faced all got hits—and just like that the Eagles had three more runs on the board and had pulled to within two, the score at 8–6. “Boy, my mouth was dry that day,” he later wrote. “‘Satchel, old boy,’ I say to myself, ‘If you ever pitched, it’s now.’”

The fearsome Roy Parnell grounded to second for out number two, and up came Dihigo. He scorched a single to right field, and again the bases were full. The leading run was on first base. Paige disliked pitching at the stadium in Ciudad Trujillo because it was so small—short fences in left and right field and a cropped outfield. He felt his back was against the wall.

Clarence Palm, the Eagles’ imposing catcher, strode to the plate. He took a hefty cut at the ball, and it skipped into the gap between short and third. Bankhead ranged to his right and dug the ball out with a sure-handed grab, then planted his right foot and gunned the ball across the diamond. One of the runners crossed home and another, the tying run, was rounding third. Everyone watched as the ball sailed across the infield toward first base. Paige stiffened. The throw was on line; the first baseman stretched out from the bag to snag it. The umpire pumped his fist—Palm was out at first. Dragons win.

The team celebrated by the mound, circling around a grinning Satchel Paige. He’d gotten himself out of another jam. A photographer steadied the revelers and had them pose for a picture, then took one of Paige alone, his hat off and a dazed smile on his face. He was missing a button on his jersey, so that the word Trujillo, which was emblazoned across his chest, didn’t quite line up; it was a final act of unwitting irreverence.

From Cuqui Córdova’s collection, a photograph taken at the end of the 1937 championship, after the Dragons had clinched the victory.


If Paige thought victory would ingratiate him with Trujillo, he was sorely mistaken. Aybar organized a celebratory picnic at one of the dictator’s residences, but Trujillo never showed. There was one crucial fact about Trujillo that Paige did not know: The dictator didn’t even like baseball. Not only that, he hadn’t gone to any of the tournament games. The championship held in his honor hardly seemed to register with Trujillo at all. His daily memos, typed up and brought to him each morning as a primer on what was going on in the country, mentioned agrarian reform, bureaucratic appointments, diplomatic engagements—all manner of small-bore politics and administration, but not a word about how the tournament was developing.

For months, Trujillo had been receiving updates about the growing presence of Haitians at the border, which he increasingly viewed as a threat to Dominican sovereignty. On August 4, 1937, a few weeks after the tournament ended, he took a trip to the border himself. The situation, as he saw it, was becoming ungovernable. Dominican farmers complained that Haitian immigrants were pillaging and robbing their plots, and Haitian currency was circulating on the Dominican side, which Trujillo took as an added affront. He fired his agriculture secretary and ordered the construction of a Catholic church in the border town of Dajabón, vowing to return and police the area personally.

On October 2, after coming back for another survey, Trujillo gave orders to his officers: Any Haitian on Dominican soil illegally was to be killed on the spot. The military fanned out along the border, spreading terror. For a full week, soldiers hacked men, women, and children to death with machetes. Around 15,000 people were killed before the campaign let up.

The rampage made international news. Though Trujillo remained in power, his rule growing ever more brazen and bloody, outcry over the massacre forced him to withdraw from the 1938 elections. The Championship for the Reelection of Rafael Trujillo, and all the other blandishments gracing the social calendar during the previous year, had brought too much attention to a dictator who, finally, needed to lay low. He named a puppet in his place to quiet some of the international uproar. The years wore on. Critics at home and abroad mysteriously disappeared. Rival presidents in neighboring countries uncovered plots to assassinate them that seemed to emanate from the Dominican capital. Thirty years into his reign, Trujillo, his family, and their cronies controlled 80 percent of the nation’s economy and employed 45 percent of the country’s workforce.

One night in May 1961, on a dark stretch of coastal highway, Trujillo was assassinated en route to visit his mistress. With the collapse of the old order, Aybar, who had enjoyed a long career under the dictator, lost the protections that came with that privilege. In 1965, American troops invaded the Dominican Republic to support a coup and police the streets through the ensuing chaos. One night a mob rampaging through the upscale neighborhood of Santo Domingo where Aybar lived tried to rob his house; he ran outside to frighten them off, waving a revolver. American soldiers, who arrived on the scene but didn’t know exactly what was happening, took aim and shot him dead.

Shortly after the tournament ended, Satchel Paige and his fellow Americans returned to the States, where they played on the semipro circuit for a few months while waiting for a rapprochement with team owners from the Negro leagues. They banded together under the name the Trujillo All-Stars and, dressed in their old Dominican pinstripes, entered a prestigious semipro competition in Colorado called the Denver Post Tournament, which they won. When the papers didn’t name-check Trujillo, they referred to the team as “Satchel Paige’s Outlaws,” an appellation he welcomed. “If you ask me what was the biggest event for colored baseball in 1937, I’d say the winning of the pennant of the Dominican Republic by the best players in the league,” Paige said, proud and unrepentant. That fall the international press began reporting on Trujillo’s atrocities, and while it seems unlikely that Paige kept up with the developments, it also seems inevitable that he took note of the criticism directed at Trujillo.

In between Trujillo’s and Aybar’s deaths, Paige published his memoir. By then he was trying to define his legacy. Professional baseball was integrated in 1947, and its protagonist wasn’t Paige—or, for that matter, any of black baseball’s legendary stars—but a 28-year-old second baseman who’d played all of five months in the Negro leagues. His name was Jackie Robinson, and as Paige immediately grasped, he was instantly immortal. “I’d been the guy who’d started all that big talk about letting us in the big time,” Paige said in his memoir, with more than a touch of resentment. “I’d been the one who everybody’d said should be in the majors.”

The main reason he was left off the integrated rosters was his age: He was 41 at the time. By then, Cool Papa Bell was on the path to retirement and Josh Gibson was already dead, of a brain tumor. If together they’d been trailblazers—the game’s first true black stars—they were also the first to be sacrificed in the push to integration. Pioneers but throwbacks, they were too weathered to lead the way to the sport’s next frontier. Paige watched as Robinson broke the color barrier in the National League and then as a center fielder named Larry Doby followed suit, 11 weeks later, in the American League.

Paige wasn’t ready to resign himself to the bleachers. The day after Doby signed with the Cleveland Indians, Paige sent a telegram to the team’s owner: “Is it time for me to come?” The response was chilly: “All things in due time.” Paige, dejected, kept barnstorming. Now that professional baseball was integrating, the Negro leagues teetered on the brink of irrelevance—and, in short order, bankruptcy, too. Greenlee, for one, was a husk of his former self. His stadium had been demolished in 1938, and soon after he was forced to resign as league president. Once he was shut out, he never managed to work his way back into black baseball; he’d created too many enemies. In 1946, at the age of 50, he suffered a heart attack, and he died six years later.

One day in early July 1948, while Paige was traveling with a semipro club in Iowa, he got a call from the Indians. The team was ready to give him a tryout. They were in a tight pennant race that summer and short on pitchers. “I wasn’t as fast as I used to be, but I was a better pitcher. If I couldn’t overpower them, I’d outcute them,” he said of the prospect of facing big-league batters. The world’s first glimpse of Paige in the bigs wouldn’t be of the dazzling fireballer he’d been all his life but of a grizzled veteran. It was both a tragedy and a triumph. On July 7, he was signed. Two days later, at the age of 42, he took the mound for Cleveland in his Major League debut. He had prevailed against all odds—even, it seemed, the passage of time. As always he had a saying handy to motivate himself: “Don’t look back, someone might be gaining on you.” He remains the oldest rookie in the history of the game.

Hidden Damages


Hidden Damages

After his daughter died in a terrorist attack, Stephen Flatow won a historic judgment against her killers. But to collect the funds, he first had to battle his own government.

By M.R. O’Connor

The Atavist Magazine, No. 56

M. R. O’Connor is the author of Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction, and the Precarious Future of Wild Things. She blogs at and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Thomas Rhiel
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones

Published in January 2016. Design updated in 2021.


On the morning of April 9, 1995, three friends, American students studying in Israel, boarded a bus at the central station in Jerusalem. It was a few days before Passover, and they were headed to Gush Katif, a popular beach resort in Gaza, to swim and tan. The bus traveled southwest to Ashkelon, a small city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, just eight miles north of the Gaza Strip. There they transferred to the number 36, a bright red bus, with 60 or so passengers. Many of them were young Israeli soldiers headed to beach resorts or to their jobs on military bases.

Alisa Flatow, one of the young Americans, had long, wavy brown hair and wore a denim skirt, a white shirt, and sneakers. She sat behind the bus driver, next to the window, beside her friend Kesari Ruza. The third girl, Chavi Levine, sat behind them. The red bus left Ashkelon and headed south on Highway 4 toward the Gaza Strip. Shortly after the bus crossed the unmarked border, two Israeli military armored vehicles pulled alongside to escort it through the Palestinian territory. The girls dozed as the bus passed plowed fields and greenhouses. They neared an Israeli settlement called Kfar Darom. Located between two military posts, it had a fence around it, like a compound.

Years later, Kesari would recall the moments that followed as a stream of blurry footage with a few sharp scenes. A loud and dull explosion. The window beside her broken. Was it rocks? Alisa falling toward her, eyes open, hands strangely curled. The bus kept rolling, and Chavi stood up in her seat and asked what was going on. Kesari told her to get down, and they both dropped to the floor.

When the bus came to a stop a few seconds later, they saw passengers bleeding, wounded, and groaning. Someone told them to get off. Alisa lay near the door. She wasn’t moving, but she didn’t look hurt: Her face was clean; there was no blood. Outside, the military escorts told them to move away, and then Kesari saw Alisa on the ground and EMTs arriving, cutting away her clothing, looking for injuries while someone held an IV bag over her body. Helicopters landed in a field nearby, and Alisa was put on a stretcher and carried to one of the choppers. Where is she going? they asked. No one could say for sure. Kesari’s hair was matted with blood, and when they found their luggage among the wreckage, the bags were dotted with pieces of flesh. Eventually, they located an ambulance headed to a hospital, and they rode next to an injured Israeli soldier.

At the hospital, Kesari and Chavi described Alisa to a social worker. Yes, there was a young woman who might match that description—she was coming out of surgery, they were told. The social worker took them to a ward. They saw a young woman on a bed. Chavi and Kesari couldn’t tell if it was Alisa. The young woman’s hair had been shaved off, and her face was badly swollen. They asked to see her clothes and recognized the skirt and sneakers. Yes, this is Alisa, they told the doctors.

On the morning of the bombing, Stephen Flatow was headed to temple near his home in West Orange, New Jersey. He was driving his eldest daughter’s car while she was studying abroad. Before he got to the end of his driveway, he heard a news report on the radio. A suicide bomber had blown up a bus in the Gaza Strip. Flatow knew instantly that his daughter was involved. He couldn’t explain how he was so sure that she had been on that bus. He felt it to be true.

Flatow, a 46-year-old lawyer who worked for a small insurance company, continued driving to Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David. He didn’t want to alarm his wife, Rosalyn, and their four other children.

In the middle of the service, a phone rang. Flatow knew it was for him. On the line was Rosalyn, who had heard from the father of one of Alisa’s friends in Israel that Alisa had been on a bus that had been attacked. Flatow shared the little he knew with his friends at synagogue and ran out. Back home he started making calls, first to the Israeli consulate and then to the State Department in Washington. His friends began reaching out to their own contacts in Israel and soon confirmed that Alisa was at a hospital called Soroka Medical Center in the town of B’er Sheva, some 50 miles east of Gaza. Alisa’s boyfriend, Alan Mitrani, a fellow student at Brandeis, spoke to a nurse at the hospital ward, who explained that Alisa hadn’t lost a lot of blood and her pulse was fine, but she was going into surgery.

Upstairs, Alisa’s brother and sisters were waking to the chaos. Gail, Alisa’s younger sister by two years, awoke to the sound of her mother and sister whispering. “What haven’t I heard yet?” she asked. Gail had returned from Israel a couple of weeks earlier. When she found out what happened, she felt like her emotions were being sucked down a drain, leaving her empty and exhausted.

The Flatows had raised their five children in the tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community of West Orange. Stephen and Rosalyn met before he started law school in Brooklyn. He was a big guy and gregarious; she was a stately brunette, already working as a health care actuary. They married and, after he graduated, moved to New Jersey, where he began a career in real estate law. The couple had come to religious observance later in life, after Alisa was born in 1974. “We were normal American Jews—we celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” said Flatow. But as a four-year-old, Alisa begged her parents to send her to a Jewish school, and soon they were observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher. Under her influence, the Flatows became a passionately observant family, with Alisa as the moral center. “We made a 180-degree change,” said Flatow.

Alisa had deep dimples and a warm smile. She visited Israel at age 11 and fell in love. When she started at Brandeis, she was already planning her sixth visit for her junior year. On the morning of her trip to Gush Katif, Alisa called home, where it was still Saturday night and her parents were going to bed. The sun was rising in Jerusalem, and she was about to leave for the bus station. Instead of panicking about her traveling to Gaza—the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—Flatow asked her about the resort they’d chosen. She told him that the hotel she was staying at had separate times for men and women to swim, in accordance with a strict Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.

By this time, Alisa knew the ropes of traveling in Israel: how you had to bring your own toilet paper and plenty of cash because it wasn’t easy to use a credit card. And she had an agreement with her dad for venturing outside Jerusalem. Always go by public transportation, with a friend, to a well-known destination.

Now the Flatows waited for information on Alisa’s condition. A nurse called and translated a physician’s words into broken English. Post-surgery, Alisa was breathing and had a steady heartbeat, but she was unconscious. Another doctor called, one who spoke better English. Alisa’s condition was critical. A CAT scan showed hemorrhaging in her brain from a laceration made by a sliver of shrapnel that had pierced her skull. It had caused her brain to swell, and the doctors had removed part of her skull to allow the tissue to expand. Following the surgery, Alisa was unconscious, and the doctors didn’t know if they could stop the bleeding. “We suggest you come right away,” the doctor said.

The next day, Flatow flew to Tel Aviv. As his plane landed, he was ushered to the front to be the first passenger to disembark. American embassy workers and Israeli Foreign Ministry personnel waited on the tarmac. Two hours later, Flatow was standing next to his daughter’s hospital bed.

Only decades later would it become apparent that Flatow’s trip to Israel was the first part of a journey to hold accountable those who attacked Alisa’s bus. In her name, Flatow would walk the corridors of power in Washington, winning allies among senators and congressmen, and creating an unexpected adversary in President Bill Clinton. His determination to wring some meaning from his daughter’s ordeal would force American lawmakers to develop new tools for pursuing state sponsors of terror. His extraordinary quest, aided by two brilliant Washington lawyers, has provided families whose loved ones died at the hands of ISIS in Paris and in Syria a chance at recourse. And because of Flatow’s unyielding obsession with justice, the governments of Sudan, Iraq, Jordan, and Libya have been successfully sued in American courts, with judges awarding almost $20 billion in damages, each verdict a testament to a father’s devotion to his child. But before all that, he was just a father rushing to his daughter’s side.

Stephen Flatow with Alisa at her high school graduation in 1992. (Photo: Courtesy of Flatow family.) 


Somewhere in Flatow’s consciousness lingered scenes from movies in which a father holds his child’s hand, whispering in her ear. At Alisa’s bedside, he took her hand and whispered, “Daddy’s here.” She didn’t say anything. “If you can hear me, squeeze my hand,” he said. When he let go, her arm fell limp.

In a side room, he huddled with Alisa’s doctors. Her brain had continued bleeding, and the damage was irreparable. She could no longer breathe on her own. There was no hope that she might eventually recover.

The room was quiet except for a fan pushing around hot air. Someone handed Flatow a cup of orange soda. He noticed that the doctors exchange looks. “I have a question for you,” Haim Reuvini, one of the physicians, said.

“You want her organs, don’t you?” said Flatow. A few weeks earlier, he had read in a newspaper that Israel was experiencing a severe shortage of organ donors because Jewish law requires bodies to be buried intact.

“We can save as many as six lives,” explained Reuvini. A line from the Talmud echoed in his mind:  “Whoever saves one soul from Israel, it is as if he or she saved a universe.” He also knew that Alisa’s attachment to the Israeli people was immense; he couldn’t say no.

He called Rosalyn to discuss the decision. Their consent caught the doctors by surprise; they had no documents prepared. One doctor grabbed Alisa’s chart and wrote out a consent form on a blank page. Then Flatow went back to Alisa’s room and sat for several hours, holding her hand, talking to her, and crying. That afternoon, Alisa was taken off life support. Soon after, the doctors removed her heart, pancreas, liver, lungs, and kidneys.

That evening, Flatow left B’er Sheva for Tel Aviv to meet with American officials about the logistics of bringing Alisa’s body home. Back at his hotel, he received a phone call from President Clinton. The president expressed his condolences and told him about a conversation he’d had with his wife, Hillary, at breakfast. They had wondered whether they would have the same strength if their own daughter had been injured in an attack. Before hanging up, the president said he would help find those responsible for the bombing.

The next morning, the Jerusalem Post reported that just hours after the attack, a group called Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) had claimed that a 22-year-old member named Khaled al-Khatib had driven a truck into a bus on the highway in the Gaza Strip. Only half the bomber’s ordnance had detonated, but the shrapnel, metal, nails, and ball bearings embedded in the explosives killed eight passengers, including Alisa.

That evening, Flatow accompanied Alisa’s body to Ben Gurion Airport. He was ushered to the VIP lounge, crowded with reporters; the news of Alisa’s organ donation had been reported in the Israeli papers as well as The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press. “I don’t understand what all the fuss is about,” he said to an Israeli Army chaplain next to him. “You have no idea what you’ve done for us,” a reporter interjected. “You did something we don’t do for ourselves. You haven’t blamed us for what happened to your daughter. Instead, you gave us the gift of life.”

Flatow cried as he recited the Jewish prayer for the dead over her casket. “The Merciful One will protect her soul forever and will merge her soul with eternal life,” he said in Hebrew and boarded the plane.  

The next morning, Flatow landed at Kennedy Airport, where officers from the New York City, West Orange, and Port Authority police waited, along with personnel from the State Department. A motorcade escorted him to his house, now under siege by the media. His rabbi, Alvin Marcus, put his hand up in front of the gathered reporters and told them, “Alisa died al kiddush Hashem, sanctifying the name of God. That’s all you need to know.” Two hours later, the Flatows drove to their temple for the funeral. School buses and chartered coaches from as far as Boston were parked along the road. A bomb squad had searched the synagogue before anyone was allowed to enter. Two thousand people were present. Eight pallbearers carried the pine coffin draped in the Israeli flag. By now, Flatow had been awake for several days, and Rosalyn, who had kept everyone updated throughout her husband’s journey to Israel, could barely speak.

After the funeral, the Jewish tradition of shiva—seven days of mourning for the dead—began at the Flatows’ house. It was the week of Easter and Passover, and in his weekly radio address, President Clinton extended the condolences of all Americans to the Flatows. “The dark forces of terror test the faith of thousands of Jews and Arabs struggling to do the right thing,” said the president. “To these righteous people, I say: Carry on. America is with you.”

Flatow photographed at his office in Fairfield, New Jersey.


The day after the Flatows’ shiva ended, a 26-year-old American by the name of Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. The bombing brought home the threat of terror, spurring lawmakers to introduce sweeping counterterrorism legislation to stem the violence. Six weeks later, the Senate passed a bill that increased the compensation and assistance available to American victims of terrorism, allowed the government to deport immigrants suspected of such acts, and banned fundraising for terrorist organization in the U.S. It included $1 billion to fight domestic terrorism.

A year later, the bill passed in the House of Representatives, and on April 24, 1996, the South Lawn of the White House was crowded with families whose loved ones had died at the hands of terrorists. Pan Am Flight 103, 259 dead. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing, six dead and over 1,000 injured.

“Your endurance and your courage is a lesson to us all,” President Clinton said at the signing. “Your vigilance has sharpened our vigilance.”

Flatow had declined his invitation to attend the ceremony. He was still trying to cobble his life back together. It had been 380 days since Alisa was killed. As a family, the Flatows had taken a defiant position to their devastating loss: Life went on. Francine, who was 15, recalled asking her mother whether she would have to go to school after Passover ended. “Of course you do,” said Rosalyn. “Daddy’s going to work, you’re going to school.” Gail returned to Israel within a couple of weeks, and Francine followed that summer.

Still, the specter of grief affected Alisa’s parents in dramatic ways. Rosalyn internalized the pain of losing her eldest child. She could barely hear Alisa’s name, let alone speak it aloud. For a long time, Stephen lost the ability to dream at night. “You just black out,” he said, “that’s how emotionally exhausted you are.” On Friday nights, when he would say the evening prayer, he couldn’t make it through without crying. “My father is an open book,” said Francine. “If he felt like crying, he cried. If he felt like laughing, he laughed. And there were times when it happened at the same time. It let us know as kids that we’re all hurting, there’s no need to hide it or deny it.”

Flatow’s pain also seemed to animate him, transforming him into a sensitive, passionate, and driven person. Matrani, Alisa’s boyfriend, later described this change as though Alisa’s character had transferred to her father. He began speaking at synagogues and schools about his daughter’s life, several times a month. Later he understood that this impulse was a kind of therapy for the trauma of losing his child. “I had to speak and make people cry for Alisa,” he explained. “There’s a lesson to be learned: You don’t let the bastards get you down.”

After a speech at a synagogue in Queens, a rabbi approached Flatow and asked why he wasn’t using the new counterterrorism legislation to get justice for Alisa’s death.

The rabbi offered to put Flatow in touch with a lawyer in Washington, D.C., named Steven Perles who might be able to help.

Steven Perles at his office in Washington, D.C.


Tall and thin, with spectacles, a strong jawline, and a receding hairline, Perles had an unpretentious appearance that belied tremendous intellectual energy and ambition. The son of Boston academics, Perles had worked for years as the chief legislative assistant and staff attorney for Alaskan senator Ted Stevens. In the early 1980s, he founded his own firm in D.C., and some of his first cases included complex suits involving foreign governments such as Japan and Nigeria. One of his first highly publicized cases was Hugo Princz v. Federal Republic of Germany.

Hugo Princz was a 72-year-old American who had been held in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Princz had sought reparations for decades, but the German government claimed that he was ineligible because he was an American citizen.

In taking on Princz’s case, Perles challenged centuries of international legal standards that gave sovereign states exemption from the jurisdiction of foreign courts. In the United States, Congress had upheld this legal immunity as recently as 1976, when it passed the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). It gave judges the power to review cases and determine whether foreign countries could be sued under certain exceptions, which were invoked regularly in commercial cases. But by 1995, no judge had ever decided in favor of an individual plaintiff.

Perles believed Princz’s case was an opportunity to create a new legal precedent. Here was an example of an atrocious injustice against an American citizen, yet the culprits were protected by the laws of Princz’s own country.

Perles ultimately lost the case, but he received a lot of media attention, particularly in New Jersey, where he lived in Highland Park, not far from West Orange. Flatow had followed the case in the newspapers.

When Perles received Flatow’s phone call, he’d already heard about Alisa. “I want something to come from my daughter’s death,” Flatow told him.

Flatow’s case came at the right time. The new counterterrorism legislation passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing included a little-publicized amendment that lifted immunity for governments guilty of injury or “death that was caused by an act of torture, extra judicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, or the provision of material support or resources for such an act.” The amendment created an unprecedented opportunity for families of victims to go after state sponsors of terrorism.

Flatow found an ally in Perles, who possessed an unshakable moral compass and a formidable work ethic. “You detonate a bomb on a bus that has a U.S. passport holder on it, I don’t care whether they are Arab-American, Jewish-American, Irish-American, Baptist-American,” he said. “I am going to chase you to the end of the earth. I mean it. I chase these people to the end of the earth.”

Perles believed he could help Flatow get justice by targeting those who had given the PIJ the money to carry out the attack. They would sue the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict had created unlikely bedfellows in the Middle East. The alliance between Iran and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad was surprising because, while the PIJ’s leaders were Sunni Muslims, the government of Iran was Shia. The organization had been founded in the 1970s by three Palestinian students inspired by the Islamic revolutions in Iran and had since split into factions. The PIJ didn’t build schools or mosques or provide social services to civilians; their purpose was to eliminate the State of Israel.

The PIJ had proven itself to be a deadly operation. In 1987, they assassinated an Israeli military-police captain. In January 1995, they blew up a military bus and killed 19 soldiers. Israeli authorities believed that the attack had provided the model for the one that killed Alisa. The PIJ’s leader, Fathi Shaqaqi, had publicly praised Iran, appearing in photographs with Iranian ministries and saying in 1988 that he prayed to “Allah to protect Imam Khomeini so that he will enter Palestine and we shall hand over the keys of Nazareth and Jerusalem to him.” In 1994, Shaqaqi told a journalist that the PIJ had received $3 million from Iran. Intelligence agencies believed Iran provided all of the PIJ’s funding.

For Flatow, the formidable challenges of bringing a lawsuit against an isolated government such as Iran were overshadowed by what might be accomplished in the process. Here was an opportunity to bring the world’s biggest sponsor of international terrorism into a courtroom. “We expected this to be a ten-year slog, which we were actually welcoming,” said Flatow. “Through litigation we could demonstrate to the world what kind of nation Iran was and how it sponsored terrorism.”

There were several immediate obstacles. One was the fact that Perles himself was Jewish. I can’t have this case be the Jews versus the Palestinians in our federal court system, he recalled thinking.

He needed another lawyer, a scholar of personal-injury law who was charismatic in trial. And in D.C., the personal-injury bar was split between two groups, Jews and the Irish. Who is the least Jewish trial lawyer I know? he wondered.

Then he remembered Thomas Fortune Fay, whose office was in the same building as Perles’s. They’d even had lunch a few times. Husky and broad shouldered like a pit bull, with slicked hair carefully parted, Fay struck Perles as a fighter. He arranged a meeting and told Fay point-blank, “I need to hire a brawling Irish litigator.”

“That’s me!” said Fay.  

Before they could proceed, they had to resolve some questions posed by the recently passed antiterrorism legislation: In which courts could such lawsuits be filed? What punitive damages could plaintiffs receive? The legislation didn’t specify. Fay set to work formulating a new amendment to the FSIA, while Flatow and Perles began walking the halls of Congress to lobby for support.

Perles had many relationships in Congress from his time as a staffer for Senator Stevens. But during meetings on the Hill, he often stepped aside so Flatow could lead. “It’s always been my observation that an articulate client is better than an articulate lawyer—and he is very articulate,” said Perles. Flatow would tell Alisa’s story and explain how Iran had sponsored the attack. “Iran was acting through proxies,” said Flatow. “Why should they get a pass on it?”

In the Senate, they searched for someone who would move the bill through the legislative process. They knocked on doors and cornered whomever would listen. “It was a lot of work: hot, muggy, stinky, sweaty,” said Flatow. “We would run from one side of the Capitol building to the other, from the Senate building to the House building, trying to button people.” They found their first ally in senator Frank Lautenberg, who represented New Jersey. Lautenberg was in Israel on the day Alisa was killed, and he had been personally moved by the event. They gained the support of senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Lieberman. On the House side, they convinced representative Jim Saxton of New Jersey to sponsor the legislation.

Their months of lobbying paid off on September 30, 1996, when Congress enacted the Civil Liability for Acts of State Sponsored Terrorism amendment. Known as the Flatow Amendment, it created a legal cause of action—a set of facts that justify the right to sue—and allowed private citizens to recover punitive damages from foreign countries.

The amendment was everything that Flatow and his legal team needed to move forward with their lawsuit. But it also set the stage for a conflict within Washington’s corridors of power. By giving the judiciary control of these terrorism cases, Congress shifted foreign-policy influence away from the presidency and into the hands of citizens and judges. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that such a move would arouse the ire of the White House and the State Department. “That’s a no-no, apparently,” chuckled Flatow. None of them could foresee the fight ahead.

Thomas Fortune Fay at his office in Washington, D.C.


On February 26, 1997, Perles and Fay filed Flatow’s complaint against the Islamic Republic of Iran. A few hours later, Flatow held a press conference on Capitol Hill. He stood next to a large photograph of Alisa, with congressman Jim Saxton and senator Frank Lautenberg looking on.

“Iranian officials need to be held accountable for the agents they pay to carry out terrorist activities,” said Lautenberg. “I wish the Flatow family well in their quest for justice that will benefit us all.”

The lawsuit had a litany of defendants, including the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security, Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei, and President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. “I’m not a sovereign nation,” said Flatow, explaining why he was suing Iran. “I cannot wage war.”

Perles and Fay had presented an unusual legal argument for compensatory damages called solatium, from the medieval Latin word for solace. Courts began awarding compensation for wrongful death in the middle of the 19th century, calculating the amount based on how much income an individual represented. But eventually, they recognized that the death of spouses, parents, and children was more than an economic loss; it extracted an emotional cost from families. During the Vietnam War, the American government had adopted the concept of solatium when it gave cash payments to Vietnamese families whose loved ones were accidentally killed, a practice carried forward to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’m not a sovereign nation. I cannot wage war.”

Now Perles and Fay argued that the tragedy of Alisa’s death had been amplified by the malice behind the attack, which transcended even premeditated murder. The emotional anguish merited that the court factor in solatium as well as economic losses. On this matter, the lawsuit included an eloquent passage on the nature of grief that echoed Flatow’s experience in the nearly two years since he had lost his daughter.

“Individuals can react very differently even under similar circumstances; while some sink into clinical depression and bitterness, others attempt to salvage something constructive from their personal tragedy. Such constructive behavior should not be considered as mitigating solatium, but rather as an equally compensable reaction, one in which courage to face their own mental anguish prevails in order to survive, and in some circumstances, to benefit another.” 

They asked for $150 million in damages.

When an American citizen is killed in a terrorist attack abroad, the customary practice is for an FBI team to investigate. But following the bombing that killed Alisa, Palestinian president Yasir Arafat refused to let the FBI into Gaza. In order to present their case for damages, Perles needed witnesses, first responders, and doctors who could testify about the bombing and Alisa’s suffering. In September 1997, Perles flew to Jerusalem, accompanied by his 11-year-old son, to ask the Israeli attorney general for help.

Perles found the city on edge, with heavily armed security guards and military personnel dressed in body armor patrolling the streets. A week before he arrived, three Hamas suicide bombers had blown themselves up on Ben Yehuda Street, a ten-minute walk from his hotel. As he made his way to the Justice Ministry, in the Arabic section of Jerusalem, Perles saw how the threat of terror had become a part of daily life.

When he arrived at the meeting, Perles asked for permission to send Fay to investigate. “I know Arafat turned these people away, but I don’t care,” he said. “I’m not subject to diplomatic niceties.” The official agreed and promised to provide a military escort.

Flatow had coordinated a vacation in Jerusalem to coincide with Perles’s trip, and one afternoon they met in the lobby of the Sheraton in the center of the city. An older man sat nearby with a bag of groceries. He finished his drink and walked out. That’s when Flatow saw that the man had left behind the bag. He threw Perles’s son to the floor and—though no small man—pancaked him to protect him from the bomb he was sure was about to explode. It was a false alarm.

With the support of the Israeli government, Fay began planning a trip to gather witness testimony. He enlisted Victor Holmes, a friend and videographer, to film the depositions. The two shared a blustery sense of humor. Just before their departure, Holmes turned up at Perles’s office and showed him a T-shirt he had bought for the trip: it was Day-Glo orange and said Don’t shoot, I’m a Lutheran in Arabic.

“Do you know what one Arab sniper said to another?” said Perles.

“What?” said Holmes.

“What’s a Lutheran?”

Holmes threw the shirt in the trash.

When they arrived in Jerusalem, Fay sought out government officials’ help in identifying witnesses, and a source gave him a list of the people on the scene of the Kfar Darom bombing. Among the first people Fay contacted was Orit Taft, a military radar technician who was riding the bus back to her post. She had refused to be treated for her injuries until every other person had been evacuated. The Israeli government later awarded her a medal.

After she finished her deposition, Taft offered to go with Fay and Holmes to Kfar Darom to view the scene of the bombing and help them locate other witnesses. They arrived in Gaza a day after Kfar Darom had been strafed by Palestinian snipers. First they sought out David Shaenbaum, an American man living in the village, listed as a witness at the scene of the bombing, “I know your voice,” Shaenbaum said to Taft after meeting her. “You’re the military officer that told me if I didn’t put down my camcorder, you’d shoot me yourself.”

Fay and Holmes went on alert: Camcorder? Shaenbaum, it turned out, had been tinkering with his new video camera when he heard the bomb blast. He didn’t know if it recorded anything, but he offered to find the tape. A few minutes later he returned with the cassette, and Fay and Holmes watched as the recording started and the image of smoke and flames appeared. Then they saw sky and dirt; Shaenbaum had dropped the camera on the ground.

But the vantage point changed as someone picked up the recorder and continued shooting. Now Shaenbaum was in the frame holding a plasma bottle next to Taft, and on the ground below them was Alisa. The camera panned to show Israeli Defense Force vehicles speeding across a field and helicopters touching down. Several people picked up a stretcher with Alisa on it and delivered it to one of the choppers. Altogether there was 20 minutes of footage that they could present in court to show the horror of the bombing.

“No one even knew that video existed,” said Fay. “It was invaluable to us.”

Next, Fay and Holmes deposed the doctors who had worked to save Alisa’s life and the individuals who had received her organs. Perhaps most crucially, they also found Reuven Paz, who had served with Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service at the time of the bombing. In the aftermath of the attack, Paz had intercepted a radio message from Iran congratulating the PIJ on the mission.

Patrick Clawson photographed at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


In 1984, the State Department labeled Iran a state supporter of terrorism. But if Perles and Fay were going to bring Iran to court and win, they needed to establish that there was a financial link between the Iranian government and the PIJ. To do this, they called on an economist named Patrick Clawson, who had worked at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Fluent in French, Hebrew, and Farsi, Clawson had extensive knowledge of Iranian and Middle Eastern politics and economics. For years he had studied Tehran’s stock exchange and understood the web of relationships between the Iranian government and various companies. On paper these corporations were private entities, but in truth most were controlled by government ministries and officials. To Clawson, the stock exchange became a tool for understanding the country’s cloaked financial activities and ambitions.

Clawson had also closely followed Iran’s support for Islamic extremist organizations, scouring records and parliamentary transcripts to track where money was being funneled. In 1995, Fathi Shaqaqi, the leader of the PIJ, had been assassinated in Malta, and the organization’s new head, Ramadan Abdullah al-Shallah, was not well known and needed money to build a reputation for himself. Clawson saw evidence that Iran had increased funding to the PIJ to help him do so, through attacks including a March 1996 bombing of a shopping mall in Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, a German trial gave Clawson another piece of the puzzle. Several Iranian and Lebanese nationals stood accused of assassinating three Iranian-Kurdish dissidents and their translator at the Mykonos Greek restaurant in Berlin in 1992. The Mykonos case had a central witness, a former top Iranian intelligence official who testified that all decisions about terrorist activities were made by a special committee that included the president of the country and Ayatollah Khamenei himself.

Clawson had studied Iran’s 1992–93 foreign-exchange budget, which included a line item for support of the Palestinian revolution. Based on this, Clawson’s conservative estimate was that Iran was spending around $75 million a year to fund the PIJ and other terrorist organizations. Further, he believed Iranian government leaders to be rational calculators who would change tactics if a particular approach proved too costly. After the capture of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, during the Islamic Revolution, for instance, the American government had seized billions of dollars of Iranian assets and imposed extreme sanctions on the country. The funds had provided powerful leverage for American officials to gain the release of the embassy hostages; when the 52 Americans were released, Iran got billions in return.

Perles wanted to know: What sum would get Iran’s attention now? Clawson believed a judgment of anywhere from $150 million to $300 million in damages would help Flatow attain his goal of getting the Iranians out of the business of attacking Americans.

That summer, five months after filing the complaint, Flatow attended a fundraiser at the Plaza Hotel in New York, knowing that President Clinton would be present. He handed Clinton a letter urging him to hold “Mr. Arafat’s feet to the fire of accountability” in connection with the release of a prisoner who was a member of PIJ. He reminded the president of their previous conversation: “Just because my daughter is not here with us on earth does not mean that I stop doing things for her.”

Clinton was in a difficult position. The Middle East and its multitude of conflicts had been a focus since the early days of his administration. Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s secretary of state, recalled that she and the president were “intrigued by the possibility of better relations with Iran, whose strategic location, cultural influence, and size made it a pivotal state in one of the world’s most combustible regions.” In her memoir Madam Secretary, she wrote that before she was nominated, Clinton spoke to her of his desire to create breakthroughs in relations with Iran, the Middle East, and the Islamic world.

In August 1997, a new president had been elected in Iran. Mohammad Khatami was a reformist, brought to office by an unexpected 70 percent of Iranian voters. He told CNN at the beginning of his term that he wanted to create a crack in the “wall of mistrust” between Iran and the American people.

Now Albright and Clinton saw an opening. In October 1997, soon after Fay and Holmes returned from their trip to Israel, Clinton sent a message through the Swiss embassy in Tehran inviting Iran to meet with U.S. officials, without preconditions. It never happened, but he continued his overtures; in January 1998, at the end of Ramadan, he videotaped a message addressed to Iranians that said he regretted “the estrangement of our two nations.”

The team had a skeptical view of a possible rapprochement with Iran, given its conservative history. “Our view was there were two kinds of leaders,” said Perles, “extremists and even more extremists.”

Flatow, meanwhile, wrestled with his grief. That summer the first animal clone was born in Scotland. After Flatow read about the sheep they called Dolly, he began composing a short story in his head: He took a lock of his daughter’s hair and cloned another Alisa.


On March 2, 1998, the first hearing for Flatow’s lawsuit began at the imposing U.S. District Court building on Constitution Avenue, half a mile northwest of the Capitol. The suit would be presided over by federal district judge Royce Lamberth, a native Texan who had been appointed by President Ronald Reagan and was known for tough and sometimes unpredictable legal decisions.

Perles and Fay arrived looking like a study in contrasts, the skinny Perles and the hefty Fay, wondering whether the lawyers representing Iran would even appear. As required by law, Perles had mailed a copy of the complaint, translated into Farsi, to the foreign minister in Tehran. Four months later it was returned to Perles: The envelope had clearly been opened, and the words DO NOT USA were written across the back. When Flatow, accompanied by Rosalyn, daughters Gail, Ilana, and Francine, and son Etan, entered the courtroom, it became clear that they would not be meeting face-to-face with their opponents. Judge Lamberth described Iran’s glaring absence and return of documents as “contumacious conduct,” meaning stubbornly disobedient to authority.

At 10:05 a.m., Fay delivered his opening statement, outlining the historic nature of the lawsuit. “The Congress, in the amendments to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows us to proceed today, has seen fit to give each individual American citizen, each individual the right to proceed against that foreign government,” he said. “As Your Honor knows, this is truly an epochal case in that we have proceeded, not under the cover of government, but as an individual.”

Altogether, Perles and Fay had 18 witnesses, beginning with the recorded deposition of Orit Taft. Before the videotape started, Fay attempted to lighten the mood. “With Your Honor’s permission, I’ll simply stand, and hopefully, this will have a beneficial weight-loss result.”

“We could all use that, couldn’t we?” said Judge Lamberth. “Except Mr. Perles, of course.”

When it came time to show the videotape of the bombing site, Perles suggested that Flatow might want to leave. “I’d rather stay, Your Honor,” replied Flatow. For the first time, he watched the footage of Alisa being carried off the bus and laid onto the ground, her body limp. Fay then showed David Shaenbaum’s videotaped testimony. Kesari Ruza, who was now a law student at the University of Pennsylvania, appeared in person to describe her experience during the bombing. After the lunch recess, it was Flatow’s turn to take the stand.

“You were the father of Alisa Flatow?” began Fay.

“I’m still the father,” said Flatow.

Flatow described Alisa, starting with her voracious reading at an early age, her straight A’s, her interest in music and religion, her strong moral instincts. She had found time to volunteer at senior-citizen centers and taught Soviet immigrant children how to play baseball, her favorite sport. He described how the family had traveled to Israel in January 1995 for a ten-day visit with Alisa and Gail. It was the last time the family was together. He told of his experience returning to Israel after the bombing and the decision to donate her organs.

“Can you describe the effect on your wife, Rosalyn?” asked Fay.

 “I think it’s destroyed her.”

One of Alisa’s best friends at Brandeis, Lauren Sloane, painted a portrait of a funny and empathetic young woman. Her humor was witty, even intimidating. Alisa could come up with a funny line about almost anything before “you could blink,” said Sloane. She had a diverse group of friends, religious and nonreligious; she made nothing of sitting in the bathroom at night to comfort someone who’d drank too much.

In a letter to Sloane, Alisa had once written: “Do what you’re happy doing, and if something isn’t the way you want it, fix it.”

By 4:30 p.m., the first day of testimony was over. Everyone, it seemed, had shed tears, including Judge Lamberth. Perles had asked a rabbi to be present during the trial. At one point, Perles could hear Rosalyn breaking down and turned to ask the rabbi to comfort her, only to see him crying as well.

The next day, the plaintiffs called four expert witnesses: Patrick Clawson; Harry Brandon, a former counterterrorism FBI agent, who testified about the structure of the PIJ; Jerome Paige, an economic analyst who had conducted a life-earnings estimate for Alisa, based on her expressed desire to become an occupational therapist; and Reuven Paz, the former Shin Bet member who had intercepted the radio message between Iran and the PIJ.

Judge Lamberth adjourned the proceedings by 2:45. A week later, the Flatows returned to the courtroom, and Judge Lamberth began reading his decision. “The Court has examined the evidence and is satisfied that the plaintiff has established, by evidence satisfactory to the Court, that the death of the decedent was caused by the actions of the Islamic Republic of Iran in sponsoring this terrorist attack of this suicide bombing in Israel that resulted in the death of Alisa Michelle Flatow.”

As Lamberth continued, Perles could hear Flatow exhale, releasing years of stress. The judge awarded $1 million for the pain and suffering Alisa experienced before her death. He gave $20 million in solatium to Alisa’s family. And then he delivered his judgment for punitive damages. “The court is determined to award $225 million in punitive damages against the Republic of Iran and the other defendants in an effort and desire by the Court to deter other terrorist acts against Americans who happen to be in Israel or elsewhere.”

The judge turned to Flatow. “Mr. Flatow had done exactly what Congress has empowered him to do, and this Court has followed its duty. I hope that the rule of law can contribute ultimately to the solution of the problems presented in this case, where an innocent girl was needlessly killed,” he said. “It doesn’t contribute to the Mideast peace process or to the Mideast anything else to kill an innocent girl like this, and the Court cannot be stronger in condemning this kind of action.”

Outside the courthouse, Flatow, clean-shaven and in a beige raincoat, spoke to the assembled reporters with a stoic Rosalyn beside him. “These people are not heroes. They are not martyrs. They are traitors to the human race,” he told them. “I think Alisa is smiling on us today.”

The celebratory mood was short-lived, however: The morning after Lamberth delivered his verdict, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about its implications should the U.S. and Iran be moving toward rapprochement. “Our policy doesn’t get affected by court judgments,” Jamie Rubin, a State Department spokesman told the paper. “We believe the best way to resolve the differences we have with the Iranian government … is through direct dialogue.” To Flatow and Perles it was an unexpected declaration that the Clinton administration was no longer on their side.

Perles and Fay launched an inventory of Iranian assets in the United States that they could draw on to cover the damages owed to the Flatows. Following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the taking of hostages from the U.S. embassy, President Jimmy Carter froze Iranian assets in America. Iran had lost billions, not only in property and cash, but also in funds deposited in American banks abroad.

When the two countries agreed to the Algiers Accords in 1981, it stipulated the release of the embassy hostages and the establishment of a claims tribunal at The Hague where future commercial disputes could be settled between the countries. Additionally, American hostages were prevented from suing the Iranian government, and some $4–5 billion of Iran’s money was returned. Estimates of the amount still held in the United States varied from millions to many billions, including the former Shah’s private holdings. In order to collect the judgment, Perles and Fay needed to know precisely how much money was left and where it was located.

On June 5, 1998, the lawyers served a subpoena to the Treasury Department, and a week later to the State Department, requesting a list of assets in which Iran had an interest. The denial came swiftly: The Department of Justice responded that the subpoenas would be overly burdensome in their scope and, in a letter to the court, argued that they would require the production of documents protected by “state secrets, law enforcement, and deliberative process privileges.”

The U.S. government also maintained that it didn’t have any Iranian assets. In a letter to Lautenberg on June 10, 1998, State Department assistant secretary of legislative affairs Barbara Larkin argued that the government regularly received requests from Congress and American citizens seeking to satisfy claims using frozen assets. But since the hostages were freed in 1981, she wrote, the government held no Iranian assets, save for a “small amount” that was under arbitration.

Perles and Fay had other ideas. They knew that within a few miles of their own offices were three pieces of real estate that no one could deny were Iranian: the Embassy Chancery of Iran, the residence of the minister of cultural affairs of the embassy of Iran, and the residency of the military attaché of the embassy of Iran. All three had been seized by the State Department on April 7, 1980. Embassy properties are under the protection of the Vienna Convention and are expressly immune from being used to settle claims. Yet, Perles had a hypothesis. The U.S. government had put them on the commercial real estate market, renting them out for money; maybe the government had inadvertently changed the status of the property from diplomatic to commercial. “It was the only thing we could chase,” said Perles.

Flatow’s legal team filed a writ of attachment—a court order to seize an asset—for the properties on July 8, 1998. The next day, at a hearing in Judge Lamberth’s courtroom, they were astounded to see over a dozen government lawyers. The government wanted Lamberth to deny the writ. “It wasn’t ours to give away,” explained Philip Bartz, then a deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department who worked on the Flatow case. “We were obligated to make sure it was not attached and sold to satisfy a judgment. If we start allowing people to seize assets to pay judgments, then all our embassies are at risk.”

Perles watched as Flatow’s head sank. He had brought the Iranians to court with the belief that he had the powerful will of President Clinton behind him. Instead it seemed he had now gained a formidable foe, one who was prepared to fight him with all the resources available to his administration.

The government’s lawyers emphasized that the United States was not filing its argument on behalf of Iran, but to Flatow and his allies the U.S. government seemed to be defending the property of a state sponsor of terrorism.

In Congress, condemnation of the administration’s actions was swift. A week after the Department of Justice lawyers appeared in Lamberth’s courtroom, the House was debating an appropriations bill, and late on the evening of July 16, New Jersey congressman Saxton sought to attach an amendment to it that would allow diplomatic properties to be used by plaintiffs seeking their judgments. New York representative Eliot Engel spoke in support of the measure and criticized the president for protecting Iranian property. “They always say it somehow undermines the ability to have the president do this or that,” he said. “We are the United States Congress, and we make policy. We decide what is right.”

Saxton also spoke. “Terrorists operate around this world, and there is seldom a price to pay,” he said. “This is a tool for us to use as a civilized society.” The amendment stalled, and a few months later Lautenberg sponsored a similar one, attached to the 1999 Appropriations Act. When it passed, President Clinton used an executive waiver to strike it, in the “interest of national security.”

Flatow saw Clinton’s decision as an act of hypocrisy. He told the Associated Press, “Protecting Iranian assets of any type is equivalent to the FBI director saying he’s tough on gangsters but needs to be sensitive to the Mob.”

The battle lines between Flatow and his legal team, largely backed by Congress, and an army of administration lawyers had been drawn. At subsequent hearings, Perles and Fay argued that the government was using an abstract interpretation of its obligations under international law. The government’s lawyers responded that seizing diplomatic properties would adversely affect the foreign-policy interests of the United States. Should another hostage situation take place, for instance, the United States would need all the frozen assets it could access. If the Flatows had hypothetically been able to settle their judgment before 1979, deputy treasury secretary Stuart Eizenstat argued, the government might not have had the money and leverage to get the hostages out during the Tehran crisis. This was not an abstract argument for Eizenstat: He had been President Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser during the Iran hostage crisis.

“Protecting Iranian assets of any type is equivalent to the FBI director saying he’s tough on gangsters but needs to be sensitive to the Mob.”

Perles’s own wife was an employee of the State Department, and he understood the government’s interest in retaining as many bargaining chips as it could—including frozen assets—in its dealings with Iran. But he still didn’t agree with the strategy. “I never liked the idea of saying we’ll give you this money for our diplomats,” Perles said.

Flatow was becoming a thorn in the Clinton administration’s side. “They hated him,” said Patrick Clawson, the Iran expert who testified on Flatow’s behalf. “The U.S. government did its best to discourage and thwart the collection efforts—they didn’t care about judgments, but the collection efforts they hated.”

President Clinton was increasingly under attack in the press for his actions. On October 4, 60 Minutes aired a 13-minute segment detailing Flatow’s efforts that included searing video footage from the Kfar Darom bomb site and of an injured Alisa being carried off the bus. Lesley Stahl asked State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin whether the U.S. government was protecting Iranian assets because it wanted a thaw in relations with the country. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Rubin. “This has nothing to do with our Iran policy and everything to do with the fact that diplomatic property is sacrosanct.”

But this argument looked technical and heartless in light of a father’s emotional pleas. The segment elicited an outpouring of sympathy for Flatow, and the administration was publicly pummeled. Conservative columnist Tony Snow wrote, “Families and victims soldier on, determined to get their due—even if it means taking on a U.S. government that sits on the side of the courtroom, making cause with Fidel Castro, Moammar Khadafy and Saddam Hussein.”

One day, Perles came home to his wife, who joked: “The Ayatollah and Madeleine Albright are getting together to draw straws to see who will get rid of you first.”


After eight months of exchanging motions and briefs, the Clinton administration extended Flatow an olive branch. On November 2, 1998, Perles, Flatow, and Fay attended a meeting at the Department of State building hosted by deputy secretary of the treasury Stuart Eizenstat. The room was crowded with Eizenstat’s staff, as well as emissaries of Frank Lautenberg, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, and the Office of Foreign Missions.

Eizenstat handed over more than 5,000 pages of documents and suggested that if they wanted to locate assets beyond the custodial control of the federal government, they should look no further than 650 Fifth Ave. in New York City. The 34-story building was owned by the Alavi Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Persian culture and scholarship. In fact, Eizenstat told them, the organization was controlled by the Iranian government.

The headquarters of the Alavi Foundation at 650 Fifth Ave. in New York City. (Photo: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

As startling as this claim appeared, the Alavi Foundation’s dubious facade as a nonprofit was an open secret. The Shah created the organization under the name the Pahlavi Foundation in 1973 and built the skyscraper at Fifth Avenue in 1978, the year before he was overthrown in the revolution. In 1995, The American Spectator published an exposé by reporter Kenneth Timmerman that detailed how Ayatollah Khomeini had forced the board of directors (including former secretary of state William Rogers) to resign, replacing them with sympathizers to the new Islamic Republic.

According to Timmerman’s investigation, the foundation began building Islamic centers in Maryland and New York with scholarship programs and adult-education courses that had a pro-Khomeini agenda. He unearthed tax records that showed that the Alavi Foundation had paid more than $1.4 million to a mosque in Brooklyn where the bombing of the 1993 World Trade Center had been planned and discovered that several of Alavi’s employees had been caught trying to buy or export to Iran IBM computers, lie-detector machines, and biological agents.

The Internal Revenue Service had also been looking at the Alavi Foundation ever since it tried to deduct from its taxes a loan it received from a bank affiliated with the Iranian government. In 1997, however, the IRS deemed the organization to be legitimate and gave it a refund, even though Bank Sepah, one of the Iranian banks blacklisted by the Treasury Department, still operated out of 650 Fifth Ave.

Perles and Fay decided to go after three of the Alavi’s properties in Maryland, all Islamic schools in Montgomery County. Just a few days after their meeting with Eizenstat, a sheriff delivered a levy to the properties, and on May 10, 1999, the two sides met in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

In their opening argument, the Alavi’s lawyers called the case a witch hunt and compared their client to the Rockefeller Foundation. If the IRS really believed Alavi was a fraudulent organization, as described in the suit, argued attorney John Winter, it wouldn’t have been granted a substantial IRS refund.

Fay argued that there were FBI videotapes showing the Imam of the Islamic Educational Center in Maryland meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini and the heads of Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as the PIJ’s Fathi Shaqaqi before he was murdered in Malta.

But at the end of oral arguments, Judge Alexander Williams Jr. turned to Perles.

“Why is our government recognizing it as a legitimate business or entity?” asked Williams. “Why don’t they forfeit it and seize the assets?”

Perles responded that the FBI was investigating a “circle of conspirators” that included the leadership of the Alavi Foundation.

“That’s speculative,” said Judge Williams. “Any of us can be investigated.”

Perles left the courtroom aggravated. “I followed that path because they gave me a box of documents about the Alavi Foundation,” he said

Shortly after, Perles and Fay sent a request to the Justice Department: Would the government support their arguments about Alavi in court? They never got a response.

Flatow saw the silence as a double-cross: They had been led to the Alavi Foundation by the government, who then refused to go the next step and give them proof that would win the case. The proceedings revealed how cautiously the administration was protecting its relations with Iran.

Indeed, there were serious concerns inside the National Security Council. The suit could force the State Department into the awkward position of stating whether or not it considered Alavi an instrumentality, or front, for Iranian financial and political activity in the U.S. “There are a number of difficult issues to address,” said an NSC internal memo. “Anticipating further inquiries and possibly a formal request, NSC will convene interagency counsel to explore the matter.”

It came as little surprise when, on September 7, 1999, the judge released the Alavi Foundation’s Maryland schools from the levy and granted a motion to keep Perles and Fay from trying to go after any of its other properties.

As frustrating as the defeat in Maryland was, Perles and Fay were beginning to realize that losing in court wasn’t such a bad thing. Every day, they spoke on the phone several times, urging each other on in the face of setbacks. “Sometimes the way to win, to move a case forward, is to lose,” Perles told me. “If you lose often enough, you can sometimes make things happen. I kept attacking Iranian assets and losing and complaining to Congress every time the Clinton administration intervened. The more we lost, the better we kept doing politically.”

Indeed, the political pressure and public scrutiny was needling the Clinton administration as Perles and Fay continued to file motion after motion in Judge Lamberth’s court. “It’s a very difficult policy issue,” said Stuart Eizenstat. “We understood—a family experiences a grievous loss, and they needed to take what steps they could. But we had to put it into a broader policy perspective. We couldn’t look only at the suffering of this one family.”

On July 30, 1999, Perles, Fay, Lautenberg’s staff, Eizenstat, and seven other administration officials met again. Eizenstat repeated his offer to help identify unblocked assets, saying he wanted to avoid confrontation and work together constructively.

Frustrated by their experience going after Alavi, Perles and Fay asked for an “interim measure of closure” for Flatow, suggesting that the rental proceeds, some $5–6 million from Iranian diplomatic properties, would be a good start. “We, too, want to avoid confrontation—but we need results,” Fay argued. “We want the discussion to go beyond unblocked property.”

The elephant in the room was another proposed congressional amendment: Senators Jon Kyl of Arizona, Connie Mack of Florida, and Lautenberg had put together the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which would provide access to blocked assets. Administration officials were hoping the amendment would be dropped or at least postponed to prevent the president from exercising a veto.

Toward the end of the two-hour meeting, Perles finally lost his patience. “I have heard nothing from you today that is real. The only reason you are meeting with us today is because there’s a crisis for you,” he told them. “You’re here because you can count votes. I can count votes, too.… Think long and hard about the rental proceeds.”

With no indication that the administration was going to release the rental proceeds to Flatow, in the fall of 1999, Kyl, Mack, and Lautenberg went forward with the amendment. “Initially, the Clinton administration’s response to this was more from a legalistic, international-relations perspective,” Mack told me. “Eventually, as this thing heated up, the political instincts started to move, and they had to figure how to do it in a way that did the least damage to their position.”

As Flatow’s lawyers filed motion after motion, the Clinton administration appeared increasingly heartless. (Photo: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

According to internal memos, that September the Clinton administration began considering the possibility that they needed to make what they called an “advance payment” to Flatow to deter the new amendment—some 5 percent of the compensatory damages awarded by Judge Lamberth.

But by October, the two sides were still at a standstill, and Flatow appeared before the Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary to endorse the amendment. “If the administration will not help us, then at least let it get out of our way,” he pleaded. “Stop sending lawyers to court at taxpayer expense to defend the interests of terrorists.”

Eizenstat had also testified, arguing that the United States was at risk of losing its leverage against foreign states. And, he added, even if Flatow was legally allowed to claim blocked assets to satisfy his judgment, “the value of the judgment won by the Flatow family … exceeds the total known value of the blocked assets of the government of Iran in the United States. ”

An hour after Eizenstat testified, the phone rang at Thomas Fay’s office. The caller identified himself as a retired employee of the Department of Defense but didn’t give his name. His job at the department had involved something called the Foreign Military Sales Program. FMS was a program that allowed the U.S. to sell weapons to foreign governments; it was an oft-used tool of American foreign policy. At the time of the Shah’s fall in 1979, he told Fay, Iran’s FMS account with the U.S. government had hundreds of millions in its coffers, which had been seized.

Fay hung up the phone and started calling contacts on Capitol Hill to find out if what he heard was true. Within hours he had confirmed it.

Of all the countries with FMS accounts in the U.S., Iran had one of the largest; it had spent some $20 billion on American-made weapons systems over the decades. But the existence of any money left in the account since the revolution had never been disclosed to Flatow by the administration. In fact, it contained some $400 million.

Unbeknownst to Flatow and his lawyers, the administration had worried that Iran’s FMS account might come up in the litigation. In the summer of 1999, the president’s National Security Council adviser, Sandy Berger, sent the president a memo—now public in the Clinton Presidential Library archives—warning that yet another amendment was being proposed in Congress that would give plaintiffs access to blocked assets. If it passed, Clinton might be forced to use his veto power or risk giving Flatow the ability to tap “the $400 million of Iranian funds that we are holding in the FMS Trust Fund” and jeopardize “one of the primary policy tools at our disposal.”

At the bottom of Berger’s memo was a handwritten note: “We need to make a deal and get some $ to the Flatows—the trick is to give reasonable reimbursement w/out letting these claims eviscerate foreign policy. We’ve been so stuck on the ‘camel’s nose in the tent’ problem that we haven’t done enough to resolve the hot cases.” It was initialed “BC,” a sign that the president’s priorities were beginning to shift.

Clinton’s handwritten note in response to Sandy Berger’s memo. 

By the end of 1999, there were other compelling reasons that the Clinton administration wanted Flatow’s crusade to end: First Lady Hillary Clinton was beginning her campaign for senator of New York, and she needed allies on the Hill and the support of the Jewish vote.

The First Lady was already facing tough criticism from Jewish organizations stemming from her visit to Ramallah in the fall of 1999. In November, she had appeared at a public event with Suha Arafat, the wife of the Palestinian leader, where Mrs. Arafat accused Israel of poisoning Palestinian children with toxic gas. Clinton looked uncomfortable but didn’t dispute the accusation, and as she left the event, Clinton gave Mrs. Arafat a kiss. She later said that the translation she heard of Mrs. Arafat’s words were less severe and that a kiss in the Middle East is like a handshake. But her problems with Jewish voters—who generally make up 12 percent of the vote in New York State—were serious.

Hillary Clinton kisses Suha Arafat during a visit to the West Bank. (Photo: Sven Nackstrand/AFP/Getty)

The First Lady began visiting Jewish centers around the state. On December 14, 1999, she spoke at the Orthodox Union in lower Manhattan. The event was closed to the press and attended by 100 Orthodox leaders and community members. Clinton was asked to explain a range of policy positions, including the status of Jerusalem and foreign aid to Palestine.

Flatow was in the audience, invited by the Union’s chairman to ask his own question.

“Do you support the administration’s handling of terrorist victims’ claims against the Islamic Republic of Iran?” said Flatow.

“No, I do not,” said Clinton.

The room went silent. It was a clear repudiation of her husband’s position. “Very simply, that became an entre to the White House to sit down and talk settlement. Not just with us but with other terror victims,” he said.

The White House’s ambitions for a breakthrough in Iran relations were largely dashed by the last year of Clinton’s presidency. It no longer seemed possible that he would be able to establish direct dialogue with Khatami, who was hemmed in by Iran’s internal politics and the Ayatollah’s refusal to engage with America.

Furthermore, he was no longer faced with just the Flatow case. In the year following the Flatow v. The Islamic Republic of Iran decision, courts had awarded a tsunami of judgments for terror victims. In March, Lebanon hostage Terry Anderson was awarded $324 million. In July, the families of two young Americans killed in a bus bombing in February 1996 were awarded $327 million. The family of a marine killed by Hezbollah was awarded $355 million. The families of the Brothers to the Rescue incident—unarmed planes shot down by the Cuban government in 1996—were still trying to collect the $187 million awarded to them.

After the meeting at Orthodox Union, one of the First Lady’s close advisers, Jack Lew, then director of the Office of Management and Budget, was put in charge of negotiations with Flatow and other families, as well as senators Lautenberg and Mack. Lew, also an Orthodox Jew and a Queens native, presented Flatow with a compromise. Would Flatow accept a payment of the compensatory damages from the United States judgment fund, typically used to settle lawsuits against the United States? Flatow declined. He didn’t want to accept taxpayer money—he wanted Iran’s money.

“I think that really got Hillary’s attention. Here’s this guy, he’s principled,” said Perles. After that, Lew called Flatow and told him he was going to get the problem solved.

Garry Shiffman, national security adviser to Senator Mack, helped oversee the negotiations between the administration, victims’ families, and senators over the ensuing months. The goal was to create legislation that authorized the secretary of the treasury to use some frozen assets to pay compensatory damages to the families.

The final agreement gave the plaintiffs two options. In the first, they could obtain 110 percent of compensatory damages plus interest but relinquish the right to try and collect any other damages, whether in U.S. or foreign courts. In the second, they could receive 100 percent of compensatory damages plus interest and only relinquish their rights to pursue damages in U.S. courts. They could also decline any payments from the government and continue trying to satisfy their judgments through the courts. Flatow chose the second option, retaining his right to go after Iranian assets abroad.

On May 9, 2000, the agreement passed in the House as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. The Senate passed the act in July. Shiffman remembers convening a meeting with the Flatows and other families in the Senate offices during the vote. “There was this tremendous sense of inevitability that we were going to get this done,” he said.

On October 28, 2000, President Clinton signed it into law, thereby ensuring that some $213 million plus interest would be given over to eight families, including the Flatows. Clinton issued a statement saying that he was “pleased that the Congress and the executive branch have been able to reach agreement on legislation that reflects our shared goals, providing compensation for the victims of international terrorism and protecting the President’s ability to act on behalf of the Nation on important foreign policy and national security issues.”

It had been 962 days since Flatow had won his case against the Republic of Iran. As the political scientist Ofira Seliktar has written, the passage of the bill was viewed by Iran as confirmation that the U.S.’s attempts at detente had been a trick all along. “To the insular regime in Tehran, already convinced of Jewish dominance … the so-called Flatow bill was one more indication of Jewish power.”


In the years that followed, the Flatows’ lawsuit would ripple out in unexpected ways—including, over a decade later, unraveling a bank’s Iranian money-laundering scheme. In 2006, Eitan Arusy, an intelligence analyst at the district attorney’s office in Manhattan, who specialized in illegal Middle Eastern financing, began looking into the 1999 Alavi case that Perles and Fay had lost. Arusy’s interest was more than professional. He was a former Israeli soldier, and in his early twenties he had been one of the first responders to the bus bombing in Kfar Darom that killed Alisa.

As a result of Arusy’s digging, the prosecutor’s office investigated the Alavi Foundation further. An informant suggested that they focus on the financial records of the organization, which would show that the nonprofit had received millions of dollars from the Iranian-owned Bank Melli. When they began looking for Bank Melli, they discovered a surprise: money transfers with Credit Suisse and Lloyds, which, it turned out, had removed their names to avoid detection.

The Manhattan prosecutors began collaborating with the Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Treasury Department, New York State’s financial regulator, and the Federal Reserve. Together, they argued, international financial companies including ING, Standard Chartered, HSBC, and BNP Paribas had laundered money on Iran’s behalf, as well as Sudan’s and Cuba’s. When Flatow found out that his case had helped lead to some $12 billion in settlements between the banks and the U.S. government, including $8.9 billion from BNP Paribas alone, it “knocked my socks off,” he said.

It was the latest chapter in a story that Flatow and his legal team had tried to tell years before: that the Alavi Foundation was a front for the Iranian government. On April 17, 2014, Preet Bharara, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney, announced that the skyscraper at 650 Fifth Ave., in addition to properties in California, Virginia, Texas, and Maryland, would be sold with the intention of benefiting terrorism victims, among others. Some $2.8 billion of the BNP Paribas fine will aid 9/11 victims. The Alavi Foundation and the Iranian government continue to dispute that they are connected, calling the seizure “unwise and politically tainted.”

In December 2015, Congress finally passed a spending bill that included provisions for the hostages taken at the U.S. embassy in 1979 to receive millions in restitution, ending a 30-year legal battle. The money will come from the penalty paid by BNP Paribas.

Flatow’s agreement with the government prevents him from filing a claim to any of this money. But Perles continues to track down Iranian money in other countries. A few years ago, in Italy, his firm reached a settlement with Iran mediated by an Arab diplomat: Iran would pay a lump sum by wire transfer, and his clients, including Flatow, would drop all further suits. When the time came, Iran’s representatives never showed up, and the transfers weren’t made.

Most recently, Perles argued before Italy’s Supreme Court to adopt Judge Lamberth’s decision in the Flatow case, so he could begin going after Iranian assets there. (Italy is one of Iran’s biggest trading partners.) The court declined.

Perles’s practice is dominated by cases of victims seeking damages from foreign governments and corporations that materially support terrorists. He is representing the family of Steven Sotloff, the American journalist murdered by ISIS in 2014. In total, his clients have been awarded more than $17 billion in damages in connection with attacks against Americans.

Last January, negotiators reached a historic deal with Iran. The agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, created a pathway to end decades of sanctions in exchange for Tehran dismantling its military nuclear program. Several months later, a bill in Congress sought to block the JCPOA until Iran satisfies judgments won by terrorism victims. The president threatened to veto the measure. “Obstructing implementation of the JCPOA would greatly undermine our national security interests,” said a White House statement, in language that echoed Clinton’s and Albright’s in the 1990s.

And just last week, on January 13, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Bank Markazi v. Peterson, a case that bears a striking resemblance to Flatow’s. A group of some 1,300 families are seeking to recover damages on behalf of loved ones killed in terror attacks sponsored by Iran, including the bombing of the Beirut Marine barracks in 1983. In 2013, Congress required a federal court to allow frozen assets of the Iranian bank to be used to compensate victims’ families. Now the court has to decide whether Congress acted unconstitutionally and challenged the separation of powers at the heart of American governance.

Remarkably, analysts believe that Flatow’s effort may have actually succeeded in its goal of making killing Americans so expensive that Iran would avoid doing so.

“What we’ve seen from this quixotic effort that Flatow had so many years ago is a very substantial penalty that the Iranian government has had to pay,” said Patrick Clawson. “There has been real change in behavior.” He points out the fact that Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups once commonly seized American citizens as hostages, a practice that dramatically declined after the Flatow case.

This isn’t to say that Iran hasn’t found other ways to pursue its interests, supporting everything from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It hardly needs to be said that terrorism itself has not gone away but merely emerged in more places with old and new actors and a seemingly always-fresh stream of money as the Middle East is engulfed in the fight against ISIS and sectarian conflict. In 2015, the State Department reported that global terror attacks grew by 35 percent between 2013 and 2014, and deaths increased 80 percent. Last week, the JCPOA was implemented, giving Iran access to $100 billion in previously frozen assets; Perles predicts that some of this money will be directed toward financing terrorist attacks by Iran’s proxies.

For Gary Shiffman, now a professor at Georgetown University in economics and security policy, the next stage for these cases is the international legal system. “If there’s a way for American citizens to go to international court and obtain a judgment for an act of terrorism, they should be able to do that,” he said. “If the price goes up, the demand goes down.”

The Flatows settled with the government for over $26 million, paid out of appropriated funds from the U.S. Treasury. According to the agreement, however, the funds will be deducted from Iran’s frozen FMS account in the future. (Perles’s and Fay’s fee was about a third of the amount.)

The Flatows created a scholarship fund in Alisa’s name to send college students to study in Israel each year. The fund is just one aspect of Alisa’s ongoing legacy, going back to the moment she was taken off life support and her organs were given to Israeli patients. Although three recipients died following surgery, three others survived, including a man who had waited for a new heart for more than a year.         

Today, the Flatow family includes 16 grandchildren, with four granddaughters bearing the name Alisa.

Flatow hasn’t stopped talking; he travels to high schools and synagogues, gives interviews to the media, and writes letters to editors. “It’s good therapy for me,” he said.

He and Rosalyn are considering a move this spring, and as a result Flatow recently sorted through old boxes, including some of Alisa’s belongings. As he sifted through college textbooks from Brandeis, toys, and birthday cards, he marveled at the passage of time. “Twenty years ago, I would have fallen apart,” said Flatow. “Now I just look and shake my head in wonderment.”

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Holiday at the Dictator’s Guesthouse

Holiday at the Dictator’s Guesthouse

What possessed a family man from Ohio to smuggle a Bible into North Korea?

By Joshua Hunt

The Atavist Magazine, No. 54

Joshua Hunt has contributed to Harper’sThe New Yorker, The New York Times, Pacific Standard, and Playboy, among other publications. His first book, about Nike and its influence on higher education in America, will be published by Melville House. He lives in Tokyo.

Editor: Katia Bachko
Design: Thomas Rhiel, Gray Beltran
Producer: Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Muna Mire, Aviva Stahl
Photos: Maddie McGarvey
Other images: Nadja Drost, Getty Images, and courtesy of the Colombian National Police
Video: Courtesy of Jeffrey Fowle

Published in October 2015. Design updated in 2021.


On the morning of August 1, 2014, Jeffrey Fowle woke before seven in his room at a guesthouse in Pyongyang, North Korea. Soon a young woman arrived with his breakfast of rice, broth, and kimchi. She smiled as she set the tray down on the large desk at the foot of the bed, then walked out of the room and locked the door behind her. It was Fowle’s 87th day in custody.

He sat at the desk, watching a shadow play across his window. An opaque vinyl film had been applied to the glass, so Fowle could see only silhouettes walking past. That April, when Fowle had traveled to Pyongyang, he’d felt that God wanted him to help North Korea’s oppressed Christian underground. His attempt took the form of a Korean-English Bible, left behind in a bar bathroom; he was taken into custody as he tried to leave the country. Fowle poured the broth over his rice and began to eat.

An hour later, Mr. Jo, Fowle’s interpreter and minder, appeared at the door: His slacks were ironed, and he’d traded his usual polo shirt for a crisp dress shirt. “Today is the day,” Mr. Jo said. “Be ready.”

A few weeks earlier, Mr. Jo had told Fowle that he might be allowed to speak with international media. It would be his first chance to tell the world about his situation, and to remind the U.S. government that he needed help. At noon, Mr. Jo led Fowle to a conference room on the other side of the guesthouse, reminding him of his talking points along the way.

“Emphasize your desperation for wanting to get home and that your family needs you back,” Mr. Jo said. “Put some emotion into it.” He suggested that it might be good if Fowle cried. In the conference room, Fowle was seated at a long table with a couple of North Korean journalists from the Associated Press Television News. Instead of press badges, each reporter wore a pin with the smiling face of Kim Il-sung.

Some hours later, I was sitting in a coffee shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side when a report about three Americans detained in North Korea appeared on the television mounted to the wall. The first was Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American who had been held there since November 2012, when he was arrested for “hostile acts” against North Korea’s government and its young new leader, Kim Jong-un. Bae had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and appeared on the screen dressed in a gray jumpsuit with his prisoner number, 103, drawn across the left breast. He spoke stoically in Korean about his failing health.

The next prisoner was Matthew Miller, who looked shaken. He’d traveled to North Korea hoping “to speak to an ordinary North Korean person about normal things” and decided that getting arrested might afford him the opportunity. He packed notebooks filled with scrawls meant to suggest he knew U.S. state secrets and that he was a hacker with ties to WikiLeaks. At the airport in Pyongyang, he requested asylum in North Korea and was taken into custody. Speaking to APTN reporters, Miller wore a black turtleneck and the look of a guilty child. “I’m now requesting help from the American government, the citizens of America, and the world, to release me from this situation,” he told the APTN reporters, with a quiver in his voice.

Jeffrey Fowle appeared last, his demeanor a strange contrast with the two men who preceded him. He appeared relaxed, spoke calmly, and even smiled. His oversize metal glasses frames seemed to magnify the twinkle in his eye; he seemed too youthful to be 56 years old. “I’ve been treated well,” he said. Foreign missionaries working inside North Korea have faced detainment, imprisonment, and execution, yet Fowle apologized for his actions with a smirk hiding in the corner of his mouth. He looked like a man interviewing for a job, not pleading for his freedom. I didn’t know what to make of his easy manner. Confidence, naivety, and insanity all seemed like possibilities.

North Korea’s persecution of Christians dates back to 1945, when the Communist north broke away from the south. Its founding leader, Kim Il-sung, whose own father was a prominent Christian activist, leveled churches, outlawed the Bible, and killed known Christians. So ferocious was this campaign that in the six years after World War II ended, hundreds of thousands of Christians fled south. The division of the two Koreas was formalized in 1948. In 1950, Kim Il-sung’s Stalin-backed regime invaded South Korea and started the Korean War, which touched off the north’s slide into isolation. Now ruled by Kim Il-sung’s grandson, Kim Jong-un, North Korea remains openly hostile to the U.S., its preferred enemy, and to free speech and religion, which imperil the regime’s autocratic rule and the cult of personality that has helped keep the Kim dynasty in power.

Fowle seemed to have acted alone, without the support of an international missionary organization. His crime implied no grand scheme, no strategy. If he harbored pretensions to courage, they were well hidden. And yet he’d gambled his freedom for an act of protest that offered limited rewards and great personal risk. I wanted to know who he was and why he did it.

 Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang. (Photo: Corbis)


On a Saturday morning in the winter of 2014, Jeffrey Fowle woke in the dark, before sunlight stirred the dog and the dog stirred the children. He was home in Miamisburg, Ohio, in a house that sits across the street from an invisible boundary with Moraine, the city where he had worked for the public service department since 1988. In the winter, he cleared snow. In the summer, he fixed curbs and sidewalks. On Saturdays, his wife, Tatyana, worked part-time as a hair stylist. On Sundays, they took their three kids—Stephanie, 9, and his sons Alex, 13, and Chris, 11—to church.

On that winter morning, his wife left for work and the kids retreated to the yard, leaving Fowle alone in the house. A child of the Cold War, Fowle had been fascinated by America’s Communist enemies for as long as he could remember. He read obsessively about the Soviet empire and took Russian classes in college. In the 1990s, he became fascinated by North Korea, the so-called hermit kingdom, after accounts of a terrible famine appeared in the news. Recent reports about the detention of missionary Kenneth Bae, and Dennis Rodman’s visit with Kim Jong-un, sparked Fowle’s interest once more.

In the glow of his iMac, he spent hours clicking between human-rights reports that criticized North Korea and tour packages offered by travel agencies promising a journey to its heart. He turned to Amazon to browse books, selecting Escape from Camp 14 and Long Road Home, which recounted the experiences of North Korean refugees, and Only Beautiful, Please, written by a former British ambassador to the country. Then Fowle added to his basket a book called Korean for Beginners. At the bottom of the page, he noticed a selection of recommended books based on his search history. One of the titles immediately caught his attention: a turquoise Korean-English study Bible. Its gaudy color reminded him of something he’d read earlier: that North Korean schoolteachers sometimes enlist children to find underground Christians. “Go home and look for a shiny black book with strange writing on the cover,” they tell their students. “Bring it to school tomorrow.”

In the 14 years they’d been married, Tatyana Fowle had learned that she was no match for her husband’s wanderlust. In 2013, Fowle was in Russia when he ignored her pleas not to go to Mongolia alone. “The guards caught him trying to cross the border on foot at two o’clock in the morning,” she said. “They told him he could die doing that, so he found a bus full of Italian tourists and rode across with them.”

So when her husband told her he’d booked a trip to North Korea, Tatyana thought little of it. The U.S. State Department warns against travel to North Korea, but it’s not illegal to visit. The government of North Korea allows foreigners, including Americans, to enter with authorized groups. According to estimates by tour operators, as many as 8,000 Westerners visited in 2014.

Fowle chose a ten-day trip organized by Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company, which cost about $4,000. The group would meet in Beijing and travel together to Pyongyang, where the itinerary included the “famous, ornate Pyongyang Metro” and its stations “decorated with socialist-realist mosaics and reliefs.” Then the group would enjoy a train journey that would “reveal parts of the country never before seen by foreign eyes.”

A few days before Fowle’s departure, Tatyana watched her husband pack. Among the clothes and guides to North Korea, she spotted a turquoise book.

“Please don’t bring that Bible,” she said. “If you need to bring it with you for the flight, at least leave it in Beijing.”

Fowle didn’t look up. He needed to find a spot in his luggage for a deflated basketball covered in autographs. He’d bought the ball in December, at a Harlem Globetrotter’s exhibition game in Dayton. As players signed it, he told them it might be going to North Korea. At his most optimistic, he imagined presenting it to basketball-obsessed Kim Jong-un.

“It was like he didn’t even hear me,” Tatyana told me. “He seemed so distracted. So focused, like he was packing for some important mission.”

She didn’t know that her husband had been making plans for the Bible since it arrived. He tucked a photo of the family inside the cover and wrote out his name and Tatyana’s, along with their address and telephone number. She didn’t know that he was planning to take the book to North Korea and leave it somewhere in the northern territories. Far from Pyongyang and its powerful elites, he was sure someone in the Christian underground would find it. There the Bible might serve an entire community—a community of people who would know the name, face, and family of the man who had brought them this gift.

If the authorities found it, he’d say it was his study Bible and he’d forgotten it by accident. The language workbook would be his alibi: He would claim both were materials for studying Korean. For three decades, Fowle had lived with the feeling that God had a plan for him. It was too much to consider that it might all go wrong; he was in God’s hands now.

Basketball signed by the Harlem Globetrotters. (Photo: Maddie McGarvey)


Fowle had stopped going to church when he was 12. His parents, Edward and Virginia, were Episcopalian when they married. Edward was a guidance-systems specialist in the Air Force. They lived in Florida when Fowle was born, in 1958, but a few years later, Edward was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, outside Dayton. The family built a house in nearby Beavercreek. Virginia was a homemaker, raising Fowle and his three siblings. Each Sunday, they attended services at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

As the family settled into their new home, Edward began to have a crisis of faith. At a time when new religious movements were multiplying, he became fascinated by the Worldwide Church of God, an organization led by Herbert W. Armstrong, who had helped pioneer the use of radio and television to reach far-flung worshippers. His teachings leaned heavily on the Old Testament and British Israelism, which held that white Europeans of the British Empire descended directly from King David.

Edward quickly became serious about his new beliefs. He forbade the family from celebrating Christmas, pushing them instead toward Old Testament celebrations. In the fall of 1967, he took the children out of school and drove the family to the Pocono Mountains, to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles. During the festivities, Fowle’s brother, Jaime, ran through a window, slicing his eyelids open; his younger sister, Lynn, developed pneumonia. Virginia’s patience ran out, and she returned to St. Mark’s.

Despite the rift, Edward’s commitment deepened. When Armstrong said that his adherents could serve only one master, God or government, Edward left the Air Force after 13 years of service. He resigned without hesitation and without Virginia’s blessing. He continued working at Wright-Patterson as a private contractor but forfeited his pension.

The Fowle household was divided. On Saturdays, Edward dragged Jeffrey and his sister Laurie to Worldwide Church of God services. On Sundays, Virginia took Jamie and Lynn to St. Mark’s. By 1970, Jeffrey Fowle had stopped going to church altogether.

In 1980, Fowle was 22 years old and studying at the Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster, Ohio. He lived in a rented room on a farm in Ohio’s Amish country. His social life was slow, his love life nonexistent. In the evenings, he’d lay in bed and wonder what the future held for him. One night the answer came to him in a dream.

The images stayed with Fowle for decades: He was looking down on a large field, where an old-fashioned revival was taking place. A woman and her son stood nearby. To Fowle, the scene was ridiculous. “You see those holy rollers down there?” he asked them; he’d meant it as a slur.

Fowle heard a voice coming from behind him, and he was so sure it was God that he didn’t bother to turn and look.

“Don’t make fun of them,” the voice said. “They are sincere in what they do.”

Suddenly, Fowle rose from the ground and into a gray mist, which became a brilliant cloud that enveloped him. Passing through the mist, he felt that his sins had been cleansed. When he awoke, his pillow was wet with tears.

Fowle emerged from the experience certain that God had a plan for him. In 1983, he finished school and gave away most of his possessions. He packed what remained into his ’68 AMC Rambler Ambassador and drove to Death Valley, California, Christ’s 40 days of fasting on his mind. When he reached the desert, he drove his car deep into a desert canyon and pinned a note behind one windshield wiper, along with the car’s paperwork. Whoever found the vehicle, he wrote, could have it. He wasn’t planning on coming back.

For four days and four nights he fasted and hiked, carrying a bedroll and little else. He found stoned hippies, raging bikers, and other wanderers looking for answers. When he made it back to his car, there was no message from God—only a note from the park rangers, who had returned the car’s title to the glove compartment.

Fowle worked odd jobs in California but eventually returned to Ohio. He moved in with his parents and took the Air Force officer’s examination. Weak vision disqualified him from being a pilot, but he was invited to enroll in the navigator’s course. In Texas, he began officer training but flunked out. For a few years he foundered, and then, in 1988, he found work as a semi-skilled laborer with the streets division in Moraine, a suburb of Dayton.

As Fowle’s life began to settle, he no longer felt content just reading books. He wanted to see for himself what he called the “dark corners of the world.” In 1989, he saw a TV commercial for tours to the Soviet Union. As a boy, he’d been fascinated by Soviet defector Victor Kravchenko’s 1946 book I Chose Freedom. He signed up for the trip and traveled to Leningrad, Moscow, and Turkmenistan as part of a local organization called the Dayton Friendship Force. The group often stayed with locals, which gave Fowle the sense that he was seeing what life was really like in the declining Soviet empire, right down to the minders who warned against taking unauthorized photographs. In Turkmenistan, Fowle saw the Door to Hell, a giant smoldering crater born when a natural-gas field collapsed into an underground cavern in 1971. While his coworkers vacationed in Florida, Fowle learned to water-ski on the Caspian Sea.

The USSR’s collapse didn’t dampen Fowle’s interest in the region. In 1996, he traveled to the Balkans in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, which had ended the year before. In Serbia, Fowle stayed in a house scarred by shrapnel; their guides kept a close watch to ensure that no one walked into an active minefield.

While his travels grew more ambitious, Fowle’s life in Ohio was lonely. “I had been a wallflower in high school, and in college I really hadn’t dated,” he would later say. In 1998, he decided to join an introduction service that paired American men with women from abroad.

“You don’t hear the term mail-order bride anymore,” he said. “I guess guys are ashamed to call it that nowadays, but I never understood the stigma myself.”

A catalog from the introduction company arrived, and Fowle chose an Iranian woman and several Russians to correspond with. One photograph of a kind-faced brunette named Tatyana Shoom, 15 years his junior, intrigued him more than the others. He wrote to her alternating bits of college Russian with English. She overestimated his fluency and responded with more Russian. He enlisted his former Russian-language professor for help with translation.

In the fall of 1999, Fowle visited Tatyana in her hometown of Yekaterinburg. He returned again in December. She found the American idea of organized religion strange at first. “My country was without God for 70 years,” she said.

Tatyana arrived in the U.S. on July 1, 2000. Her visa required her either to marry Fowle or return to Russia within 90 days. On her 91st day in America, the two were married.

Jeffrey Fowle at church. (Photo: Maddie McGarvey)


In April 2014, Tatyana drove her husband to the bus station in Cincinnati. After a quick goodbye, Fowle climbed onto a bus that took him to Chicago, where he boarded a flight for Beijing. The day after he arrived, Fowle and three dozen other tourists from around the world gathered for orientation. Simon Cockerell, a longtime guide with Koryo, explained the rules of travel in North Korea: no unauthorized photography; no off-color remarks about founder Kim Il-sung, his son Kim Jong-il, or the current Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un; and no pushing outside ideas on North Koreans. The next morning, Fowle and his fellow travelers caught their flight to Pyongyang. From the plane, North Korea’s rugged landscape vaguely reminded Fowle of Ohio’s cornfields. He wore black jeans and a blue dress shirt with a red tie, fidgeting uncomfortably like a child in church clothes. His leather bomber jacket hung low on the left side, sagging from the Bible’s weight.

At Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport, the group spilled out onto the tarmac, iPhones and cameras in hand. An enormous portrait of Kim Il-sung awaited them on the facade of the main terminal. The Great Leader ruled the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is formally called, from 1948 until his death in 1994, and during that time he systematically replaced objects of worship with his own image.

Inside the terminal, Fowle approached a security officer and felt for the first time the gravity of his mission. As he handed over his luggage, he told himself to trust in God. The thought alone was not enough to comfort him. The agent worked through his bags quickly, but each time Fowle walked through the metal detector, an alarm buzzed. He emptied his pockets, but the alarm kept on. He fumbled to remove his belt. The buzzing continued.

It was too much for Fowle to take. Sweating, he reached for his left pocket and unsnapped the two buttons that held the pocket closed. If he handed the Bible over now, maybe they would believe it was just for him. Then the agent waved him ahead. Fowle grabbed his bag and stepped through, snapping the two buttons shut again. He was in.

Tourism didn’t come naturally to North Korea—it had to be invented. In 1992, an Englishman named Nicholas Bonner traveled to Pyongyang to visit a friend. The country had opened its borders to foreign visitors six years earlier, but Bonner noticed that no one was coming. The next year, he founded Koryo Tours, in partnership with the Korea International Travel Company, which is operated by the North Korean government.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had collapsed, taking with it the cheap oil that had powered North Korea’s economy. Steel mills in the northern territories slowed production, and glass factories were shuttered. Hospitals came to resemble morgues as equipment broke down, one Soviet-made part at a time. The power grid flickered into permanent decline, and the countryside was picked clean of any wood that could be burned and any plant that the stomach could hold down.

As conditions deteriorated, Koryo Tours’ business grew. In Pyongyang, well-fed elites and an air of relative stability helped the city preserve its appeal. In 1995, Koryo brought a hundred foreign tourists to Pyongyang for an International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Muhammad Ali was among the guests, who saw professional wrestlers from North America and Japan compete before an audience of more than 150,000 people. KITC ensured that Ali and the other visitors were kept in a bubble, their sanitized view devoid of signs that the catastrophic, years-long famine was hitting its grim peak. What we now know of the Arduous March, as it was euphemistically called, is largely thanks to human-rights groups, United Nations inspectors, defectors, and Christian organizations. Because sanctions have left North Korea largely isolated from the global financial system, foreign tour operators pay KITC through banks in China, which remains a North Korean ally. In the past, even Chinese banks have been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for laundering Pyongyang’s money, some of it counterfeit, some of it related to nuclear proliferation or illicit trade.  

In 2013, North Korea began allowing foreign visitors to carry their mobile phones into the country and access the Web, via Koryolink, North Korea’s mobile service provider. The change in policy coincided with the rise of social media. Suddenly, photographs, albeit government approved, could be uploaded to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. What mattered was that people saw something they’d never seen before: a broken-down Stalinist amusement park, preserved as though in amber.

Critics of North Korea assert that such expeditions carry a hidden cost. Despite the limits on financial institutions dealing with the regime, international funds still flow into the country through tourism, and that money often filters down to nations that are hostile to the U.S. and its allies. Some have called for a travel ban to North Korea, pointing out that the regime has contributed to Syria’s weapons program and was likely helping Iran as well. But in Fowle’s mind, his mission absolved him of complicity.

Though he felt guided by God, his movements were controlled by the government. He stepped out of the airport and onto a bus owned by the KITC, which employs the North Korean guides, minders, drivers, and videographers. On the bus, Fowle took a seat by himself. He wore a broad, toothy grin that was often directed at no one in particular. Around him others compared camera lenses and swapped stories. Fowle was assigned a roommate for the trip, a Canadian named Ken, but Fowle kept mostly to himself.

Souvenir video of Fowle’s trip. (Video: Courtesy of Jeffrey Fowle)


Pyongyang was a mass of contradictions. Children in sooty clothes chased each other down sidewalks while soldiers and students walked by in crisp uniforms. Peasants pushed broken-down oxcarts along dusty roads while nearby streets were filled with taxis. The schedule was tight, packed with visits to the restaurants, markets, parks, and monuments. The Bible never left Fowle’s jacket pocket, which bulged with its mass. At the Mansudae Grand Monument, the group placed flower arrangements at the feet of enormous bronze-colored statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and performed a deep ceremonial bow. To Fowle’s eyes, these were the churches of North Korea.

He knew from the beginning that he’d leave Pyongyang with the Bible. He had no desire to leave it in a city run by the ruling elite. From the outset, the Bible was headed for Hamhung or Chongjin, in the northeast. The farther from Pyongyang, the more open he felt the people would be to outside ideas. In the human-rights reports, he’d read stories documenting persecution of Christians in Chongjin, a city in the north of the country. He recalled a defector from outside Chongjin who told a heartbreaking story to the United Nations. The defector’s son was 20 years old when he met a Korean-American pastor. He converted to Christianity and attended secret Bible-study meetings. In 2008, agents from North Korea’s State Security Department dragged the boy from his home. Two years later, the boy’s mother heard from a friend that their son had been interrogated for six months and then sent, without trial, to a prison camp. The man told UN investigators that he knew his son was “as good as dead.” Another defector told the U.S. Senate that she’d witnessed the execution of six elderly Christians who had refused to renounce their faith. They were lined up and killed one by one, she said, by a soldier who poured molten iron over them.

Accounts like these convinced Fowle that the people of Chongjin had suffered, and that among them were a stronghold of Christians who worshipped in secrecy. At the orientation in Beijing, Cockerell had mentioned that North Koreans outside Pyongyang, particularly in the northern territories, tended to be more conservative and more distrustful of foreigners. But the warning did nothing to weaken Fowle’s resolve. God’s will, he felt, would prevail.

After three days in Pyongyang, the group headed east on a private, three-car locomotive. Outside the capital, signs of poverty were more apparent. Wood-cooker trucks, their engines jerry-rigged to run on burning wood chips, crept along like rolling barbecue pits. The 1970s Korean diesel train was immaculately preserved, with a luxurious dining car, but it sounded like a junkyard as it carried the group along the coast.

In recent years, security around foreign visitors has tightened dramatically, after an incident in 2008 in which a South Korean tourist strolled onto a military site while out for a walk and was shot to death by a soldier. At times, Fowle felt the eyes of a minder about to notice the Bible, or a penetrating glance that would divine his secret mission. The sooner he got rid of it, the sooner he could stop worrying about the North Korean guides. In Wonsan, they visited a giant railroad station, notable because in 1945, Kim Il-sung had traveled to Pyongyang from that very spot, after he was liberated from the Japanese. And they saw the small hotel where the Dear Leader had slept the night before the journey. But there was no chance to slip away. Next came Hamhung, which also provided no opportunities. There was nowhere to leave it at the Hamhung Fertilizer Factory or the city’s brutalist Grand Theatre, either.

On the evening of May 5, the train rolled into Chongjin, and a small group headed for a local pub before turning in for the night. Around nine, Fowle and several others arrived at the Chongjin Seaman’s Club. In the days when North Korea shipped much of its steel to Japanese companies, the club had been a popular drinking spot among sailors. Now it catered to foreign tourists, with a gift shop that sold delicately arranged bouquets of dried fish. It was the last stop before the group returned to Pyongyang, a fact that weighed heavily on Fowle as he sipped orange sodas and watched his fellow travelers drink and socialize. After an hour, Fowle excused himself to the restroom. It seemed as good a place as any to leave the Bible. The city sees few tourists, Fowle told himself. Once his group left, it could be days before anyone used the bathroom again.

He slipped into the men’s restroom and took in the layout—a sink and a mirror, a row of urinals, and a few stalls. He walked out and back to his seat. A few minutes later, Fowle returned to the bathroom. He was about to remove the Bible from his pocket when he saw Daniel Levitsky, a guide with Koryo Tours, washing his hands. Fowle froze. “Don’t miss the bus,” Levitsky told him on the way out.

Fowle walked into a stall and shut the door behind him. He wrenched the Bible free from his pocket. From his other pocket he pulled a sheet of newspaper and wrapped the Bible like a gift. His mind raced: What if he couldn’t make the scene look accidental? Beneath the twitchy blue light of a bare bulb, the bathroom looked so small and clean. He took a pen from his pocket and dropped it on the floor, as if training his hands to manufacture an accident. Staring at it, he wondered if it looked right. Then, in one motion, he tucked his gift beneath a wastebasket.

Hiding it, he hoped, would buy him enough time to get out of the country. Some janitor would find it days later and god would take care of the rest. If it was found, he’d deny everything. He collected himself and climbed aboard the bus. The group spent the night at the Chongjin Tourist Hotel, which, Koryo’s itinerary boasted, overlooks train tracks, “providing a great chance to observe night-time rail traffic and soak up the city’s industrial atmosphere.”

Chongjin, an industrial city located on the Sea of Japan. (Photo: AP Photo)


Fowle awoke in an anxious mood the next morning. The group headed out for a tour of a Chongjin factory, which sold candy and dinner rolls. The products sat in small piles at the end of silent conveyor belts, but they didn’t appear to have actually been produced there. The facility was as clean as an operating room. Not a single conveyer belt moved.

It was late morning when Simon Cockerell gathered the group in the parking lot outside the factory. “Did anyone leave something at the Seaman’s Club last night?” Cockerell asked.

“Oh yeah,” said Emanuel Luttersdorfer. “I left behind 3,000 renminbi in a toilet stall.”

Luttersdorfer had traveled with Koryo before and expected Cockerell to laugh. But Cockerell was silent. Another tourist doubled down on the joke, saying that he’d left his Bible behind.

“Are you serious?” Cockerell asked.

“No,” the man said. “Of course not.”

Cockerell asked again, turning to look at everyone in the group. Finally, Fowle stepped forward.

“I think I forgot my book,” he said.

“What kind of book?” Cockerell asked. His face reddened as he stared Fowle down.

“A turquoise book,” he said. “My Bible.”

Cockerell and Levitsky pulled Fowle behind one of the KITC tour buses along with a guide from the KITC named Mr. Oh. Fowle’s ideas about Chongjin, it turned out, had been wrong. Someone had found the Bible almost immediately. And rather than pass it along to some underground pastor, they turned it in, very likely in terror. A KITC representative told Cockerell about the discovery.

“How did this happen?” Cockerell asked.

Mr. Oh interjected; he was vehement that North Koreans would have no interest in a Bible. “No one believes this stuff here,” he said.

After Fowle explained what he’d done, Cockerell and Levitsky spoke with the KITC guides. The minders are responsible for the actions of the tourists they shepherd around the country. They also serve as the link between their Western guests and the state. A short time later, Cockerell found Fowle again.

“That was a really stupid thing to do,” he said. “But I think we have things worked out.”

Fowle was relieved. Later that day, at a karaoke restaurant, he clapped along with the waitresses belting out North Korean pop songs and danced with one of them, smiling broadly as he spun her around. During dinner he approached Cockerell to ask about the itinerary for the remainder of the trip. For a moment, Cockerell stared at him in disbelief.

“You really don’t get it, do you?” he said.

The next morning, as the train pulled out of Chongjin, Fowle felt like a man who had crawled out of his own grave. In less than 24 hours, he’d be out of the country and on his way home. But his fellow travelers were not impressed with what he’d done: Some gave him dirty looks, while others criticized him openly.

One of the members of the tour group told me that he asked Fowle what he’d been thinking, but Fowle “just shrugged and stared back at me with that Alfred E. Neuman grin of his.”

It was an overnight trip to Pyongyang. Fowle slept. The next morning, on the way to the airport, Mr. Oh approached Fowle and gave him a quiet dressing down. He wanted Fowle to know that actions have consequences.

At the airport, Fowle’s group cleared customs and walked onto the tarmac. Simon Cockerell had told him to expect a longer customs check because of his stunt, so Fowle wasn’t surprised to be walked through the metal detector over and over again. A few minutes later, two large North Korean men approached him. They wore black slacks, polo shirts, and serious expressions. Silently, they motioned for Fowle to follow. They led him out of the airport and placed him in the back seat of a black Volkswagen Passat. Fowle sat in the middle, with one of the men to his left and the other to his right. They looked to Fowle like mirror images of one another, right down to the way they folded their arms onto their laps. From the passenger seat, a North Korean man in Western-style clothes introduced himself as Mr. Jo and said he was going to be Fowle’s interpreter.

The car arrived at the Yanggakdo Hotel, and Fowle was ushered into an empty back room. Mr. Jo walked over with the Bible in his hand.

“Is this yours?” he asked.

A photograph of Fowle’s family, which he’d forgotten about, peeked out from behind the turquoise cover. Given how carefully he’d placed the Bible under the trash can, his grand plan to pretend that he’d dropped the book accidentally no longer seemed plausible.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s mine.”

It’s not common for Americans to go missing in North Korea, but it happens often enough to have its own protocol. Within hours the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was alerted to Fowle’s situation. Because the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, problems like these fall to diplomats based in China. A few of them have developed a specialty in dealing with North Korea, which has leaned heavily on the Chinese for support since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Beijing sent a diplomatic cable to Washington, D.C, where Linda McFadyen, a desk officer with the State Department, was assigned Fowle’s case. In 2009, McFadyen helped bring home Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two American journalists who’d been detained in North Korea after walking into the country from China. McFadyen contacted the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which serves as the “protecting power” for American citizens in North Korea. She spoke with ambassador Karl Olof-Andersson and urged him to locate Fowle and arrange for a consular visit.

Back in Ohio, Tatyana learned of her husband’s detention from her sister-in-law, Laurie, who burst into the salon where she worked and told her the news. Simon Cockerell had been calling the Fowle residence all day but couldn’t get through because of errant digging that had damaged neighborhood telephone lines. Tatyana was shocked and angry; she also realized she had suddenly become the sole breadwinner. “I didn’t have time to worry about my emotions,” she later told me. “I had to take care of the family.”

A few hours later, a liaison from the State Department spoke with Tatyana and told her that the government was doing everything possible to bring her husband home. The liaison asked Tatyana not to tell anyone outside the family; the government needed to manage the news carefully. Desperate for engagement, aid, and visits from foreign dignitaries, the North Korean government sees Americans as bargaining chips that can be used to achieve its goals and manufacture propaganda.

As soon as Fowle identified the Bible, Mr. Oh escorted him to a room on the 36th floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel. Less than an hour earlier, he’d been on his way home. Now he contemplated his grim future while looking out on the Pyongyang skyline. It was like a postcard that had been left in the sun, its colors washed out. Behind him two North Koreans cataloged his luggage, removing items like razors and nail clippers. Then a man in a military uniform stepped into the room. “You are here under investigation for this incident of leaving the Bible in the DPRK,” the man said.

A short while later, a compact man named Mr. Kim arrived in a gray two-piece uniform. Its stiff fabric glistened in the soft light. The jacket was cut in the style popularized by Mao Tse-tung. He wore a small red pin affixed to the left breast, on it an image of Kim Il-sung’s smiling face.

He was the shortest of several Mr. Kims that Fowle met, and so Fowle started calling him Short Mr. Kim. He began by asking about Fowle’s interest in North Korea and the minutiae of his life in Ohio—his work, his family, his education, and his upbringing. His tone was distant but probing, with a forced sense of informality. After 30 minutes, the mood shifted. The conversation became an interrogation.

“Who is paying you to do this?” Mr. Kim asked. He spoke calmly, but his posture grew more assertive and his eyes hardened. He seemed to sink into his suit, like a snake coiling before it strikes. “Things will be much less pleasant for you if you don’t cooperate,” Mr. Kim said. “Tell us who gave you the Bible.”

“No one sent me,” Fowle said. “I bought the Bible myself, on Amazon.”

He immediately regretted the detail. If they forced him to sign into his Amazon account, they’d see his order history, full of books by North Korean defectors and critics. Fowle tried to explain why he’d brought the Bible to North Korea. He told Mr. Jo and Mr. Kim about his dream, and about his trip to the desert. Both men seemed baffled. Mr. Kim looked vaguely disgusted.

“You’re not being forthcoming enough,” Mr. Kim said. “We’re going to transfer you someplace where the facilities won’t be as accommodating and the interrogation techniques will be harsher.”

After an hour, Mr. Kim left Fowle with a minder. There were no shackles and no bars on his window, but each minute that ticked by brought him further from the tourist he’d once been. He turned on the television and saw a report about Matthew Miller, the American who had been arrested in North Korea just a few weeks earlier. The next day, a worker arrived to look at the television. When he finished, it no longer picked up foreign channels like the BBC and Japan’s NHK. He was getting a taste of what it meant to be North Korean. His few possessions fit in a suitcase, his movements were restricted, and he had access to just three state-owned channels.

A few weeks later, a doctor was brought to examine him. Her name was Dr. Park; she gave Fowle a checkup, which consisted primarily of her placing one hand flat against his chest and thumping it with the other.

A routine began to emerge. In the mornings, a minder, Tall Mr. Kim, would arrive. He had a relaxed manner, and like Fowle, he knew a bit of Russian. The two men exchanged pleasantries and sat down to watch TV together. In the mornings, they watched exercise programs. Tall Mr. Kim would follow along with the routines and encourage Fowle to join him. In the afternoons, Short Mr. Kim would arrive. Mr. Jo explained that Mr. Kim was helping him prepare for a trial. First he would have to confess his crimes against the government of North Korea. This confession would take the form of a written document, which the two men would draft together. Each day, Fowle’s interrogator announced himself the same grating way: Instead of knocking, he rolled the backs of his fingernails against the door.

Mr. Kim expected Fowle to wear dress shirts during his interviews and to bow deeply to all North Korean officials he encountered. Some days the conversations were congenial. Others, tedious. Occasionally, they were menacing.

“No one sent me,” Fowle repeated again and again. “I came on my own.”

“That’s schoolboy logic,” Mr. Kim said. “If you don’t start cooperating, things are going to become less pleasant. It will be very bad for you if you behave like this at your trial.”

Since the truth didn’t seem to satisfy his captors, Fowle eventually invented a man named Mr. Carter who, he said, ran a secretive underground missionary operation based in China. “He’s the one who pushed me to do it,” he said, but Mr. Kim didn’t believe him.

In the evenings, Fowle watched old propaganda films from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, often with Tall Mr. Kim at his side. In one movie, Truman and Eisenhower faced off against Stalin. Fowle loved hearing the snippets of American English. When the films ended and Tall Mr. Kim left, Fowle’s thoughts turned to his wife and family.

The documents Fowle used to enter North Korea. (Photo: Maddie McGarvey)


A few days after Fowle was detained, Simon Cockerell returned to Pyongyang for a business trip. He felt certain that Fowle was being held at the Yanggakdo Hotel. He had no illusions about rescuing Fowle but wanted the American to know that someone was looking out for him. Every night of his ten-day stay, Cockerell opened his windows and blasted Western music. When he went out or returned, he walked along different floors of the hotel, looking for guards. He left Pyongyang with no news for Fowle’s family.

Back in Ohio, Tatyana received a weekly check-in from the State Department. These situations play out according to a pattern, they said. In six months, her husband would be home. There was nothing to do but wait. In the meantime, she could send letters to her husband through the State Department. If the ambassador in Pyongyang managed to arrange a meeting with Fowle, he could pass them along. So far his requests had gone unanswered.  

Tatyana couldn’t sit idly. She wrote to several former presidents: Clinton, both Bushes, and Jimmy Carter. The only reply she received was a form letter from the younger Bush’s office. She’d come of age in the last days of the Soviet Union and understood the social underpinnings of Communist regimes. “It’s about who you know,” she said. “If I talk to enough people, maybe one of them knew my grandfather or my uncle.” She called the Russian Embassies in Washington, D.C., and Pyongyang.

“If something happened to you, maybe,” they told her. “But he’s an American.”

On June 6, the U.S. government acknowledged Fowle’s detention, and the media descended on Miamisburg. A few hours later, Tony Hall, a former Democratic congressman who had represented Dayton, told reporters that he had called North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, hoping to get more information about Fowle’s situation. Hall had traveled to North Korea eight times, working on fighting hunger, and had developed some ties in the North Korean government. He promised Tatyana that he would look into her husband’s case. “Leaving a Bible in a room is not a big deal and shouldn’t be a big deal,” he said.

The media remained outside the Fowles’ house. For two weeks, Tatyana didn’t go to work, because she couldn’t face the reporters. The kids, meanwhile, wrote letters to their father. Tatyana sensed that they needed something to distract them. She bought some hens and a rooster, and soon there were dozens of chicks, small and fragile and soft, and in need of attention.

“Eight Days a Week”

“Back in the USSR”

“I Wanna Hold Your Hand”

On the blank pages of his Korean language workbook, Fowle wrote lists to distract himself from all the questions he couldn’t answer. He had no idea if his wife and kids were OK, no idea if they knew what had become of him. He didn’t know if he still had a job. His list of Beatles songs began optimistically enough, with “I Feel Fine.” The 11th entry, “Help,” was scrawled in anxious block letters. In a list of American presidents, he missed only Chester A. Arthur and Martin Van Buren. He preferred to list songs by category—Motown Sound, Christmas, Sixties Classic Rock—humming the melodies to push dark thoughts away. Paper was in short supply, but he kept a diary, writing just two sentences per day: notes on the progress of a construction project visible from his window, or about an immaculately refurbished old army jeep parked in front of the hotel. After three weeks at the Yanggakdo, Fowle’s statement of guilt was complete.

On May 31, Fowle was told to collect his things. His minders led him downstairs to a familiar Volkswagen Passat, the same car that had brought him there from the airport. Driving through Pyongyang, they passed several construction sites, which reminded Fowle of something he’d read. A group of workers were tearing down houses on the outskirts of Pyongyang, to make way for a highway extension. In one house, they discovered some pages from a Bible. Investigators compiled a list of everyone who had ever lived there and tortured them until they revealed the names of a handful of North Korean pastors operating in secret. The pastors were made to lay down on the pavement. They were still alive when the steamroller pressed them into a freshly laid section of highway.

A few minutes later, the car pulled up in front of a stately guesthouse with a green roof. The driver and Mr. Jo, Fowle’s interpreter, walked ahead of him, like Secret Service agents clearing a path for the president. They entered a large room with walls the color of split-pea soup. Mr. Jo handed Fowle a piece of paper with his statement of guilt and instructed him to read it aloud to an official with an oval face. At the conclusion, Fowle bowed deeply, as he’d been taught. Then Mr. Jo led him to his room.  “Start thinking about what letters you might want to write home,” Mr. Jo told him.

The thought of writing something other than a list thrilled him almost as much as knowing he’d be allowed to communicate with his family. Before going to bed, he sat at the large desk and laid out his writing utensils. He pulled open the desk drawer, and a line of block letters stared back at him, written in black ink on blond wood: NO SCHOOLBOY. Had another detainee stayed in the room? Was it Kenneth Bae?

A new routine took shape. In the late afternoons, Mr. Jo would come and fetch Fowle for his daily walk. The interpreter would walk ahead, signaling when it was OK for Fowle to follow. Outside the men spoke more freely. One night, Fowle asked Mr. Jo about the disastrous famine of the 1990s. Mr. Jo recalled that the worst years had coincided with his time at college, when he studied English at university in Pyongyang. Fowle pressed him to say more, but he wouldn’t.

On June 20, Fowle was driven to a hotel to finally meet with the Swedish ambassador. The American was warned in advance not to try passing any notes to the ambassador. As he walked into the room, Fowle saw a stack of letters and a couple of chocolate bars sitting on the table and broke down. It was the first contact he’d had with the outside world since his ordeal began. For months he’d imagined his life unwinding—a lost job, perhaps a lost home, and a family that would be lost without him. When the ambassador told Fowle that his family was fine, he felt a tremendous sense of relief. He was surprised to learn that he’d made international news. He had feared that he would be swept under the rug—that the North Koreans would somehow be able to cover up his disappearance.

The ambassador passed Fowle an anthology of works by Ernest Hemingway and a stack of letters from back home: his sister-in-law, Brenda, had sent a week’s worth of Sudoku and crossword puzzles clipped from the Dayton Daily News. Each of his children had sent letters. Tatyana had not. A product of the Soviet Union, she hated the idea that someone, American or Korean, would read them. Besides, there was really only one thing she wanted to say: Why didn’t you listen when I told you not to bring that Bible?

During his visit with the ambassador, Fowle was allowed to make a collect call to his family. The call cost about $140, a large expense for a family facing an uncertain future.

Fowle’s lists. (Photo: Maddie McGarvey)


A week after America learned of Fowle’s detention, Sony Pictures released the first trailer for a film called The Interview. “THIS DECEMBER… JAMES FRANCO… AND SETH ROGEN… WILL ATTEMPT TO ASSASSINATE… KIM JONG-UN,” the teaser proclaimed. Two weeks later, North Korea condemned the film, promising a “merciless response” if the U.S. government did not take steps to prevent its release. The regime considered the comedy an act of war. Fowle couldn’t have chosen a worse time to place himself at the mercy of Kim Jong-un.

In October 2013, Nigel Clark, the head of international marketing for Sony Pictures, asked Li Chow, the studio’s general manager in Beijing, for her thoughts on the script. He was worried that the leadership in China, a major market for Hollywood blockbusters, might object to the portrayal of its ally. On November 1, 2013, Chow responded:

“It is difficult to say whether the government will object. In times when there is no political tension in the region, it would not be a problem.… In recent years, China seems to have distanced itself from N. Korea and it is unlikely that Sony will be hurt by making the film.”

By this time, Kenneth Bae had been in custody for a year. Then, in April and May of 2014, Miller and Fowle were detained. On the day that Fowle met with the Swedish ambassador, Kim Myong-chol, a spokesman for the North Korean government, released the first of a number of statements criticizing the film. “There is a special irony in this storyline as it shows the desperation of the U.S. government and American society,” he said. “A film about the assassination of a foreign leader mirrors what the U.S. has done in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine. And let us not forget who killed Kennedy—Americans.” Suddenly, Sony Pictures had a problem on its hands; its CEO, Michael Lynton, asked the Rand Corporation for a threat analysis. After watching an early cut of the film, an analyst warned Lynton that the regime “will likely explore Sony’s computer systems to see if Sony is ready to deal with North Korean criticism,” adding that The Interview would not be “the first time that American films have satirized the North Korean leader.” The analyst also recounted a conversation with Robert King, the State Department’s special envoy for human rights in North Korea: “Their office has apparently decided that this is typical North Korean bullying, likely without follow-up, but you never know with North Korea.” On July 2, Shiro Kambe, a Sony executive in Japan, wrote to the film studio’s top lawyer and its head of public relations. “We understand that several US media recently reported about … North Korea’s decision to put two detained American tourists on trial,” he wrote. “Are these changing the tension of the US media or government on the movie?”

As the summer dragged on, Fowle’s lists of pop and gospel songs gave way to a growing litany of health concerns. He began to suffer from dizzy spells. Sometimes the edges of his vision were suddenly flooded with black spots. He started wondering if his captors were poisoning him. In a napkin, he began stockpiling his nail clippings and collecting hairs from the bathtub drain so that they may one day be tested. One afternoon in July, Mr. Jo took him to a local hospital, a three-story cement building that looked like a commercial warehouse.

Mr. Jo led Fowle past a modest pharmacy and down a long corridor, stopping at various stations along the way. At one station, Fowle had his blood drawn. At the next, his hearing was tested. He gave a urine sample. At another station, a nurse laid him on a gurney and placed eight electrodes on his chest and arms for an EKG test. At the ear, nose, and throat station, Fowle complained of congestion. A man tipped his head back and squirted a brownish red liquid up his nose.

Next they arrived at Dr. Park’s office. The physician, who had examined Fowle at the Yanggakdo Hotel, wore a crisp white lab coat with her name printed on a breast pocket. Her assistant, Jun, wore a nurse’s uniform with an old-fashioned cap. The doctor flashed a familiar smile and greeted Fowle in English. An X-ray technician wearing a heavy lead vest blasted Fowle’s chest with radiation while he and Dr. Park made small talk. The machine looked decades old. Fowle noticed the thickness of the technician’s vest and the fact that no one else in the room was wearing one. Dr. Park didn’t seem concerned. Before he left, she repeated the test she’d administered at the hotel, tapping his body with her hands. No one asked about his dizzy spells or his vision problems.

If Fowle had dreamt of seeing the real North Korea from his family room in Ohio, now he had a front-row seat. He managed to get through only one Hemingway story before the book was taken away “to be checked”; it was never returned. At the guesthouse, the plumbing rarely worked, power outages were constant, and television programs were limited almost exclusively to propaganda. Sometimes the electricity remained off for 12 hours at a stretch.

For the first time in his life, Fowle finished a Sudoku puzzle. Mr. Jo was intrigued by the game. “What is it?” he asked.

“It’s Sudoku,” Fowle said. “Don’t you have these here?”

By the time the first Sudoku appeared in a Japanese newspaper, in 1984, relations were already strained between the two countries.

Mr. Jo was guarded but seemed to regard Fowle with less suspicion as time passed. Sometimes it seemed to Fowle that he was speaking candidly about his own life and his own thoughts.

“Power is a very precious thing in North Korea,” he said. “Even here in Pyongyang, the power is off a lot. But I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

“What do you mean?” Fowle asked.

“I have a solar panel for my house,” he said. “Made in China. When the power goes out, my lights stay on.” In Pyongyang, more and more people were getting them, he said.

The two men became friendly. Mr. Jo arranged for him to see Dr. Park and summoned a barber when Fowle started looking shaggy. Because his toiletries had been confiscated, Fowle couldn’t even trim his nails without borrowing Mr. Jo’s Swiss Army knife.

Once, during their daily walk, Mr. Jo told Fowle something surprising about Jeju Island, a volcanic province of South Korea.

“I’ve heard they grow oranges there,” he said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

“Sure, I like oranges,” Fowle said.

“Food security is one of the major things we’ve got to worry about here. We’re always on edge,” Mr. Jo said, lowering his voice. “You never see oranges in North Korea.”

Fowle was touched by this small revelation: a grown man captivated by an island full of orange trees. As they made their way back to the guesthouse, Mr. Jo spoke again. “Food is a precious thing here,” he said. “It isn’t always easy.”

For hours each day, Fowle was left alone in his room. He’d been warned not to cross the threshold that divided his bedroom from an outer anteroom, where a window looked out onto the east side of the compound. But boredom emboldened him. He started by peeling back bits of the vinyl covering from the windows in his bedroom, creating slits through which he could see Mr. Jo riding up to the guesthouse on his bicycle. Before long he started creeping into the anteroom. One day he saw a worker plant a flower in the hair of the young woman who brought Fowle his meals. When she arrived with his dinner that night, it was still there. He paid her a compliment he’d learned from his Beginner’s Guide to Korean and pointed to the flower. She blushed.

Fowle no longer received letters from home and had no idea if the letters he wrote were reaching his family. Still, he kept writing. In August, he wrote to his daughter:

I love you and miss you very, very much. I know you are already a big help to mommy, so keep up the good work while I’m gone. Keep studying hard in school and study your bible lessons in school and church. I’m sorry I missed your birthday. I pray that I’ll be home for your next one.

In early August, Mr. Jo accompanied Fowle to the press conference I had seen on TV. Fowle was determined to project a positive attitude. Though he was beginning to lose hope, he wanted his children to see that their father was alright. In front of the cameras, Fowle forgot his talking points; off-camera Mr. Jo reminded him what he needed to say.

For Tatyana, seeing her husband in good spirits on TV was a relief. She also knew that Tony Hall was using his connections to help bring Fowle home. Thanks to the work he’d done to help combat hunger in North Korea, he was able to set up a meeting with a diplomat from the DPRK; on August 13, the two men discussed Fowle’s case at a New York City hotel.

A few weeks later, Mr. Jo began coaching Fowle for his next interview. On September 1, Fowle was driven to a nearby sports complex. He was seated at a large table; this time the reporters waiting to speak to him were Americans.

As I watched in Manhattan, it was clear to me that the month since Fowle’s last television appearance had not been easy on him. He wore the same blue dress shirt and the same oversize glasses. But his demeanor had changed entirely. He spoke too quickly, tripping over his own words. There was a panic in his eyes. He told CNN’s Will Ripley, “I’m getting desperate,” and he looked to me like he meant it.

His boss, the city manager of Moraine, told reporters that if Fowle didn’t return soon, he would lose his job. “We can’t let this go on forever,” he said. At the end of September, Fowle was laid off.

In the weeks after the press conference, the weather grew cold. Mr. Jo brought Fowle a heavy brown jacket, to keep him warm during their late-afternoon walks. He told him he’d brought it from home.

On October 21, Mr. Jo brought Fowle’s suitcases to the room and began packing. Each item was checked against the inventory that had been noted when he was first arrested. In five minutes they were on the road, and in ten they were pulling up to the same hotel where Fowle had met with the Swedish ambassador. Fowle was led down a hallway and into a large conference room filled with North Korean journalists and photographers. Twenty minutes later, a uniformed official entered the room and approached him.

“The Supreme Leader and First Secretary of the Worker’s Party, Kim Jong-un, has recommended that you be released,” the man said.

It took a few seconds to sink in. He’d expected to be hauled off to a gulag; instead he was free. He bowed deeply and began talking about his appreciation for Kim Jong-un. A young, well-dressed Korean-American man stopped him, explaining that he was from the Department of Defense.

“Watch what you say until we’re on the plane,” he said.

They were joined by a middle-aged man who wore a heavy beard. Together they walked quickly to a waiting car, which rushed them to the airport. They boarded a large plane, and Fowle looked around for Miller and Bae, hoping that they, too, were heading home. He sat next to the bearded man, who explained that he was a doctor. Fowle told the man about his health problems in North Korea and removed a napkin from his pocket, which contained the nail trimmings and hair follicles he’d saved. He offered them to the doctor; the doctor shook his head no.

Fowle asked the doctor how the Americans had convinced the North Koreans to let him go. Just then a man approached Fowle with a tablet device to show him a letter from a North Korean official to Tony Hall, which praised his efforts on Fowle’s behalf.

Fowle in Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey)


A few hours later, Tatyana learned the news. For months the weekly updates from the State Department offered nothing new. Now a television news broadcast was reporting that her husband was on his way home. She told the children they were all going to the airport early in the morning for a surprise.

The next day, before the sun rose, Fowle landed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where he’d visited his father countless times as a young boy. A few hours after he landed, I called his house. Tatyana answered the phone and yelled for her husband.

Several months later, after many phone conversations, I flew to Ohio to meet Fowle in person. He greeted me on his porch, looking healthy and relaxed. He spent the day telling me about his time in North Korea, both as a tourist and as a captive. He spoke fondly of the guides, KITC employees, who became his jailers. His headaches had stopped, and his vision was back to normal. His wife eventually forgave him, and the Moraine streets division gave him his old job back.

Sony Pictures hadn’t fared as well. In the months after Fowle’s release, a group called the Guardians of Peace hacked into Sony’s network and published a trove of data, including salary information and internal emails. While the North Korean government did not acknowledge its involvement, the hackers’ threats included references to “the movie of terrorism,” which everyone believed referred to The Interview. The intelligence community is all but certain that North Korea was behind the cyber attack. Sony Pictures eventually released the film in a limited theatrical run but ended up losing millions of dollars on it.

When Tatyana returned home from work that evening, we sat down to a baked-fish dinner. Fowle wondered aloud about Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller, who were freed two weeks after him thanks to a visit from former National Security Agency director James Clapper. He wanted to talk with them about their time in North Korea.

Fowle was warm but beguiling. I pressed him about whether he felt he’d accomplished anything; he shook his head and told me that God must not have wanted him to succeed in North Korea. But after hours of conversation, I realized that Fowle was wrong. Somehow he didn’t see that, during those endless talks with Mr. Jo and Tall and Short Mr. Kim, he had managed to share his most intimate thoughts about his faith. He told them about his fast in the desert, the dream in which God had cleansed away his sins, and how a divine plan had brought him to North Korea to help encourage unlikely believers. It hadn’t happened how he’d imagined: He thought that God wanted the Bible to be his tool, but then Fowle found a captive audience.    

I asked Fowle if his hunger for adventure had been satiated. Soon after he returned home, he made a joke to local reporters that he was thinking about going to Pakistan. His boss didn’t find it very funny. It turns out that Fowle’s new employment contract explicitly states that if he travels somewhere dangerous ever again, it could be grounds for dismissal. For the moment, Fowle seemed chastened. “No Mount Everest, no Saudi Arabia,” he shrugged.

Stephanie Fowle, 9, with her brother Alex, 13. (Photo: Maddie McGarvey)

We welcome feedback at

The Doctor

Tom Catena is the only surgeon for thousands of square miles in southern Sudan. His hospital, and his life, are constantly under threat. There is no end to the carnage he must treat, and no sign of it letting up. Why does he refuse to leave?

By James Verini

The Atavist Magazine, No. 53

James Verini is a writer based in Africa. His last story for The Atavist Magazine, “Love and Ruin,” won a 2014 National Magazine Award for feature writing.

Editor: Joel Lovell
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Photographers: Dominic Nahr, Phil Mooren
Videographer: Adam Bailes, Nuba Reports
Map: Made in partnership with Nuba Reports

Published in October 2015. Design updated in 2021.


As the sun set on a Saturday in early February, Mubarak Angalo, a farmer in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, was riding in a pickup truck with two friends. They had spent the day at a market, selling vegetables, and were returning to their village when they heard a low droning sound overhead. Instinctively, they knew what it was: the engines of a Soviet-built Antonov bomber. The driver came to a stop, leaned from the window, and looked up. Mubarak listened, hoping to hear the sound diminish.

Nuba is a region of mesa flats, scrubby hills, and escarpments near Sudan’s southernmost border. In the rainy season, its sorghum fields and flowering neem and baobab trees are brilliant greens, and the canopy hides the earthen paths that people travel on between villages. February is the middle of the dry season, however, when the landscape is a milk-coffee brown and the paths are exposed. Antonov pilots scan the horizon easily, looking for dust clouds kicked up by tires.

Nuba has been a war zone for most of the past 25 years, as the government of Sudan has tried to drive Nubans from their land. President Omar al-Bashir, whose regime is dominated by Arab descendants and Islamists, has declared a jihad against the people of Nuba, blacks who practice native religions and Christianity but also Islam. In the past four years, the holy war has been waged largely from the air. The Antonovs strike homes, schools, churches, crop fields, clinics. They drop cluster bombs that send out shrapnel in all directions, inflicting maximum damage on people and livestock. The bombing this year has been the worst in memory. Saturdays, when Nubans set up village markets, are especially lethal.

Every Nuban knows what to do when the drone of the Antonov engines comes: Parents teach children; schools perform drills. If there is a foxhole nearby—and foxholes are ubiquitous, thanks to the constant bombardment—you get in it. If not, you lie facedown where you are. And if you are in a vehicle, you stop, stay inside, and crouch as low as you can. Under no circumstances do you try to run.

As Mubarak and his friends waited in tense silence, the engines grew louder. Mubarak, in his late twenties, knew the rules but panicked. As the plane flew overhead and then released a bomb from the hatch doors in its belly, he jumped from the truck and began running.

About eight hours later, shortly after midnight, the pickup approached a large compound, and the driver honked the horn. A guard unlocked a chain and opened the gate. The driver pulled into a cool courtyard of raked sand and saplings. This was Mother of Mercy Hospital.

A male nurse came outside in the moonlight and looked at Mubarak, who was lying in the flatbed. Shrapnel had torn apart his right arm, left a sucking hole in his left calf, and fractured his skull, exposing brain matter on the right side of his head. The nurse went back inside and unhurriedly returned with a gurney. Mubarak’s friends lifted him onto it and watched as the nurse wheeled the gurney inside. Then they left to begin the long drive home.   

There was no question of where to bring Mubarak. Mother of Mercy is the only fully functional hospital in Nuba, which is about 3,000 square miles. The hospital is overseen by a onetime college nose guard from upstate New York named Tom Catena. Just as there are rules in Nuba for what to do in an Antonov raid, there is a rule for what to do with the victims of the bombing if they are still alive: get them to Doctor Tom as fast as you can.

Near dawn, Catena awoke. He changed into his scrubs, strapped on a Petzl spelunking headlamp, and in long, loping strides descended a slight hill to the hospital. He found Mubarak on the gurney next to a wall in a hallway, alone and untreated. The nurse, assuming Mubarak would die, hadn’t bothered to tell Catena or anyone else about him. The doctor looked at him.

“Ah shit,” he said to himself. “The guy is mangled.”

He rolled the gurney into the operating theater and loosely bandaged Mubarak’s head. He didn’t bother with the arm—it would have to come off. Then he left for Sunday mass.

Carrying a missal and a rosary, Catena walked from the hospital back up the hill, past the cinder-block staff residences, and down a treed bank into a dry riverbed that runs by the hospital’s perimeter fence. A vista of hills came into view, but he kept his eyes on the sand as he gained the far bank and, after passing through a stand of tall bushes, knocked on the metal gate to a compound of small mud-brick huts. A young man, one of Catena’s surgical assistants, came out. Catena told him to be ready for an amputation at eleven.

“Oh, and happy birthday,” Catena said. “It was two days ago, but I forgot to say it then.”

He asked the assistant, Rashid, how old he was. Nubans do not make a habit of noting their birthdays, but he said he was fairly certain he was 21.

“Now you can drink!” Catena said.

Rashid didn’t get the joke, but knew his boss was joking, and laughed.  

Catena arrived at a small brick chapel, about a half-mile from the hospital. A hundred or so people, half of them children, stood in the shade of the boughs of a large neem tree, singing. On the facade above the chapel’s doorway hung an abstract crucifix welded together from pieces of scrap metal. Jesus’s head was a rough-edged triangle. A priest in a batik frock with a green and yellow sunburst pattern led the chorus.

As the congregation sat down, a young man in a tight red T-shirt walked to the podium and read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more,” he said, barely audible. “To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak. I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” As he spoke, Catena sat, arms folded on crossed knees, staring intently into the dirt by his feet.  

At eleven, in the anteroom of Mother of Mercy’s surgical theater, Catena put on a black rubber smock and white gum boots, then washed his hands and dried them on a not exactly clean towel. The operating room was small, its shelves and scant floor space taken up with boxes of supplies. Mubarak lay on the operating table. Because the shrapnel had hit the right hemisphere of his brain, his left side was paralyzed. His right leg and arm jerked like a manic marionette. Rashid unwrapped scalpels and clamps from bundles of old, shredded scrubs.

“He still has a pulse,” Catena said. I don’t think he’ll survive, but we gotta see.”

He held up the maimed arm and wagged it.

“Man, look at this.”

Setting to work, Catena murmured a string of instructions and motivational imprecations to himself. As he cleaned dirt and small rocks from what had once been Mubarak’s elbow, he said, “Let’s get this shit out of here. Jesus Christ.” He cut muscle tissue with a scalpel and then burned away bone with a small electric saw. The room filled with smoke and the smell of singed bone and hot metal. “Man, this is a crappy case.”

Rashid asked what Catena was carving into. It was the ulna. Catena spelled it. “And that’s the radial head,” he said, pointing with the saw. “The head of the radius.”

After an hour, with the ulna and radial head, the muscles, and the ligaments and nerves almost all severed, Catena’s mood lightened. He and Rashid shared jokes and discussed Sudanese pop music. A recent and rigorous student of English, Rashid learned new words and expressions by writing them down on a whiteboard mounted on the anteroom wall. Written there at the moment were improvident, piffle, and prescient.

As he handed Catena instruments, Rashid asked for explanations.

“Doctor Tom, what does it mean: ‘An apple a day keeps a doctor away’?”

“If you eat healthy food like apples,” Catena said, not looking up from the forearm, now separated from Mubarak, “you won’t become sick.”

Catena decided not to touch the skull fracture. Rashid wrapped Mubarak’s appendage in old scrub pieces and put it aside. He wheeled the gurney into the male ward, a long corridor with 50-odd beds, all taken. The patients, many of them soldiers, looked on curiously. Rashid put Mubarak in a spot by a doorway facing onto the courtyard that afforded a light breeze.  

At the sink in the surgical theater, Catena rinsed blood from his gum boots. He was still issuing commands to himself, now more blithely.

“Wash these babies up,” he muttered.


Mother of Mercy sits in a shallow ravine in the village of Gidel, in the heart of the Nuba range, which rises like a fable from the baked Sudanese plain. The people of Gidel, like most Nubans, live as their ancestors did, in stone and mud-brick huts that dot the hillsides. There is no power grid, no plumbing. They fetch their water from a borehole and carry it in orange jerricans and hollowed gourds on their shoulders and heads. They travel by foot or donkey or, very occasionally, pickup. They grow sorghum and tend to small herds of lean cows and goats. On Saturdays, they follow the riverbed to the village market, on the far side of a hill, where they call on a smith and a breadmaker, and where the only signs that it is the 21st century are the Chinese batteries and flip-flops for sale in thatch stalls. If they need to make a call, there is a man on a hilltop about 40 miles away who rents out his cell phone.

The hospital was built by the Catholic Church and opened in 2008. Four long rock-walled buildings form a quadrangle around the courtyard. The main buildings contain the wards, a laboratory, a pharmacy, and administrative offices. Small outbuildings serve as the morgue and a laundry; two sets of field tents take the patient overflow during a battle or an outbreak. The wards are a jaundiced green and white, the paint peeling in the corners, and even the corridors that contain light bulbs are dim. They are heavy with the scents of infected wounds, excrement, soiled bandages.

Patients and their families travel for days, sometimes weeks, to get to Gidel. Most walk, often with debilitating injuries or ailments. Along the way, they stop to sleep at the homes of relatives and strangers. Because the trip is so arduous, the families are welcomed to stay at the hospital for as long as treatment lasts. Some remain for months. They camp by the many foxholes and hang their laundry on the perimeter fence. Their straw sleeping mats and jerricans hang from trees. Children make toys out of discarded medicine boxes. In the mornings, the women take pots from a communal shelf and walk up Tuberculosis Hill, as it’s known, to a ring of cook fires. At midday, when the families of patients bring in lunch, the tang of sorghum paste mixes with the odors of suffering. In the afternoons, when the wards become stifling, the sick go outside to lounge with the healthy. They play cards and listen to music. Those with no visiting family often find distant cousins or long-absent friends.

A few days before Mubarak arrived, Catena, who is the only trained surgeon in Nuba, was examining new patients at the intake clinic. A crowd of several dozen sat outside, fanning themselves with their intake cards. (Temperatures in the dry season can reach 120 degrees.) The women, many of them pregnant, wore colorful wraps, the men cheap suit slacks and secondhand T-shirts.

Inside, an examination table, a desk piled with outdated medical journals, and a wooden crucifix left barely enough room for Catena to stand. He had on bronze-frame eyeglasses with large lenses and was wearing scrubs and green Crocs sandals. At 51, Catena owns one pair of non-scrub pants, which he puts on once every other year, when he leaves the hospital to visit the United States. After moving to Nuba, seven years ago, he came to the realization that he needn’t wear socks. This was, he confided to me,an unbelievable moment of clarity.”

A stethoscope hung from his neck, along with a traditional Nuban bead necklace and the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Catholic amulet. While he was a medical student at Duke University, Catena considered taking vows but decided if he tried to be both a doctor and a priest, “I’d suck at one of them.”

He examined a middle-aged woman, questioning her in the unaccented Arabic of southern Sudan. His tone was efficient, almost terse. When Catena speaks, people listen: He stands just over six feet tall but seems taller, and has the drawn cheeks, stony chin, shaved head, and deep-set, undistractable eyes of a Roman bust. When he played football at Brown University in the eighties he was 230 pounds. Now he’s a bony 160 but still has a doorway-filling frame.

He pressed lightly on the woman’s back. She winced but did not make a sound. She had a tumor below her shoulder blade.

“Where do you live?” Catena asked.

“We live in a cave,” she said.

She calmly explained that government forces had been shelling her village and that she and her children and many of their neighbors had moved into a cave in the hills. This is common. Thousands of Nubans have had to do the same. Hundreds of thousands of others have fled to the sprawling refugee camp in Yida, in South Sudan, just over the border, or to camps in Kenya and Uganda. Most of the manual labor in Nuba is done by women, and for months she’d been carrying water and firewood uphill to the hideout. Sometimes she had only leaves and bark to feed her family.

“They’ll never say they’re under stress,” Catena said, turning to me. “They’ll say everything’s fine. No, it’s not fine. They live in a cave.”

The next patient was pregnant with her ninth child. Her previous three had died. It wasn’t clear how from her intake card. Next to the names of her living children, “fine” had been written; next to the names of the deceased, “die.”

Between patients, Catena went after the squadron of flies in his office. At Brown he was known for both his vicious tackles and his gracious sportsmanship—“He’d hit the snot out of someone and then help them up,” a former teammate told me. But with flies he is merciless, putting back issues of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons to work in his assaults. A nurse set down his lunch, rice and lentils in small metal bowls, and a thermos of red hibiscus tea. I asked Catena if he drank enough water to counter the heat.

“No. I piss gelatin.”

In the afternoon, his lunch untouched, Catena made rounds in the wards. He kept everyone giggling with a light slapstick patter. He backed into nurses, mock-slapped patients. The staff was in the middle of a weekly cleaning, and as a short nurse passed by, carrying a mattress over her head, Catena snuck up behind her and hinged it down. She twirled in confusion. He lifted his arms, and she looked up at him and blushed as her colleagues laughed.

He washed his hands and picked up a filthy towel. He scowled at a nurse. “Raila, come on,” he said, holding up the towel. Raila didn’t look concerned.

“Don’t dry your hands on that thing,” he told me. “Your hands were cleaner before.”

I offered him my hand sanitizer.

“Wow! Thanks, man.”

Necessities at other hospitals are luxuries at Mother of Mercy, where almost everything—towels, instruments, medicines, uniforms, bed frames, pencils—must be flown on cargo planes from Kenya to the refugee camp in Yida and then driven to the hospital in cargo trucks. (The roof was brought in piece-by-piece from Italy over the course of a year.) The drive can take several hours or several days, depending on the state of the roads and the whims of the Antonov pilots. Other things the staff improvises.

Catena started Mother of Mercy with a small group of foreigners. He took on Nuban employees gradually. “There was nobody who could do anything,” he said. The war had closed most schools, and many of the local hires had no formal education. Others had grown up in refugee camps. They had never seen a sponge, much less a syringe. Now there are 200 people on staff, almost all Nuban. Some, like Rashid, are naturally talented. Catena’s anesthetist, who never got past the third grade, trained on the job. Others struggle to catch on. During the cleaning of the ward, he found a nurse—not for the first time—pouring water over an electrical socket.

Late in the day, a nurse asked Catena to look at a woman with an abscess. The nurse was learning English and could remember only that the body part where the abscess had formed began with a b.

“Is it a brain abscess or a breast abscess?” Catena asked.

She thought.


“Good, that’s better,” he said. “Between a brain abscess and a breast abscess, take the breast abscess.”

Examining the woman, he stuck a gloved pinky into the small hole in the underside of her breast. She looked on expressionless.

“That’s not much of an abscess,” Catena said. “That’s disappointing.”


In the children’s ward, the rafters were decorated with stuffed animals and doilies made by nurses. Catena checked on a ten-year-old girl, Toma, who was too shy to talk. Her mother, Afaf, explained that the area around their village was bombed constantly. Toma had been at home with her brothers two weeks earlier when they heard an Antonov and made for a foxhole.

Afaf was returning from the market when neighbors rushed up and told her that Toma had been hit. Afaf ran home and found her daughter on the ground. Her left calf had been sheared off by a piece of shrapnel. Toma’s eldest brother went to notify the local army commander. The commander knew of a truck in another village and went to get it. Four hours later he returned. It took another six hours to drive to Gidel. Before they left, Toma’s mother looked for the missing appendage but couldn’t find it.

When Toma arrived at the hospital, Catena examined her leg with some relief. Shrapnel often leaves messy wounds, as with Mubarak’s arm, but hers was clean. She would be a good candidate for a prosthesis.

Until recently, between a million and a million and a half people, from 50 different tribal and language groups, called the Nuba Mountains home. For most of their history, Nubans lived isolated from the world and the rest of Sudan. In precolonial times, the mountains were a refuge from the Arab slave trade. In the 1920s, in an effort to stem the spread of Islamism and Arab nationalism coming from Khartoum, the capital, the British administration closed Nuba off.

In 1955, as Sudan approached independence, a civil war broke out between northerners and southerners. It would persist for nearly half a century. At first, Nubans stayed impartial, but when the southern rebellion coalesced into a real army, in the 1980s, Nuban fighters joined up. In 1989, when Omar al-Bashir took power in a coup, government forces set upon Nuba. They torched villages and crop fields, assassinated leaders, mined roads, separated men and women to prevent breeding, and blocked humanitarian aid. They put the population into so-called peace camps, where non-Muslim Nubans were made to practice Islam and abandon their native tongues. Mass rapes were committed. Some called it a policy of genocide. “The aim was nothing less than the complete relocation of the Nuba and the eradication of their traditional identities,” writes historian Alex de Waal.

In 2003, when the civil war finally ended, Bashir shifted his wrath to the western part of the country, supporting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against non-Arabs in Darfur. For this he was indicted by the International Criminal Court, though the case against him was recently shelved. In 2011, Bashir resumed the assault on Nuba. By then, however, the Nubans had an army of their own, and they fought back. So Bashir began the air war. The military converted its fleet of Antonovs—slow, clumsy transport planes—into crude bombers and stocked up on Russian-made Sukhoi jets. Since 2011, the government has dropped nearly 4,000 bombs on civilian targets, according to Nuba Reports, a local online news agency.

At first the ordnance dropped by the Antonovs were so inaccurate, locals called them “dumb bombs.” Recently, the government has improved its technology and introduced surveillance drones. The bombing has become more precise. At the same time, Bashir’s troops have stepped up the shelling. Villages have been inundated with fire from mortars, artillery guns, tanks, and rocket launchers. “The shelling has been just unbelievable,” Ryan Boyette, the editor of Nuba Reports, told me.

Toma’s father was not at Mother of Mercy. Like many Nuban men, during the brief peace of the 2000s, he had moved to Khartoum to find work. The government forbids these migrant workers from returning. Toma had not seen her father, a road cleaner in the capital, in seven years. “If he tries to come out, they will kill him,” Afaf said.

In the hospital, Afaf had become friendly with an uncle and a grandmother of a group of five young cousins. The cousins lay in the beds around Toma’s, naked, their limbs daubed with burn cream and loosely wrapped in gauze. They breathed unsteadily and twitched with pain. The outer layers of their skin had been burned away from their bodies.

The uncle told me that their village had been shelled for months. “They bomb during the day and shell at night,” he said. Most of the children in the village had moved into caves in the hills, but the cousins, who were needed to tend to the family’s goats, stayed. At night they slept in a foxhole. One night the week before, the shelling had started at 10 p.m. Before dawn a shell hit a home, setting it ablaze. The burning branches and grassstraw fell into the foxhole in which the cousins slept. Four of them burned to death. The youngest, a two-year-old girl, died in Mother of Mercy.

As the uncle talked, the grandmother propped up the one surviving boy in the group. She tried to pour water from a cup into his mouth, but his lips were too damaged for him to drink. The water dribbled down his chin. She climbed into the bed and lay down next to him, copying the curve of his raw little body but unable to touch him.

The boy was “probably going to die,” Catena told me flatly, out of earshot from the family. The chances of the other cousins were “halfway decent.” Lately, he had seen more and more children burned beyond repair by shelling. They don’t have enough skin to allow proper grafts, and their bodies are too weak to fight the infections. “You just watch them die,” he said. “There’s not much you can do.”

Nearby were a brother and sister who’d been hit with shrapnel in a jet attack. I asked their mother if she knew why the Sudanese government had targeted their village.

“We don’t know why,” she said. “We know that it’s Bashir who’s doing this, but we don’t know why.”

Children’s ward, Mother of Mercy Hospital. Photo: Dominic Nahr


Next to the children’s ward was the male ward, where Mubarak lay, unconscious and snoring. His wounded leg and the stump of his right arm were cleanly bandaged, and his head wound was healing. A feeding tube was taped to his cheek, his right leg and right arm bent and relaxed in gentle rhythm.

Standing by the bed was Mubarak’s cousin, a soldier who happened to be at Mother of Mercy visiting a wounded friend when Mubarak was brought in. Other patients stood around as well, enjoying the breeze coming off the courtyard. They took turns fanning Mubarak with a T-shirt.

His cousin told me that Mubarak had three sons and was an industrious man, not just a farmer but a trader of small goods. He was the only one of his brothers who hadn’t gone into the army. “He is just an honest guy,” he said. Word had gotten back to Mubarak’s wife, and she was on her way to the hospital, on foot. Their village was several days’ walk away. Catena, who hadn’t expected Mubarak to survive, was faintly optimistic.

Rashid went to check on Mubarak occasionally, but only occasionally. He’d seen “so many amputations,” he said, “too many amputations.” When he wasn’t working, Rashid spent his time in the anteroom of the surgical theater practicing English. He picked out words from a Collins pocket dictionary and wrote them first on the whiteboard and then in a small notebook that had begun life, apparently, with a different purpose: its cover read URINE SPECIMEN.

Rashid first came to the hospital as a schoolboy, soon after it opened in 2008. He walked there from his village, in the throes of malarial fever. Like many schools in Nuba, where there are few trained teachers, his had Kenyan instructors. He’d learned a lot about Kenya’s past, he told me, but almost nothing of Sudan’s. He knew little about the history of Nuba or the origins of the war he was living through. When the school closed, he took a job to support his mother and six younger siblings.

He was proud to be at Mother of Mercy, as were his colleagues. In the first days I stayed at the hospital, following Catena’s every step, it was easy to see the hospital as his creation, and his and its presence in Nuba as fabulous, almost miraculous. And in a way, he is and it is, and indeed many Nubans, including many who work at Mother of Mercy, see them that way. A surgical assistant told me, “I’d heard about Doctor Tom before I’d seen him. I heard about there is a doctor here in Nuba Mountains. He is the one saving us from the Antonov bombs.” But the more time I spent with Rashid and his colleagues , and the more I saw of Nuba, the more I realized that what Mother of Mercy offers is not apart from the place. On the contrary, it is distinctly native, only forgotten. The hospital allows for the expression of qualities of Nuban character and culture—solicitude, compassion, endless reserves of resilience and dignity—that have been buried under the rubble of years of bombardment. At Mother of Mercy, Nubans gather and mend and talk and—for all the horror of its wards, in the midst of its foxholes—think of a time before, and after, war. The hospital may not exist without Catena, but Nubans make it work. A nurse told me that being there was “the best way to help Nuba, because we have no skills.”

Rashid asked me one day, “Is there a war in the U.S.?”

I told him that the U.S. had gone to war recently, but that there hadn’t been a war on U.S. soil in some time. We were lucky.

“Yes, you’re very lucky,” he said. “Us, we’re very unlucky.”

In the surgical theater, near Rashid’s whiteboard, sat a large bound ledger containing a record of every trauma case Catena had treated since 2011. I counted over 1,700 entries, written in careful blue and black ballpoint by him and the other surgical assistants. Alongside the names of victims were the names of their villages. The entries were chronological, and the same villages appeared again and again as ground was taken by the government and then won back by the Nuban army, year after year. Where the injuries were caused by an Antonov bomb, an “A” was written. There were hundreds of A’s.


Catena lives in a cinder-block house with a pitched aluminum roof and a dirt yard, where hornbills and shrikes congregate in the mango and mahogany saplings. On the unadorned poured-concrete porch are two pairs of broken sandals he has been meaning to get fixed for years and a permanently inert broom. Inside, the floors are covered with scrubs, back issues of Time and Sports Illustrated, and well-worn books. Recently, he’d finished G.K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. (“How does a woman get into an old man’s head like that?”) They came in care packages sent by his father. Catena hasn’t gotten around to throwing out the cardboard boxes, which are all around the floor, too.

His father includes jumbo bars of Hershey’s chocolate, which Catena keeps in a sputtering deep-freezer, the only appliance in a communal staff kitchen. Outside the kitchen is a hand pump where he washes his scrubs. The cleaning women would do this, but he doesn’t like to bother them. The pump basin has been taken over by a family of ducks, a gift to Catena from the supreme general of the Nuban army. A constant assassination target, the general lives mostly in undisclosed locations, traveling with, among other keepsakes, the cockpit seat of a downed Antonov. Very fond of the doctor, he occasionally shows up at Mother of Mercy unannounced, bearing unexplained gifts like an extravagant uncle. Recently, he gave Catena 25 pounds of honey.

Catena attends mass every morning at 6:30 and then works for 12 to 14 hours, six or seven days a week, more if there has been a battle or bombing. On Fridays, he performs a dozen or more surgeries. For his work, the Catholic Medical Mission Board, which employs 1,200 volunteers in 27 countries, pays him $350 a month.

He appears never to tire. When he has visitors, he talks with them enthusiastically into the night, listening intently, always looking them in the eyes. When asked questions he speaks expansively, his conversation full of references to old Saturday Night Live skits and college and professional sports. He recalls not just the scores of decades-old football, baseball, and basketball games, but also jersey numbers, the details of plays.

“I miss the contact,” he told me of playing football. “People think I’m crazy when I tell them that, but I say, ‘You haven’t tried it.’ I mean, running full speed at someone and just slamming into them! It’s, it’s—” he tensed his shoulders and raised his arms and grimaced with pain and joy. “But I worry about what’s happening to my head,” he said.

At night the cleaners, who double as cooks, set out pots of rice, lentils, and noodles on a side table in a small dining room. The nurses are responsible for bringing in the flatware and jerricans of water from the kitchen but never do, because they know Catena will. He also clears up after everyone has eaten.

One night he arrived late for dinner because he’d been delivering a child.

“Do you mind if I shower?” he asked. “I’m covered in amniotic fluid and urine.”

When he returned and sat down, he told me how he got to Nuba. He grew up with five brothers and a sister—now a priest, a former Army Ranger, a judge, a marine biologist, a hospital administrator, and a part-time teacher—in Amsterdam, New York, a hollowed-out industrial city between Syracuse and Albany that is home to the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. “There was just nothing there,” Catena said. “Nothing to do.” He was a diligent if not brilliant student and an exceptional and fearless athlete. At Brown, his teammates called him Catman for the relentless way he went after blockers and quarterbacks. Off the field, he was timorous, aghast at and amused by the famously permissive atmosphere of the university. One Saturday night , when he was in his dorm room studying, a young woman he didn’t know, fresh from a costume party and wearing a tinfoil hat, knocked on his door.

“I want to go to bed with you,” she said.

“No! What?” he replied. “I won’t do that. I don’t even know you.”

He majored in mechanical engineering, joined Campus Crusade for Christ, and, as one of his ex-teammates told me, “pretended to drink at parties.” After graduating in 1986, he turned down a job to work at a plant that made nuclear submarines.

The idea to become a doctor arrived as a kind of portent. He was driving through a storm with his brother when lighting struck near the car. They were both momentarily stunned by how close it came, and then Catena turned to his brother and said, “I should go to medical school.” “I don’t know why,” Catena told me. “I just suddenly knew I needed to go.”

To pay for the Duke School of Medicine, Catena joined the Navy and trained as a flight surgeon. He went to dive school in Panama City, Florida, with future SEALs and was later stationed at the naval base in Diego Garcia. He thought he might settle down, have a family, become a small-town doctor—the “Norman Rockwell idea”—but the idea didn’t take. In the late 1990s, he read an article in a Catholic magazine about a man who was both an ordained priest and a physician practicing in East Africa. He was captivated. When I asked him why, he said, I just wanted something more, something deeper out of life.” Catena wrote the doctor-priest, Bill Fryda, asking if he had need of a volunteer. Fryda called back, inviting Catena to assist him for a couple of months at a hospital in Kenya. “That was 15 years ago,” Catena said, his eyebrows arching in surprise.

In Nairobi, Catena met a Sudanese bishop, Macram Gassis, who was in the process of building Mother of Mercy. Catena had never been to Sudan and knew of the Nuba only through the photography of Leni Riefenstahl, who in the sixties and seventies lived among and documented them. He didn’t labor over the decision. When the bishop said the hospital was complete, in March of 2008, Catena moved to Gidel, sight unseen.   

In fact, the hospital hadn’t been completed. He had to share a toilet and shower with patients. At first there was no mortuary, and the newly deceased were left on gurneys in the hallways until they could be buried. The staff complained that the dead roamed the hospital at night. Word got out that an American doctor had come, and soon he was out of beds. Patients lay on the floors, patiently. They suffered from malaria, pneumonia, gastrointestinal disorders, viral and bacterial infections, rheumatic fever, cancers, heart ailments, hernias, birth complications, venereal diseases. Women came in with bones broken from beatings administered with sticks by their husbands, brothers, and fathers. (“It’s way too common here,” he told me, referring to domestic violence. “Our staff have been beaten by their husbands. Some of our male staff beat their wives.”)

As we spoke, nurses and technicians came into the dining room, ate quickly in silence, and left. Catena likes his staff but doesn’t socialize with them much. He does share the contents of his father’s care packages, though. As each finished, he held up a chocolate block.

“Julius, don’t forget your chocolate,” he said to one nurse. Julius chuckled and left, uninterested.  

I noticed on Catena’s wrist a black rubber bracelet engraved with John 3:30. (“He must become greater,” John the Baptist said of Jesus, “and I must become less.”) It’s not his favorite Biblical passage. That is Matthew 19:16, the parable of the rich young lawyer, as it’s known, in which Jesus recommends that the interlocutor in question abandon his wealth and become a disciple.

“I don’t think Christ was kidding,” Catena told me. “He wasn’t saying that to bust the guy’s balls. No. Sell all this shit and come and follow me.”

A family takes shelter in a cave from an aircraft flying overhead. Photo: Phil Moore


At first, Catena wasn’t welcomed in Nuba. Old beliefs persisted, and there was a deep suspicion of Catholicism. Protestant missionaries had been around since the 19th century, but the Catholics didn’t arrive until the 1980s. Word spread that a Sudanese doctor working with Catena had been sent to Nuba from Khartoum to poison them; the doctor had to leave before he was thrown in jail. When a local woman working at the hospital found some human tissue on the floor, she brought it to the authorities. Catena was accused of performing abortions. His plea that he was adamantly pro-life, which he is, didn’t translate. Nor did his English idioms.

“I think a lot of it was, these people have been crapped on for so long,” Catena said. “They’re not going to trust you. You’ve got to prove yourself.”

Slowly, he did so. When a local administrator who had been hostile brought in his pregnant wife, Catena discovered the fetus had died in utero. The mother was hemorrhaging badly and required a transfusion, but Catena had no blood on hand. He noticed he was the same type as her. He put a tube in his arm and pumped out two liters. She lived. The administrator never thanked him but was less hostile after that.

For his part, Catena came upon a profound respect for Nubans. He admired their willingness to “put up with crap, with hardship, day after day after day.” He was taken aback by the generosity some showed him. Kenyans, he’d found, still lived with the insecurities of colonialism. Because he was white, even Kenyan colleagues asked him for money. When they went out, he was expected to pay. After arriving in Gidel, he went to the Saturday market for coffee. A Nuban cleaner at the hospital greeted him briefly and then disappeared. When Catena went to pay, he found that the cleaner had bought the coffee for him. “This was one of our staff who was making peanuts. I was totally dumbfounded.”  

Nubans, who had never been colonized, refused to prostrate themselves. They had to swallow their pride to tell him they were in pain. Many of his patients suffer from the psychological effects of war, and Catena once considered offering counseling services, until he realized it would be impossible to get Nubans to speak about their feelings.  

Everything changed in 2011, with the return of war. Catena had never seen a gunshot wound. Suddenly, he was faced with hundreds of them, and not just any gunshot wounds, but the devastating gashes of 7.62-millimeter rounds shot from Kalashnikovs in close-quarters combat. Within days the floors of the wards were covered over in blood. Few of the wounded soldiers moaned or wept or begged for assistance. One of the first men he treated had been shot in the jaw. The bullet had gone through his throat and out the back of his neck. He was sitting placidly, awaiting his turn with the doctor. “He was pretty friggin’ stoic for a guy that was choking on his own blood.”  

He still doesn’t understand how some of his patients survive. Catena, who trained with commandos in the Navy, described one Nuban general as “the toughest guy I’ve ever seen.” The general had been to Mother of Mercy twice, once after his collarbone was shattered by a bullet, and once after he was shot through the head. Both times the general walked out of the hospital. “He’s a friggin’ warrior, that dude! He’s like a classical Spartan.”

In the past four years, Catena has become a vocal critic of the Sudanese government. In interviews with journalists, he calls Omar al-Bashir a war criminal. He feeds information on attacks to reporters and posts pictures of maimed patients on his Facebook page. I’d brought a box of cheap red wine for Catena from Nairobi, and one night he suggested we “crack that baby open.” As we sat on plastic chairs in his yard drinking, his anger rose. “This country is a joke!” he said. “The only thing the army is good for is killing its own people. Can you imagine if they had to fight a real war? Anyone could come here and destroy them. San Marino could invade Sudan and take it over!” He described a recent government attack on civilians. Like almost all such attacks, it had not been mentioned in any media anywhere. “If your own government bombs a place and kills nine people and puts twelve in the hospital, that would normally get mentioned, right?” he asked, earnestly. “I don’t even know which end is up anymore. Is that normal? If you’re on the outside, is that something normal?”

He sank back in his chair and shook his head. “You kind of get beaten down by it,” Catena said. “You’re like, Yeah, whatever, no one gives a shit. Maybe every government does this. I don’t know. I used to think, Why don’t they get worked up, the people who live here? Why don’t they get furious and worked up? Then, when you’re here for a while, you understand. Nothing really changes.”

Bishop Macram, who manages Mother of Mercy from Nairobi, frequently reprimands Catena for his outspokenness. When I sought permission to go to the hospital, Macram advised me: “Don’t talk to Doctor Tom too much. He’s too angry. He doesn’t know what he’s saying sometimes.” Though the cargo trucks that bring supplies to Gidel from the refugee camp in Yida bear Macram’s name in large white block lettering, Macram himself is too frightened to travel there. He fears he’ll be assassinated.

Catena, however, rarely leaves Mother of Mercy. He hasn’t been to the Saturday market, a ten-minute walk away, in five years. One day a colleague who manages the hospital’s outreach clinics asked if he’d accompany her to a nearby village. “No way,” he told her. Every time he goes away, someone arrives who won’t survive without him. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

He makes his biennial visits to the U.S. reluctantly. Last year he received an award from the National Football Foundation. It entailed giving a speech before a crowd of hundreds at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. Catena dreads speaking in front of groups—he doesn’t even address his staff en masse. “I was hoping the government would attack and close the road and I couldn’t get out,” he said. He eventually consented and found himself in New York in a borrowed tuxedo, the jacket several sizes too large, and a loose clip-on tie. For all his anxiety, he is a forceful orator and enjoyed delivering the speech.

In 2011, when the assault on Nuba began, humanitarian organizations closed their offices and expatriates fled. Macram instructed Catena to evacuate. He refused. Macram threatened to fire him. He still refused. “Terminate me,” he told the bishop, “I’m not leaving.” In the speech at the Waldorf, he recounted the episode with visible annoyance. “What they were in a sense saying was, ‘Tom, your life is worth more than these people here.’ And I said that’s a bunch of, a bunch of’”—he wanted to say bullshit but caught himself—“‘nonsense. Their lives are as equal as my life is. In the eyes of God, we’re all created equal. So Tom’s life is the same as Joe Blow in the Nuba Mountains. There’s no difference.” He told the audience, which included professional football players and socialites, that while in New York he’d received an email from Mother of Mercy. Thirty casualties had come in from a battle. “It killed me to not be there and help out. I felt like an injured football player on the sidelines.”  

During the trip, he visited his family in Amsterdam. He went to the church where his parents and sister were married and he was baptized. It had closed. Posters on the doors suggested it was being converted into a New Age Buddhist temple. He was chagrined. Hatching a scheme to salvage the statuary, he tried to knock the door open, but it wouldn’t give.

For many Nubans, Catena now carries the aura of a saint or deity. Patients will refuse to accept medicine from nurses, imagining it will work only if it comes from him. Some ask him to put a hand on them, believing he can cure by touch. (The ultrasound machine in his office, which Catena occasionally turns on for no other reason than to make patients believe he’s using every modern tool to cure them, adds to the mystique.) In certain villages he is known, only half jokingly, as the Second God. When he leaves, people weep openly and pray for his return. I mentioned this to Catena, and he frowned.

“These people kind of look at me as being an equal. I don’t think they look at me as being a white person or a foreigner, as being superior, at all. I hope to God that doesn’t change,” he said.

A partial tally of reported bomb and artillery attacks in the region, 2012–15. Data: Nuba Reports


In December 2014, Bashir announced that victory in Nuba was close at hand and ordered a multifront assault. That month saw more bombs dropped on the region—over 300—than any on record. By January of 2015, Mother of Mercy was full of wounded soldiers.

When I was there in February, about 50 were left. Most had come from a nearby area, Angartu, the site of the deadliest and most bitter fighting. They were missing fingers, arms, legs. One man had on stylish wrap-around sunglasses, the sole intact lens covering his good eye, while the other socket, blasted out, was filled with wadded gauze. The soldiers wore uniforms in various patterns and shades of camouflage, listened to American country music on a radio, and drank from old, boxy metal canteens.

A soldier in his thirties, with a neatly trimmed mustache, had been shot in the knee. He told me that when he was a boy his village was attacked. His elder brother and father were killed. “I grew up with anger,” he said. He and most of his friends joined the army. Only a few have survived. “The government says they don’t need black skin. They hate black skin. They want to get rid of it in Sudan, especially the Nuba. But black skin was offered by God. It is a gift.”

The most talkative soldier, a hulking young man named Abdul, had taken a bullet to the abdomen. He was usually outside playing cards or eating sorghum paste with his mother. He spoke clear, blunt English, and the wound didn’t seem to bother him.

“I love war,” he said, holding up his bowl and insisting I have some paste. “I want to kill them all.” All who? “Just my enemies.”

Bashir is adept at turning the Sudanese minorities he victimizes against one another. For years he enlisted Darfuris to attack Nuba. At Angartu, as at other battles this year, the government deployed a paramilitary detachment, the Rapid Support Forces, made of up Nuban soldiers: Nubans were now fighting each other. Though some of those fighting for the government were doing it for money, or the promise of it, most appeared to be forced conscripts. I mentioned this to Abdul.

“Yes, I know that,” he said. “But still I want to kill them all. Why do they leave the Nuba Mountains? And then they’ll go join Omar? They must be punished, here and in the eyes of God.” He wouldn’t return to the army once he recovered, however—he planned to go to the refugee camp in Yida and enroll in school. He wanted to become a politician. “I want to kill enemies,” he said, “and then I want to travel to school.”

On a hot afternoon, I traveled to Angartu in a Land Cruiser. To get to the frontlines in Nuba, you must carry a handwritten permission note from an army administrator. In every village are checkpoints, which consist of lengths of string run between slim branches held up by rusted truck rims. The guards rarely ask for the notes; they almost never see people they don’t know. Families hoping to find rides to Yida congregate at the checkpoints, their possessions in frayed suitcases and plastic grain sacks. When vehicles pull up, they rush to the windows and beg to be taken on.  

The Nuban army has no bomb-disposal operation, so undetonated ordnance is often left where it lands. Along the road, we passed at least three unexploded bombs that I noticed, their noses buried in the soil and drab olive green tails pointing in the air. One had been shrouded in thornbush by locals to keep children from playing with it. The bombing and shelling had left Angartu with the annihilated appearance of a wildfire zone. For miles, craters pocked the ground, fields were blackened, trees dismembered and pulped.

A few days earlier, near the village of Mendi, the Nuban army had knocked the government forces from their position at the foot of a hill. Dug around the hill were trenches, along their edges the tableaux of hasty retreat: cigarette packets, plastic mouth tips for hookahs, half-used tubes of toothpaste. The stamps and labels on the shell casings and unused rockets and mines left behind were in Persian, Russian, Chinese. The corpse of a government soldier lay crumpled in a latrine well, a tank shell on top of him. On the hillside was a patch of rocks, about 30 feet wide, where the Nubans had buried enemy dead. “So they don’t smell,” a soldier explained.

In the 1990s, Mendi had been a government-run peace camp, which in reality meant it was the site of unnumbered murders and rapes. A stately but neglected mosque still stood in the village center. During the recent fighting, homes and market stalls had burned down, leaving perfect squares of black on the ground. Residents had fled into the hills and were only now returning. Already new straw roofs and fences were up. An elderly leper slowly hammered in a fencepost with defingered hands. The village had been destroyed and rebuilt many times, he told me, but he would never leave. I asked an old woman about the bombings. “You can’t even count,” she said. “We’re just patient.”

In a hut, the Nuban sector commander sat in plaid cargo shorts, playing cards with his lieutenants. Outside was the truck he’d been going around in since the victory, a retrofitted pickup, one of many vehicles left by the government troops. A Russian-made recoilless rifle was mounted in the bed, and on the cab, in thick yellow Arabic lettering, was painted Glorious is Allah.

The sector commander estimated that almost 100 of his men who’d fought at Angartu had gone to Mother of Mercy afterward. A lieutenant stood up and showed me a shrapnel scar on his arm that Catena had stitched. Half the men in the hut, it turned out, had been treated by Catena over the years, not just for war wounds, but also for stomach ailments, heart conditions, infections.

“I thank God I’m close to Doctor Tom,” said the commander, whose rheumatic knee Catena had fixed. “Somebody needs to think for others.”

Soldiers fighting against the Sudanese government during a battle in the Nuba Mountains in 2012. Photo: Dominic Nahr


The battle for Angartu could be heard at Mother of Mercy. On some days, the accompanying lamentation could be heard, too, the collective wailing of wives and mothers reverberating through the hills. The war had never come so close to the hospital, and as it approached, Catena told me, he began to have “heinous dreams.” In one, jets and helicopters landed near the hospital, and government soldiers rushed inside and grabbed him. A man took an audio recorder from his pocket and played back recordings of insulting statements Catena had made about Bashir.

“I was like, Shit, they got me!”

This was more troubling even than his usual nightmare: It’s two weeks before the beginning of the football season, and he looks down at himself to see not the 20-year-old Catena, but the concave-chested current version. He gets onto a bench press but can’t lift the bar. He’ll never survive on the field, he realizes.

As the battle went on, Catena made plans to evacuate patients and staff. If the hospital was overrun, he decided, he would try to set up a mobile clinic, and if that didn’t work, he would move into the hills with locals and care for them the best he could. He suspected the latter option was more likely. Often, Catena worries that Nubans have been so brutalized by endless war, they’ve forgotten how to care about each other. Last year an Antonov and a Sukhoi jet bombed the hospital. Catena was in the operating room, a patient with an opened abdomen on the table. (He finished the operation.) No one was seriously injured, though one bomb landed near Catena’s house, dislodging the roof and sending the doors flying from their hinges. He hoped the attack would bring everyone together. Instead, about half the staff left work without a word. A few never returned. “Some were scared. Some saw it as an opportunity to take a few days off, which kind of annoyed me,” he said. “I was like, Come on, man. Everybody’s in the same boat.”

I asked Catena if he would ever consider leaving Nuba. There was a very real chance that he would someday be killed. He shook his head without having to think. “If you can’t stand with the persecuted people, then what are you doing? You should just become an atheist.”

There are aspects of life in Nuba that still drive him to distraction. Patients refuse to give blood, believing it will kill them. He has watched parents refuse to give blood to dying children. It’s rare that he sees a patient who hasn’t already been to a traditional healer, who offer cures for everything from malaria to Antonovs. Nubans arrive comatose from supposedly medicinal roots or with gangrenous limbs that have been set improperly. One day, in the female ward, Catena turned over an unconscious young woman to find a line of fresh burn scars along her spine—a popular and expensive folk remedy offered by healers for “yellow fever,” which can mean anything.

“Don’t do that!” he reprimanded her parents, pointing at the burns. “It can’t help.”

They looked at him blankly.

He no longer tries to use the argument that he is a doctor and understands things patients do not. Nubans call half the people who work at Mother of Mercy “doctor,” he has learned.

“Everything is a pain in the ass here, for everyone,” he told me one day. “Nothing’s been really developed or adapted. There’s just friggin’ nothing. If something spills in my office, there’s no mop anywhere. There’s just a rag, and no water.” Children routinely excrete on the hospital floors. Adults, including his staff, spit constantly. He used to put up signs explaining that spitting spread tuberculosis. They made no difference. “We’re fighting a million years of people spitting,” he said. Recently, he found a patient wiping his snot on the wall. “I was like, Come on—what are you doing?”

Still, Catena stays. Will and stubborn faith are not the only anchors. He admits that he suffers from a disorder known as founder’s syndrome. It’s a self-diagnosis. His aim, his fondest hope, is to leave Mother of Mercy in Nuban hands. But for seven years he has invested every moment, every emotion, every ambition, into the hospital, and now he can’t bear the thought of turning it over to someone else. Bishop Macram has sent other doctors. Some have left at Catena’s insistence, others at their own. One American got so frustrated with Catena he tried to walk to South Sudan.

Catena has an increasingly hard time imagining his place in the outside world. Some aspects of modernity have left him behind. One night I found him in his office, trying to type a document in Microsoft Word. He asked if I could change the font and spacing—he didn’t know how. I asked if he was joking. “No, man, this isn’t what I do. I cut off arms!”

But mostly he stays because he admires and loves Nubans. Sometimes he is so touched by their understanding and gratitude, he believes he could live with them for the rest of his life. Recently, American friends of his organized a shoe drive. A shipping container of donated sneakers and boots and wingtips arrived in Gidel. Catena made a rare trip away from the hospital to personally deliver some of them to villages. A few weeks later, in the middle of a downpour, he was at home, enjoying a rare moment of rest, reading, when he heard singing. He went outside to find a procession approaching. It was the population of one of the villages he’d brought shoes to. They were carrying firewood and chickens and sorghum beer. They had walked for hours in the rain in order to thank him in song and feast.

“That blew me away.”

One evening, I watched him playing with a baby boy outside the intake clinic. Catena, who has never been married and has no children—he hasn’t had a girlfriend since leaving Kenya—can’t resist Nuban children.

“Mashallah!” he said (an Arabic expression of elation) as he squeezed the boy’s chubby arm. “Look at this kid. My God! Two months? Look at this!”

Catena asked the mother where they were from. She said they were from the refugee camp in Yida, South Sudan. They had walked for days to be treated by him. (The border between the two countries is porous.) Catena can’t stand it when Nubans say they are from Yida; he sees at as an admission of defeat.

“You’re not from Yida!” he said to her. “No one’s from Yida. Where are you really from?”

She named her village. Government forces occupied it, so she and her children had lived in the camp for three years.

“We want to be back in our real home,” she told him.

Mother of Mercy Hospital. Photo: Dominic Nahr


While he waited for Catena in the surgical theater one morning, a few days before I left Gidel, Rashid wrote new words on the whiteboard: puerile, lethal, robust, poverty, soiree. It was nearly the beginning of the school term, and Rashid had decided to go to high school. At 21, he’d be a freshman. His goal, he told me, was to become a surgeon and a writer: “I want to write about what is happening in Nuba.”

The Catholic diocese runs a high school in Gidel, and students were arriving from around Nuba. Most were in their twenties and thirties; some were former soldiers. On the hillsides around the hospital, they were building the small mud huts that would serve as their homes throughout the term.

Catena came into the operating room, followed by one of the burned cousins, who was on a gurney pushed by a nurse. To keep the cousins alive, every few days Catena had to slice the dead and dying skin from their bodies and smother them in burn cream. As Rashid stripped the soiled gauze from the girl’s body, she trembled and moaned.

“Khalas, khalas,” the anesthetist said to her. (“Enough, enough.”)

Rashid told Catena that he couldn’t find the definition for prosthetic excretion in his dictionary, and Catena nodded sympathetically. As he cut away, he cursed to himself and then calculated that 20 percent of her body was burned.

“The body has percentage?” Rashid asked.

“Yeah. It’s called the rule of nines,” Catena said. Each side of each appendage that was burned counted for nine percent. “The total is 100 percent.”

Rashid quickly did the math, figuring out that 100 isn’t divisible by nine. “What about 99 percent?” he asked.

“Well, the kuka area is one percent,” Catena shot back. Kuka is Arabic slang for the scrotum. Rashid laughed. “But on some dudes it’s way more than one percent!” Catena added.

Rashid didn’t get it, but laughed along with his boss.

The next cousin was brought in, and Rashid studied her.

“This is 20-something percent,” he said.

Earlier some of the cousins had gotten out of bed for the first time. They could not put on clothing, and were obviously still in great pain, but felt well enough to walk. The grandmother held their hands and led them in a small circle around the courtyard. Soon after, Mubarak’s wife arrived, having walked for three days. Mubarak began moving his eyes soon after she appeared at his bedside. He seemed to be nearing consciousness. Late the next afternoon, however, his eyes stopped moving. Within moments he was dead.

Catena found out hours later, when a nurse mentioned it to him offhandedly. “Ain’t nothing easy,” he said afterward. He was standing on his porch, shaking his head. “Anyway, you can’t change it. That’s the way it is.”

It was dark when Mubarak’s body was brought to the morgue. Outside, his wife crouched in the dirt. She was not crying but wore a slight frown as she stared intently at nothing. She had found some men who would help her dig a grave. Now she was waiting to claim her husband. There was only one stretcher at the morgue, and there were people ahead of her in line, also waiting to bury their dead.

The next morning, I got a ride with a convoy going to Yida. At a checkpoint, a young man with a backpack ran up to the truck and asked to be taken on. He’d been waiting there for days, he explained. The truck was full, the driver told him.  

When he learned I had come from Mother of Mercy, the young man asked if I’d met Toma, the girl who’d lost her foot in an Antonov bombing. He was her cousin. I told him that I had and that she was doing well—she was being fitted for a prosthesis. She would be able to go back to school. It would take her longer to walk there now, but that wouldn’t stop her.

“That’s good,” he said.

He waved as we pulled away, and the dust from the truck’s tires enveloped him.

The Arc of the Sun


The Arc of the Sun

Chasing history in the great South African pigeon race.

By David Samuels

The Atavist Magazine, No. 50

David Samuels is the author of two books, The Runner and Only Love Can Break Your Heart. His work has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Feuilleton, and n+1, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Editors: Katis Bachko, Joel Lovell
Designer: Gray Beltran Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checkers: Riley Blanton, Cara McGoogan
Photos: Jonathan Torgovnik Video: Courtesy of the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race

Published in July 2015. Design updated in 2021.

I met Paul Smith, the man responsible for shipping the Queen of England’s pigeons, near a sunlit pigeon loft in Linbro Park, a light-industrial section of Johannesburg, South Africa. The loft, home to 2,453 pigeons, has a corrugated aluminum roof with translucent plastic panels to let in the sun and high-grade chicken-wire walls to encourage the circulation of air. Each of the pigeons inside the loft has a perch where it is accustomed to roosting. In two days’ time, the pigeons will be loaded into crates, put on a truck, and transported approximately 325 miles from here, to a point along the Vaal River, a tributary of the Orange River in the Northern Cape. There they will be set free, in the hope that they will fly back home.

Paul, a voluble little white-haired man in his early seventies who wears a white polo shirt, baggy cargo shorts, white Nikes, and white tennis socks, has won nearly every honor that pigeon racing has to offer. Before taking up the sport full-time, he made women’s stockings. “I first raced pigeons in 1959, when I was 15,” he says. “I couldn’t win a race to save me life.” He has traveled to Thailand, a haven for pigeon fanciers, 34 times. He helped organize pigeon races at the Seoul Olympiad and at the Berlin Wall. He has won the UK championship ten times and come in second ten times. The race that is closest to his heart, he confides, is the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race, which bills itself as the most lucrative pigeon race in the world. The owner of the first-place pigeon receives $150,000, with subsequent finishers taking the balance of the million-dollar purse.

The Million Dollar, Paul tells me, was the brainchild of Zandy Meyer, a Johannesburg businessman who died two years ago. “Can’t tell you too much about him, can I?” Paul offers, in the curious way he has of emphasizing the first-person pronoun while providing only occasional dabs of specific detail, a habit that sometimes results in his conveying exactly the opposite of the meaning that he appears to intend. “There’s a lot of stories about him.” He first met Zandy, he says, in 1994 at a pigeon race in Thailand that Smith helped arrange on behalf of the country’s national tourism board. “We were sitting out there with a bottle of 12-year-old Chivas Regal. There were no pigeons home”—by which he means that none of the birds had yet returned to the loft—“and we were gradually getting worse and worse for wear. And I said, ‘I don’t know why you don’t have one of these in South Africa. Lovely climate. Cheap labor.’”

Zandy, whose six brothers were all well-known athletes in South Africa, had a crippled leg, which didn’t prevent him from becoming a famous ladies’ man who also keenly enjoyed all other available forms of competition. As soon as Paul raised the idea, he began to imagine a pigeon race with the kind of purse that would rival Sun City’s $2 million golf tournament. “Zandy said to me, ‘Wherever you think you can get pigeons for the race, go,’” Paul recalls. “‘I know a few people who’ve got money.’” According to Paul, the original backing for the Million Dollar supposedly came from 17 Swiss millionaires, who preferred to remain anonymous, although he also suggested that at least some of the money came from Zandy’s own pocket. For that first race, in 1996, Paul managed to attract 893 pigeons. The race lost money. The next three races also lost money. After five years, it began breaking even, and in years since it has turned a reasonable profit.

As Paul goes on about the history of the Million Dollar, I find myself soothed by the deep, throaty “blu-blu-buu-buu-buu” call of the thousands of pigeons in the lofts beside us. With their solid metal frames and high plastic ceilings, the two buildings where the pigeons sleep and eat seem like a nice home to fly back to. The buildings are divided by chicken wire into 16 cross-sections, each of which contains approximately 250 pigeons, which roost on inverted aluminum V’s that are fixed to the chicken-wire walls in undulating rows. The positioning of each pigeon on its perch exists in a clear hierarchical relation to the perch of every other pigeon. Their stillness broken by brief, fitful movements, they cock their heads to the side and fix one eye on the curious humans outside their cage. While the eyes of birds are often described as unblinking, they blink plenty, at regular intervals, like they are transmitting messages in Morse code from their Pleistocene ancestors. If you look deep into a pigeon’s eye, you can see the dinosaurs looking back at you.

Every pigeon in the loft arrived in South Africa between the ages of four weeks and four months old from one of 33 countries, with Germany (532 birds), the U.S. (505 birds), and Kuwait (213 birds) sending the most. After spending 30 days in quarantine, they took up residence in the loft, where they live under the round-the-clock care of three on-site trainers, who prepare them for the race. It is impossible to tell which of the pigeons belong to Paul Smith without scanning the bands on their ankles. Inside each band is a numeric code, which corresponds to another code that exists inside a digital black box, which remains untouched until the race is over.

The two lead trainers, Andre van Wyk and Corrie Naude, speak to the birds in Afrikaans. They have relatively little interest in talking to humans. Andre, a tall, cadaverous man whose bony ass does nothing to fill his well-worn blue jeans, talks in the halting way that is common among people who spend most of their days communicating with animals. He has been training pigeons for the race for the past eight years. He grew up in the Free State and received his first pigeon when he was three years old.

“On my third birthday, somebody gave me two white fantails,” he tells me. “From then until now, I am with the pigeons.”

“How do they make you feel?” I ask him.


If you look deep into a pigeon’s eye, you can see the dinosaurs looking back at you.

The pigeons in the loft here in Johannesburg are less than a year old, which is young for racing. Newborn pigeons, known as squeakers, are shipped to South Africa between May and July. Once the birds are released from quarantine, Andre first teaches them to circle, directing them from the ground with a flag. After a month, if they can stay aloft for one hour, they are ready to fly home. Their first time out, the pigeons are taken three miles from the loft, then, in subsequent weeks, progress to a distance of six miles, then nine, then twelve. When they return home, they get extra food. After two months of training, they know to go out of their baskets and fly back. They then compete in preliminary races, including five “hot spot” car races, in which the owner of the winning pigeon wins a new vehicle.

In Germany, Andre says, they fly their pigeons 14 weekends in a row, without rest, which is why the pigeons there are so strong. “If a pigeon can make it, they’re a great pigeon,” he says. “If they can’t make it, they’re out.” It is not unusual, he adds, for pigeons to go missing on race day, then make their way back to the loft a year or two later.

Throughout his life, Andre has always kept his own birds, but now things are different. “I live here at the loft,” he says, gesturing toward his rooms near the pigeon coop. “I can’t keep my own pigeons here.”  

The science of how exactly pigeons return home is frustratingly incomplete. The British ornithologist G.V.T. Matthews proposed in the 1950s that pigeons use “the arc of the sun” to fix their course. His theory was soon eclipsed by the work of William Keeton of Cornell University, the father of “magnetic cue theory.” While the sun did play a role in helping pigeons to return home, Keeton asserted, the birds took a far greater share of their guidance from the magnetic field of the earth, which allowed the birds to orient themselves through a kind of internal compass. Keeton’s theory held sway until the 1970s, when its primacy was undone by Floriano Papi of the University of Pisa. Through a clever series of experiments, Papi proved that while pigeons could fly straight home when their magnetic receptors were blocked, they were lost without the use of their olfactory organs. (I am relying here on a very clear and elegant discussion of the various theories in A Very British Coop, by Mark Collings.) Papi’s “olfactory theory” proposed that pigeons smell their way home, a view that remains dominant today despite a challenge in the 1990s from Tim Guilford of Oxford’s zoology department, who advanced the theory that pigeons rely on visual cues, or “steeple-chasing,” a suggestion that was in turn challenged by Rupert Sheldrake of Cambridge, who suggested that pigeons rely on something he identified as “morphic resonance,” which as far as I can figure out is total nonsense.

While all the pigeon fanciers I have ever met or read are awestruck by the pigeon’s homing abilities, none seem to display much interest in any of the theories that purport to explain the behavior for which the birds are bred. What unites fanciers is a strong personal attachment to the idea of home. In the Pocket Sports edition of Ron Bissett’s Pigeon Racing, a cheaply printed castoff from Islington Libraries that I purchased for $1 at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, I found the following observation: “I have asked many of my friends in the sport today to pin-point the exact start of their interest in the sport, and many of them cannot, although the stock reply seemed to me to be ‘I have been in it as a boy’ or ‘it has always been in the family.’” Bissett adds that “pigeon racing is the only sport in which a man can compete in his own home and in which his family can take part.”

Because fanciers appear to be united by a deep longing for home, it makes sense that they come from all walks of life. King Edward VII of Great Britain raced his pigeons in the name of one of his gardeners. Britain’s reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, flies her pigeons from the royal pigeon loft at Sandringham House in King’s Lynn. Historically, the Netherlands, Belgium, and England have produced the greatest homing pigeons and pigeon fanciers, and as the populations of those countries have spread out across the world, the pigeons have followed. The mining districts of Newcastle are also famous for the excellence of their pigeons, which presumably benefited from the pleasure that men who spent their days underground took in seeing their birds fly free. The best-known pigeon fancier in the world today is probably Mike Tyson, who grew up fatherless on the streets of Brooklyn, before being taken in by the legendary trainer of human pugilists Cus D’Amato, and who kept 4,000 birds in a Harlem mansion at the height of his brutal career of knockouts and ear biting. “A pigeon fancier is very caring,” Tyson observed. “There is a great gentleness about them when they handle the pigeons.”

Fanciers agree that the body of a good racing pigeon should feel hard and firm, and should sit snugly in the hand. The skull bone should be bold and well formed, and the bird’s eyes should be clear and bright. They agree on the importance of feathers, which should be plentiful and very soft. The long wing feathers, known as flights, should fold to a place about ½ an inch to ¾ of an inch from the end of the tail feathers. According to the precepts of “wing theory,” the wing of a good long-distance racer will show very little enlargement between the ten secondary and ten primary flights. The tips of the primaries will be more rounded, and the outside primaries will open up like the fingers on your hand. Quality short-distance flyers show a pronounced step up between the secondaries and primaries, which have sharper tips. The most important flights for both types of flyers are the three outside ones—the eighth, ninth, and tenth—on the outer joint of the wing, which push the air back like a swimmer doing the breaststroke.

Trainers are gentle with their birds because they love them and in order to inculcate the idea that home is a good place to come back to. They are up to date on the latest treatments for common avian diseases, can fashion a splint for a broken leg out of a wooden matchstick or coffee stirrer and a few strips of plaster, and promote themselves to their birds from a very young age as calm, protective, and trustworthy. They will often bring parental gifts of corn, maple peas, tic beans, watercress, and other healthy foods that pigeons like to the loft. After a few weeks of gentle treatment, the trainer will start to accustom the birds to their baskets. A trainer will generally put corn in a basket, then introduce the new birds and leave them there overnight.

The history of the relationship between pigeons and human beings, which might be said to begin with the pigeon, or rock dove, that Noah sent aloft after the flood, is certainly worth many paragraphs on its own, if such a digression didn’t threaten to interfere with the story of the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race (SAMDPR). So I will skip quickly from the domestication of the pigeon by the ancient Egyptians, to their pioneering use as a means of commercial communication by the merchants of Aleppo, to the use of carrier pigeons in the far parts of Europe by the Romans, as described in the works of Pliny and Marcus Terentius Varro, to the establishment in the 12th century of the world’s first true pigeon post by Sultan Nuruddin, caliph of Baghdad. Seven centuries later, Nathan de Rothschild’s farsighted investment in carrier pigeons allowed him to receive news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, three days ahead of everyone else, thus securing the Rothschild fortune for the next two centuries. The French emperor’s use of pigeons in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71 was so decisive that by 1891, France housed and fed a population of approximately 250,000 pigeons devoted to government use. The newly united nation of Italy set up 14 strategically located pigeon lofts, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire soon followed suit. In 1900, the British successfully used pigeons to communicate across South Africa and win the Boer War.

During World War I, pigeons played an important role in numerous engagements, including the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, when 178 pigeons assigned to tanks safely delivered their messages back to Allied military headquarters. Many of the greatest heroes of the American Expeditionary Forces, which turned the tide of the war in favor of the Allies, were pigeons whose names have gone down in history books, including Big Tom, who flew 25 miles in 25 minutes under heavy machine-gun fire in the Meuse-Argonne action of 1918; Spike, who carried 52 messages for the 77th division without injury; and President Wilson, who had a leg shot off while delivering a message that helped decide a particularly hectic firefight in the Ardennes. The most famous of all American war pigeons was Cher Ami, who at the cost of a leg and a wing saved the “lost battalion” of the Argonne from being obliterated by its own artillery fire. After his death one year later, in 1919, Cher Ami was mounted and displayed at the National Museum in Washington.

At nine on Thursday morning, Andre and Corrie begin shooing the pigeons out of their loft for basketing, which involves loading them into rectangular wire-mesh transport boxes, which are known as baskets. The deep thrumming of the pigeons reminds me of the sound of ocean waves, over which the trainers shout, “Out! Out! Out! Out! Out!” The birds waddle together down the concrete walkway like subway passengers during morning rush hour, until all of a sudden one pigeon stops, at which point the whole group stops. The trainers resume their cry: “Out! Out! Out! Out! Out!” Shades are drawn over the last two sections of the loft, and the baskets are inserted into a slot at the bottom. The baskets are then slotted into their places on the pigeon truck, which looks more or less like a rolling bank vault.

“I’m a pigeon fancier. That’s for the last day of the race. Please come out,” pleads Willi van Beers, the owner of the legendary Birdy, a top bird at the 2008 Million Dollar, to a photographer who is angling for a better shot of the embarking birds. The unfamiliar interaction, Willi worries, might spook some of the birds and affect the outcome of the race. Behind him are workers from Malawi, outfitted in yellow T-shirts and bright blue pants, who carry the baskets to the truck and place them in a grid that measures seven box slots down and twelve across. “Both of you, do it nicely!” Willi commands. The entire process of loading the pigeons into the baskets takes less than an hour. When they are done the loft’s buildings stand empty, stained with pigeon shit and stray feathers.

On a shady covered patio a safe distance from the loft, Paul Smith is talking with several other fanciers about new treatments for herpes and chlamydia, which appear to be as common among pigeons as they are among clubgoers in Ibiza. “That’s water-based, innit?” he inquires of a new vaccine.

Fanciers read wings like tarot cards, looking for clues about a bird’s capacities and likely performance. 

The baskets, currently containing all 2,453 pigeons entered in the race, aren’t the race baskets, it turns out. They are only temporary baskets, which will be unloaded from the truck in a big gymnasium-like hall down the block. There the pigeons will be removed from the baskets one by one and brought over to long tables, where their ankle bracelets will be checked against the master list. Then their wings will be stamped and they will be put in the official race baskets, which will be loaded onto the truck, which will be parked by the loft until early the next morning, when we will begin the long trek up to the Northern Cape.

The baskets are laid out near the door of the hall beneath a festive neon sign that reads “South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race.” At the other end of the hall are the big white travel baskets, smelling sweetly of hay. Paul Smith sits at one of the inspection tables, instructing wing stampers in the proper way to ink a pigeon. First you take the bird in a tight, firm grip, so you can feel its fast-beating heart, then you fan the wing open on the table. Structurally speaking, the wing is definitely the most interesting part of the pigeon. Fanciers read wings like tarot cards, looking for clues about a bird’s capacities and likely performance. “If you get a nice cover with no gaps, that’s good,” Paul says, spreading out a pigeon wing for me to inspect. “This one has good cover all the way through.”

White flights are often thought to be superior in hot climates because they reflect the sun, but in fact they are not, he says, because they fray. If it rains, and there is no oil in the feathers, they will become soggy, and the bird will go down. Dark feathers are the ones with the oil. He presses his stamp on the inkpad and then on the wing. Then he removes the white sticker on the bird’s left foot, in order to check each number against the log, and covers it up with another sticker.

“Yeah, we’re all nuts,” Paul answers when I ask him whether pigeon people have particular characteristics in common. “We can all talk about pigeons. We’re all hoping.” The oceanic thrum of the birds doesn’t make him feel one way or another. You don’t mind if it’s a winner that’s doing it, he says. But the losers make the same noise.

The line halts. Men stand patiently at the tables, gently cradling pigeons against their pot bellies. Paul passes the time talking to a cheetah biologist who is originally from San Diego but has lived in Botswana for seven years. She is here with her boyfriend, whose pigeon won a preliminary race. Paul tells her that he is from England but spends a lot of time outside the country.

“Your accent hasn’t dimmed any,” the cheetah biologist says.

“Well, everything else has.” The line still isn’t moving. There are only about another 2,000 pigeons left to stamp.  

Not every pigeon that is shipped to South Africa has a chance to win the Million Dollar. Most are owned by breeders and rival syndicates, which may ship anywhere from several dozen to over a hundred birds. Once the results of the first half of the preliminary races are in, the owners choose whether to pay the $1,100 per team of three pigeons, two of which act as backups to the first, preferred competitor, to enter the Million Dollar. All the birds fly the race, but only the results of birds whose fees have been paid are included in the official results. Last year, for example, 96 pigeons from Holland were shipped to the race. The owners paid to enter 95 pigeons in the race at $1,100 a head. The 96th pigeon went onto an online auction site, where unclaimed pigeons are available to the highest bidder, but nobody bought it. On race day it came home first, costing the guy who shipped it $200,000 in race and auction winnings. The lesson is that it can be dangerous to skimp on entrance fees.

Paul Smith looks out at the well-feathered baskets that are piling up at the end of the room and sighs. He has reached the bargaining stage, willing to sacrifice his own slight chance of victory—which based on the number of his own pigeons he has entered is somewhere around one in fifty, or 2 percent—for the even smaller share of glory that he perhaps might claim for having shipped the winning pigeon. “All I want is to see the Union Jack,” he says wistfully.

The pigeon handlers who carry the birds from the table area to the racing baskets are all from Malawi. They earn 90 rand a day, about $7, for their labor, and they sleep together in the bunkhouse on the far side of the pigeon loft. “They make sad sound,” says Ronnex Msimeko, whose smooth, unlined face, boyish stature, and gentle demeanor do little to betray the fact that he is 38 years old. If you squint at Ronnex and his fellow workers, they could easily pass for pupils in a missionary school. They speak Tumbaka to one another, which is the language they use at home, where they farm maize, groundnuts, and tobacco, and keep animals, including goats, pigs, chicken, and kudu. In two months, they will return to Malawi on buses and in minivans, and use the money they have earned to buy more land and goats.

It has been three hours, and maybe half the pigeons have been unloaded. I take a seat by the wall and read a copy of the Johannesburg Star. “Looting Frenzy,” the headline proclaims, above a picture of laughing township dwellers running through the streets of Soweto. One is carrying a crate of tomatoes, and another is carrying a bottle of soda. The article below describes “scenes of widespread looting playing out all day across the township’s many suburbs,” represented photographically by four young men carrying off a beverage display case imprinted with the Pepsi logo. Shop windows were smashed and two people died in the riots, which were directed at traders from Ethiopia and Somalia. “It’s one thing if they take all these things to their families, but they’re just wasting it,” a man named Buhle Mguda told the Sunday Times. Only foreign-owned shops were destroyed and looted. “I’m not safe in Somalia. I’m not safe here. We’ve got too many problems,” said Faisel Ali, a shopkeeper whose business was spared. “Wherever you work, they want to take your life.”  

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a home, or to keep the home they might make for themselves elsewhere, is a message that can be found on nearly every page of the Star. Grab this land, says Godrich Gardee, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, South Africa’s radical leftist party, urging the expropriation of acreage belonging to white farmers. “They used guns to take over our land. Now, you must erect your shacks there.” The best time to take land that might once have belonged to your ancestors is during public holidays, Gardee is quoted as saying. “This country has a lot of public holidays. You must occupy the land during the public holidays, when the police and Red Ants”—a security brigade that removes squatters—“are on holiday. You must do it secretly. Do not make announcements on radios. They must just find you staying there.” He has renamed the farmland Zimbabwe, which is a nice hat-tip to the land-expropriation policies of South Africa’s neighbor to the north. There a minister of Mashonaland East province named Joel Biggie Matiza has presented “offer letters” to 19 of the province’s 33 tribal chiefs—an offer letter being a legal document frequently used by the regime of Zimbabwe’s 91-year-old dictator, Robert Mugabe, that overrides all previous title deeds and other documents governing ownership of any piece of agricultural land. According to these offer letters, the 200 to 300 white farmers who are still working small pieces of their onetime holdings in Mashonaland East must leave land that might not exactly be theirs but would be equally hard to describe as “belonging” to the government or to the chiefs. White farmers who openly support Zanu-PF—Mugabe’s political party, which has ruled the country since it gained independence from British colonial rule in 1980—will be spared.  

Lucky Countess, one of Paul Smith’s pigeons, has won three weeks of preliminary races “on the bounce” or “on the spin”—both are British sporting lingo for consecutive victories—and is therefore looking good for tomorrow’s race. Despite having led the English teams for the Olympiad and winning plenty of big races, Paul has never won the Million Dollar, a race he personally helped found and the one he clearly cares the most about. His best showing was in 2001, when he came in second with Nicolodon, a Hungarian pigeon he bought online after its owner failed to claim it; eight of the top 32 pigeons that year were Hungarian. To cover costs for the 48 pigeons his personal syndicate has entered in the race this year, he will have to win $52,000 in prize money just to break even. When I ask him about coming in second again he grimaces, and then he says: “How happy would it make me if I won this race? Very happy.”

Pigeons are substitutes for family. They give love. They make pigeon fanciers happy, even if no one understands exactly how they find their way home. They appear in the eighth chapter of the Bible, returning to Noah’s outstretched hand. They facilitated human communication over long distances before the invention of the telegraph, the telephone, and the Internet.

In addition to their critical role on the battlefields of World War I, pigeons also played an important part during World War II, especially in anti-Nazi movements in occupied Europe, which is still within the living memory of some of the older fanciers here, and is therefore one of several hot subjects of conversation at the hotel bar after the day’s basketing is done. The most affecting of the many stories I am told is recounted by an 85-year-old American fancier, Dr. Alfred Piaget, who flies Tournier pigeons in New Jersey and is a distant relative of the pioneering child psychologist Dr. Jean Piaget. He heard the story firsthand during a trip to Belgium to visit members of the Cattrysse family, who live in a small Flemish town called Moere. There, in a simple farming community of 1,200 inhabitants, the Cattrysse brothers, Gerard and Oscar, painstakingly built what by 1939 was widely regarded as the single greatest pigeon loft in the world.

According to an account they gave to a pigeon fanciers’ magazine after the war, the Cattrysse brothers were instructed in the art of breeding and flying pigeons by the great Belgian fancier Charles Vanderespt, who between 1923 and 1935 won an astounding total of 4,635 prizes, including the international prize in the Bordeaux Belgium-Holland race of 1935, which was famous for its dreadful weather. In 1923, the brothers read a news article in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir about a man named Pierre Decnop, from Anderlecht, who had won the three top prizes in a race from Dax. They purchased some of Decnop’s hens and began crossing them with Vanderespt cocks, but the pigeons they bred showed no interest in flying, even after three years in the loft, which ran the length of the attic above the warehouse of the brothers’ grocery store in town. Still, there was no question about the quality of the Vanderespt cock, which, coupled with a different hen, had bred Goliath, a famous prewar long-distance racer.

In 1936, the brothers purchased a magnificent blue hen from a fancier in Gistel and paired her with a checkered Vanderespt cock. Among the offspring was an outstanding blue cock named Grote Blauwen, who became the sire of the Cattrysse line, which was quickly recognized as one of the greatest in all of Europe.

Four years later, the Germans occupied Moere, and the Cattrysse brothers’ houses in town were commandeered as quarters for German officers. The brothers and their families moved into what had been their garage. According to the laws of the occupation, all pigeons in the area had to be turned over at once to the German authorities, who feared that the birds could be used to carry messages to and from resistance groups. Gerard and Oscar were permitted to continue caring for their pigeons under the direct surveillance of the German commander. Other families in Moere refused to turn over their birds and continued caring for them in secret, despite increasingly draconian punishments as the war dragged on and the local resistance linked up with the British, becoming a major thorn in the side of the German occupier.

A few weeks after the Normandy landing in 1944, the local German commander came to the brothers and informed them of an urgent new directive he had received from Berlin. “My orders are to kill every bird and cut their legs off,” he told the brothers. But the German officer had fallen in love with the birds, and with the Allied armies now moving inland from the beachhead, he also may have known that the war was lost. So he came up with a solution that would allow him to present his superiors with the required number of pigeon legs.

“Look, you and I both know that you have a lot of friends hiding their birds,” the commander told the brothers, at least in Alfred Piaget’s version of the story. “If by tomorrow night you can give me thirty to forty birds, I will spare thirty or forty of your birds.”

The famous Cattrysse line would be saved—if the brothers could convince their neighbors to substitute their own birds. That night, and through the next afternoon, Gerard and Oscar Cattrysse made the rounds on their heartbreaking errand, searching for substitute birds for the slaughterer’s knife. The brothers knew what they were asking of their neighbors. They also knew that they had something valuable to offer in return.

“If you can find it in your hearts, then we will breed you young ones,” they offered the local farmers. In return for handing over the birds that they had nurtured in secret throughout the war years, they would gain a share in one of the greatest bloodlines in Europe. The brothers returned before dusk with several dozen birds, whose throats were slit by the German officer, who fled town shortly afterward. Thanks to the willingness of the people of Moere to sacrifice their own birds on behalf of their neighbors’ superior bloodline, Cattrysse pigeons play a part in pigeon racing to this day.

I arrive at the pigeon loft at four the next morning, when it is still dark. There is a light on in Andre’s small kitchen, which is decorated with pictures of his children and a homey painting of a Voortrekker homestead alone in the middle of the veld. I pour myself coffee from a fresh pot on the kitchen table, where a radio is playing country music with lyrics in Afrikaans. The three men talk among themselves in their tribal language and shuffle their feet in the presence of a guest. Andre’s dog goes from man to man, nuzzling legs and hands, searching for the comfort of a pat on the head. After making his rounds, the dog ceremonially sniffs Andre’s worn leather motorcycle jacket, which is slung over the back of a chair.

Like Nazi-occupied Europe, apartheid South Africa seems like a strange backdrop for musings about the idea of home. Yet the Afrikaners, who are the poor whites of South Africa, have their own language and manners, and their own sense of rootedness in the land. With the country’s first free elections in 1994, the Afrikaners became yet another African tribe that lost its homeland, having been made constitutionally equal to the darker-skinned tribes they had so casually and brutally discriminated against. In fact, the Afrikaners lost their homeland twice, first to the British in the Boer War, and then to the definition of South Africa as a non-racial democracy in which power would be shared equally among all citizens on the basis of one man, one vote. While the idea of the Afrikaners as a white-skinned African tribe may seem wildly at odds with more common narratives of racist European colonial settlement, it is congruent in many ways with the history of the Afrikaners themselves, as well as with the history of the Zulus, Xhosa, Venda, Sotho, Tswana, and Khoi, dark-skinned northern tribes that also traveled south between the 16th and 19th centuries to populate the country they now share.

It is a basic pleasure for anyone who has been trained to do anything to be cut loose from one’s moorings, be pointed directly at an object, and think about that and nothing else.

Outside, the headlights of the pigeon transport go on, and the rumble of the truck’s motor drowns out the cooing of the birds in their baskets, which are airy and lined with straw. Inside, they are safe with the flock.

I will be traveling with Corrie, who has generously allowed me to ride along in the back of his buckie, a vehicle that is somewhere between a large station wagon and a small panel truck. Because of the low ceiling, the only comfortable way to ride in the back of the buckie is to lie flat on the plywood feed bins. Everything fits together well, and nothing is dirty. A blanket and pillow I took from my hotel room soften my makeshift bed, which has been scoured by a decade or so of hard use. It’s like lying flat on my back in a longboat from the Pequod.

The city of Johannesburg is dark, which is how things usually are at night, or, more recently, during the day. The city’s overburdened electrical grid frequently goes out during the daytime, and blackouts are now a more or less normal feature of life, just like the carjackings, home invasions, large-scale public thefts, and outbreaks of xenophobic violence that target Somalis and Eritreans. The acrid smell of burnt rubber wafting in through the open window of Corrie’s buckie is a reminder of the apartheid-era fashion for filling rubber tires with gasoline, hanging them around the necks of suspected informers, traitors, and enemies, and then setting them ablaze. Now the people of townships burn tires for fuel; the smell is unfamiliar to most Americans and Europeans but familiar to everyone else in the world as the olfactory precipitate of poverty and inequality.  

The windows offer a 270-degree panorama that reminds me of driving down the California coast at night. The sand berms outside look like the walls of beach castles built by giants, remainders of Johannesburg’s gold mines, which are now being worked by Chinese companies that reprocess the leavings for leftover gold.

Dawn soon washes the stars from the sky, and the sun comes up quickly over the highway. Sixty miles from Johannesburg, the savanna is a flat green with single trees in the center, like an illuminated picture in a children’s Bible. The farms have their own water tanks and provide watering holes for cattle.

We stop for coffee and inflate the tires of the pigeon truck. The road ahead runs two lanes in each direction, separated by a Mohawk of tall grass that has been bleached white by the sun. At the next truck stop, an hour later, I get out of the buckie to stretch my legs and peer inside the baskets. A pigeon looks back at me. Our eyes meet amid the rustling of the straw. The journey ahead is a strenuous one, and not without some real risks. There are hawks, electrical lines, and boys with guns. There is the sun, the wind, and a chance of rain. Depending on the weather, somewhere between half to three-quarters of the birds will actually make it home.

It is a basic pleasure for anyone who has been trained to do anything to be cut loose from one’s moorings, be pointed directly at an object, and think about that and nothing else. As the sun grows hotter, I decide to conserve my energy and enjoy the feeling of my back on the plywood, rolling with the bumps. The highway is now only two lanes, one going to Johannesburg and the other heading toward the Cape. We are hurtling through landlocked seas of grass toward an object that I have imagined but not yet met. Corn is in season but not yet up to the breakdown lane. The water towers out here are placed high off the ground, on stilts.

We stop in Bloemhof, which resembles a central Kansas shit hole, in front of Champion Chicken, which offers “lekker gaar hoender” or “tasty cooked chicken.” Inside the truck, the birds are hitting a note that sounds almost electric—“b-b-woomp!”—in anticipation of being fed and watered. The inside of the truck is cool, with a shady central aisle running between the two solid walls of chicken-wire baskets. At the foot of each row of baskets runs a trough made of stoppered white PVC tubing, where the larger birds have positioned themselves. The white mustache-like bands above their beaks, known as the cere, give them the unexpected look of mid-period Victorian gentlemen.

Corrie opens the bins in back of the buckie and pulls out a white bag of kernel corn, which he lugs over to the truck. He opens up the bag and pours, showering kernels down the tubing. The most aggressive birds push to the front of the baskets and peck first. Then they retire to the back of the cage and let the next birds have a go. When they are done eating, Corrie brings out a hose and floods the tubes with drinking water. Tomorrow at 6 a.m. they will have their last meal before the race. The men fold down the gate of the buckie and eat roasted chicken with their hands, washing it down with Coke.

Our next stop will be Kimberley, where we will pass by what was once the world’s richest diamond mine and is now the world’s largest man-made hole. In 2013, a dog fell into the hole and was stuck there for a week, until a rescuer rappelled down 500 feet and brought him out. Being in diamond country means that you can buy uncut two-carat stones at the garage across the street for 100 rand (about $9). Taking a piss in the bathroom is two rand.

François, the young Afrikaner veterinarian who tends to the pigeons, tells me that his friend gets more than $40,000 to live-stream ANC rallies that no one watches. He is a sweet, moonfaced boy who wears a black beret and respects his elders. “The big divide is between the men over 40 or 50 who fought in the Boer Wars,” he tells me, referring to the wars that South Africa fought in Rhodesia and elsewhere, in the hopes of beating back challenges to apartheid, “and those who are younger, like me.” Unlike many of his white peers, he has no interest in moving to Australia, or Canada, or New Zealand, or any of the other places to which white South Africans are fleeing in droves. South Africa is his home, and the wildlife here is better than anyplace else in the world.

On the telephone pole nearby, someone has posted a mimeographed tone poem above a smudged photograph of an ample woman:





A local phone number is written by hand beneath the photograph.

An elderly couple pass by the truck filled with cooing pigeons without a second glance. The woman is dressed in the southern African uniform of a piece of cheap printed cotton wrapped around her waist and a cotton polo shirt on top. Because this is a wealthy area, her sandals are leather rather than plastic. The man, who looks older than she is, is dressed in a churchgoer’s black gabardine trousers and white cotton shirt, which has been turned yellow by the sun.

Anton, a tiny, strutting, red-faced man who drives the pigeon truck, is wearing a green and yellow Superman T-shirt with a giant cartoon S on the front. The S stands for Springboks, the national rugby team, which is beloved by Afrikaners. His shirt catches the eye of another one of the locals, a skinny young black man in a red T-shirt, who curses at him. Andre nearly goes berserk, like one of the dwarves in The Hobbit, for the honor of the Springboks. In his agitation and insistence you can hear it all, pride and yearning and racism and befuddlement at a world in which belief in what is right, in what should be his—his rights, his land, his home—doesn’t rhyme with the history that has unfolded around him. But this is a black town in the new South Africa, and today is about the pigeons.

The men get back in the truck, and I climb into the back of Corrie’s buckie, and we head south once more. A lone hawk circles the camouflaged roof of an old military depot or staging area, which is now a used-car lot. We are close to Vierfontein, with its graveyard filled with orderly rows of headstones in Afrikaans. The midday sun through the windows is boiling hot. Jurassic-type ostrich roam the veld. The trees here have been trimmed and shaped by sun and wind, like bonsai that are several hundred times the expected size. The elegant netting of the cables strung overhead has a touch of asymmetrical whimsy that reminds me of a steel-and-wire work by Paul Klee, on a Soviet scale. 

In Kimberley, the City that Sparkles, we pass by Samy’s Dial-A-Veg, a deli that delivers produce, and Samy’s Trading, an adjacent enterprise whose scope is unclear. In the shops I see Goldrush slot machines, which I have moved into towns like these in the American South with my uncle. Slot-machine parlors in towns like Kimberley are sinkholes for the wages of men who are too exhausted to think straight about what they are having for breakfast, which is often when they start gambling.  

Outside Kimberley, the air coming through my window feels like someone set a hair drier on high and pointed it directly at my face. Every field we pass has been burned brown by the sun. In one there stand a flock of shorn sheep whose black faces are turned toward the road while their white bodies stay parallel with the train tracks. We drive past the large fenced-in compound that houses the district jail in Wolmaransstad, then turn down an unpaved farm road lined with farms, until we pass one of the most remarkable agricultural structures I have ever seen—a grain silo with 16 separate compartments, eight on each side, each of which is at least ten stories high, and resembles a launch bay for ICBMs. In the center is a gigantic Italianate brick tower that looks like it was transported directly from Venice, where it housed the doge. Here the master of the house is corn.

We park at a guesthouse along the Vaal River. Pigeons are fed and watered beneath a stand of willows. Fishing rods for the guys are laid out on picnic tables so they can catch fish for supper. I sit with the state health inspector, James, who is Xhosa. We talk about South African president Jacob Zuma’s house, which cost almost $20 million. The real theft, James says, is being committed by the six big Zulus behind Zuma, whose names are never in the newspapers. It is wrong when tribes use state power to deprive other tribes of their share of the pie.

After dinner I sit outside with the men and swat mosquitoes. Above the Vaal River is the most beautiful night sky I have ever seen, with the Milky Way spread open in a way that is lush and obscene. Anton laughs. “That’s South Africa!” he says.   

In the 1970s in Brooklyn, where I grew up, pigeons were everywhere, which is probably why I am here. Some of my earliest gray-scale memories include pigeons, which fluttered and occasionally nested on the windowsill of the first place I was aware enough of to call home, a housing project near the Brooklyn Bridge built for working families like mine. There was a bona fide pigeon coop on the roof of a building nearby, like in the famous scene from On the Waterfront. Sometimes I could see a man on the roof waving a flag, which in my imagination was red but in fact could have been any color. The pigeons he guided back to their loft every night were a promise of safety that New York City in the 1970s was obviously unable to keep, which is why my parents moved to the suburbs, where the birds in the trees outside my window twittered and cooed in foreign tongues that signified nothing.

Years later I moved back to Brooklyn and had a son, who played in the same playgrounds that I did and also loved pigeons. When his mother and I split up, I moved to an apartment with a view of the waterfront, three blocks away from what was now his other home and half a block from the playground with the pigeons. One day he became angry, crazily angry, at a boy who threw a stone at a pigeon that was standing by the swings and would not listen to any explanation for why the other boy might have been so cruel. “Someone should throw a stone at him, hard, and crack his head open,” my son insisted between sobs, a large rock clenched in his hand. We both had lost whatever previous idea of home we each might have had, him for the first time, which I knew from experience is hard. Still, the loss had come to seem inevitable.

Home was not with the woman I married. It wasn’t even in the Brooklyn where I grew up, which had turned into a playground for rich people with quadruple-size bathrooms and walk-in closets. America was my home, except that my parents were from somewhere else. Their parents were from the Soviet Union, which was a vast empire that no longer existed. That made me more of an American, my teachers told me, which made me feel better intellectually if not emotionally, until I went off to college, where I discovered that America wasn’t actually a place, either: It was an idea that people disagreed about. There was a lot that I didn’t know about home then, and very little that I know now.

America was my home, except that my parents were from somewhere else. Their parents were from the Soviet Union, which was a vast empire that no longer existed. That made me more of an American.

We drive out of the gate at four the next morning, on the move to liberation point, where the pigeons will be released from their baskets. A little tsetse fly buzzes in front of the glowing screen of my iPhone. The motor rumble merges with the ocean sound of pigeons, a warm, low, guttural sound to welcome the dawn.

We park on an airstrip in Douglas, and as the men open the grates on either side of the truck, I ask Corrie if he has a hunch about which bird is going to win.

“I have no idea,” he answers. “One of them.” The birds in the top rows of baskets will be let out first, he tells me. Otherwise the birds in the lower baskets will be crushed to the ground. “They look for space,” he explains, which is as succinct an explanation as any of how pigeons fly. At the end of last year’s race, three pigeons landed at more or less the same time on the roof of the loft. Then they had a walking race to the finish line.

Like many quiet people, Corrie does his talking in a rush, all at once. “I was born in a pigeon loft,” he says over the thrumming of the pigeon truck. “I started racing on my own when I was nine years old. So I have more than 50 years of racing, and every year they amaze me. I love the birds. And you think you know, but in fact you know nothing.”

A team of young videographers hired by SAMDPR are busy setting up complicated-looking suites of GoPro cams to shoot the moment of liberation from every angle. Corrie and I watch them work for a few moments, and then I ask him what the pigeons know about the race and whether he thinks it is hard for them to be so far from home. “They are trained to do this race. It’s not a problem for them,” he said. “We breed them for the love of the loft. They want to go back to the loft. If they don’t want to go to the loft, they are free,” he continues, and then he squints up at the truck. “For the pigeons, their reward is that they come home,” he says softly. “They must come back home.”

The doors are open. The wire baskets are now the only thing standing between nearly 3,000 pigeons and open sky. They will fly 325 miles on the greatest journey of their lives, and most of them will never fly again, living out the rest of their days at stud. A crown plover calls saucily from the grass outside, and some of the pigeons respond with loud squawking: You think you are free, but your life is aimless, pointless. We are going back home, where we are fed and cared for.

Anton is standing on top of the truck as the mass of pigeon sound rises and falls beneath his feet. When they are released, the pigeons will head toward the windmill, perhaps 1,500 feet away, and then veer left toward the river. Bending down, Anton starts cutting the white plastic ties on the baskets. Each basket has two ties. By 5:28 a.m., he has finished the first side of the truck.

“It’s one of the greatest wonders of the world,” he says when I ask him whether it is worth working 36 hours straight at the car park in order to spend his weekend driving a truckload of pigeons up the Northern Cape. “How do they get home again?” When they come out, there is a droning noise, he explains, and then a wind comes over you.

There are four minutes still to go. Anton gently knocks on the metal of the truck to rouse the laggards. The pigeons are ruffling their feathers and crowding forward. They seem eager to go. “Opgewonde,” Anton says, which is Afrikaans for “eager.” The birds will cross the river many times. If we hurry back, we should be able to beat the winner by maybe an hour or two. I tuck myself between the two joined pigeon trailers so I can feel the whoosh of liftoff.

Alles alrecht, 100 percent guarantee,” Anton tells Corrie, with one minute to go. On the back end of the truck is a silver lever, which is held in locked position parallel to the ground. When Anton pushes the lever up, the doors to the baskets will fold down, and the pigeons will fly out.

A split second later, he does, and they do. The men bang on the sides of the truck, and the pigeons swoop upward, then gather together in the sky in a loose ball, which thickens and darkens as the pigeons already in the air are joined by those in the bottom baskets. When all the pigeons are out, the banging stops. The pigeon ball drifts over the field for a few moments and then turns left. A line of pigeons stretches out toward the horizon. Four seconds later it is gone, and the sky is empty.

The SAMDPR video guy, who was standing on the roof of the second trailer, looks befuddled. “Where are the birds?” he asks. It all happened so fast, and now it is impossible to get his shot. As it happens, the GoPro cams didn’t work either, and now there is no footage of the liberation. Luckily, François captured the moment on his cell phone, and he shows it to everyone.

When I play the liberation video backward, I discover something even more spectacular: A ball of pigeons emerges from the sky and hovers for a few moments over the field. Single pigeons then peel off and fly low and straight toward the camera, backward. Two seconds later, the black ball breaks apart in the sky. The pigeons fly back to the truck, and the cage doors shut, making their temporary home permanent.  

It is our job to get back to the lofts before the pigeons do, by driving at double speed across the grassy plains. Somewhere up in the sky, the pigeons are seeing an aerial version of what we are seeing now, the grass giving way to the blinding white-silver gleam of aluminum-roofed shacks, then to the cinder-block homes with tires on the roof. Some will glide and surf the thermals. Others, arriving a few minutes earlier or later in the same exact airspace, will beat their wings against strong gusts that threaten to blow them off course. The pigeons will get thirsty and drink from the Vaal River below. Those that continue the journey home will get back up into the air and fly over the township houses with their rooftop solar collectors, courtesy of the ANC’s last election victory.

We stop only once before we reach the city limits, where the highway maintenance is noticeably worse. Exhausted from the drive, we head directly to the loft and climb a short flight of steps to the control room, which overlooks the pigeon trap on the loft roof, which looks like a birdhouse and has food and water inside. The difference between a pigeon trap and a birdhouse is harder to spot but should be obvious from the word trap: The birds can go in, Corrie explains, but they can’t get out.

Michael Holt is waiting in the control room, which has four airy windows looking out on the loft roof, where the winning bird will land. When the first bird enters the trap, there will be a gap of one-twentieth of a second while the code is inputted. The results will be visible to Michael within 20 seconds, after which the victory chime sounds and a fanfare is played. “They were seen somewhere an hour ago,” Michael offers when we walk in. Michael, two SAMDPR workers, and a photographer, Corrie, and I are the only people here. “Owners get too excited,” Michael explains. “They make noise and scare the pigeons. So they’ve never been allowed near the lofts on race day.”

The only exception is Paul Smith, whom I can see from the window is pacing around the loft grounds. Every 20 or 30 seconds, he nervously checks his watch. “We’ve seen him get sick,” Michael says.  

After my third bottle of water, to counteract the dehydration of the long drive, I am feeling woozy but no longer feel like I am going to pass out. I am anxious for the pigeons that won’t make it. I haven’t talked to my son in a week. I imagine him sitting on the couch and reading a C.S. Lewis book and wondering when the pigeons will come. I am homesick.

Two pigeons land on the roof. One is plainly bigger than the other. “Go! Go!” I start to cheer. The pigeons ruffle their feathers, turn away from the trap, and stare back at us. It is a strange moment. Michael, the photographer, and the other three guys in the control room are all looking at me.

The bigger one starts to walk toward the trap, and then he stops, allowing the smaller one to catch up to him. The smaller one then takes three steps forward and stops. Now everyone in the control room is laughing. Over the course of ten minutes, the pigeons trade the lead three times before they reach the halfway line I imagine running the length of the roof.

Now the race is really on, or so I am hoping. But crossing the finish line is a formality that doesn’t seem to interest the pigeons at all. As they stop and start and then stop again, it seems entirely possible that a third pigeon will suddenly appear in the sky, fly into the trap, and win the race. But no other pigeons are visible. It’s like watching a spider race. It strikes me at this moment that while the pigeons have flown 325 miles across the length of South Africa, and crossed the Vaal River many times, this is the only part of the greatest pigeon race in the world that I have actually seen with my own eyes, except for the moment when they left their cages. The leisurely walk across the roof continues, until the smaller of the two pigeons has had enough and dashes across the finish line, followed by the larger pigeon.

Twenty seconds later, the results of the race are official: First place belongs to Sanjay 1, a blue bar cock with pearl eyes owned by Karl-Heinz Koch of Germany, with a flight time of nine hours, four minutes, and 18 seconds, which marks a surprising improvement from his previous finish of 1,158 in the fifth and final preliminary race. That, in turn, represented a great improvement over his finish of 3,014 in the first prelim, close to dead last, results which, depending on how you read them, show the bird’s unique passion for self-improvement or else illustrate the maxim that every bird has his day. He is followed by Robben Island, a Kuwaiti bird from a distinguished racing lineage who finished in the top 100 in ten races so far this season. Melton Moment from Australia arrives at the finish line nearly two hours later. “Fuck, that was fast,” Corrie offers. But because his owner failed to pay his fee, third place goes to the fourth-place bird, Welfen-Fuerst, who came in five and a half minutes later.

Most of the birds are still 60 miles away, with storm clouds closing fast. No one wants to think for very long about the birds that won’t make it home. It’s an Episcopal moment. I imagine a hail of drenched pigeons falling out of the sky onto the green-carpeted veld. They will have to wait for the rain to pass and their feathers to dry out before they can continue their flight. Those who break their wings will be unable to fly home. They will lie there on the ground, looking up at the sky.

Back at the Hilton, the fanciers gather for the post-race banquet, where “well done” alternates with “best of luck” and expressions of concern for the birds who are sleeping out tonight. The top ten pigeons get gold medals, five of which go to Germans and are collected by Willi van Beers, who looks gleeful when the German national anthem is played. “They are really driving the sport right now,” says Frank McLaughlin, an American fancier seated to my right. While pigeons, like people, can be a crapshoot, the great fanciers have a knack for selection, he says. Out of a group of 2,500 good birds, there are a handful of truly exceptional birds that are from another planet. “I can put two fingers like this and feel the electricity in the superstars,” he says.

I ask him about Zandy Meyer, the patron saint of the Million Dollar. “He was a wonderful speaker. Spoke about seven languages,” he remembers. “He was very smart and had an incredible amount of integrity. And he knew a lot about people. He told me once, ‘If you ever want to know what people really think of you, watch how their kids react to you, and then you’ll know.’”

I spend the rest of the evening table hopping, meeting fanciers, including Dr. Alfred Piaget, who started at age seven with a pair of pigeons he got from the farmer across the street, only to discover that they were both male, which is why they didn’t have babies. Raising pigeons helped him make friends. He is proud of having published one of his earliest articles in the American Pigeon Journal. Five years ago, he went to the great Barcelona pigeon race, where 25,000 birds were released from 24 open-sided freight containers, with two fanciers on each car to make sure the birds were OK. “It sounded like thunder,” he remembers. “They were out of sight in three minutes.”  

Though Frank and Albert are both expert fanciers, neither one has ever come close to winning the Million Dollar. Ton de Kovel, a thin, curly-haired man in is his early fifties who is sitting at the next table, won the race in 2013, with a pigeon called Untamed Desert. He is sitting alone and is glad to tell me the story, which begins with his mother, who passed away the same year he won. The previous year, she bought two chairs from Eijerkamp, a famous retailer of modern furniture. When I look puzzled, Ton explains that the Eijerkamp family are famous fanciers. “When you buy furniture there, you have the right to get pigeons for free,” he says.

When he went to get the pigeons, however, Henk Jurriens, the trainer, told him that they weren’t ready yet, but he could send Ton’s pair to the Million Dollar Race in South Africa. Ton agreed. On the morning of February 2, 2013, he went to the gym and noted that one of his pigeons was still in the final race, which by his reckoning gave him 1 in 2,750 odds of winning. Later that day, he checked his computer and found that his pigeon had won. He screamed—and then immediately assumed that his computer had been hacked. The next day, the news of his pigeon’s victory was broadcast on national radio, at which point he realized that his luck was real and that he was now $124,300 richer.  

“I never thought that I could win,” Ton explained. “My father was a fancier, not me.” His father, who died in 2011, kept a loft for 50 years, beginning in the Second World War. “He was a real pigeon fancier,” he remembers fondly. “He was talking to the pigeons, and they were fond of him.  They came to him. When he was away, they missed him. They loved him.” He himself never cared much for the pigeons, he adds. Now they are all he has left.

The Million Dollar pigeons will always believe that the loft in Johannesburg are their home, which is a big reason why they will never race again. Instead they will mate, which after racing is the second-favorite subject of pigeon fanciers, who become legends by locating and maintaining a bloodline that produces winners. One result of the importance of breeding to fanciers is that much writing about pigeons reads like a strange cross between writing about bridge and the writings of the Aryan enthusiasts who gained such wide popularity in Europe and America during the 1920s and 1930s. As Dr. W.E. Barker, one of the great postwar British authorities on pigeons, wrote in his classic Pigeon Racing, “Luck and chance have no part in the scheme of the creation. There is no law in nature more certain than the law of Heredity.”

The practice of line breeding—meaning the pairing of half-brothers with half-sisters, grandfathers with granddaughters, mothers and sons, and other combinations that would discomfit the authors of the Bible and legislators nearly everywhere on earth—is understood to be not just normal but necessary for sculpting a genotype that will spit out future champions, generation after generation. When the bloodline starts to resemble the later generations of the Habsburgs, breeders seek to revive it through cross-breeding before returning to the DNA of the original pair.

The morning after the banquet is the auction, where I can hold the winning pigeons in my hands, in case I want to buy them. The Kuwaiti pigeon, who came in second, is clearly the most impressive of the pair who waited on the roof for 14 minutes yesterday. His body is slung forward, like an Olympic sprinter. “He’s in very good condition. The feathers are like silk,” Paul Smith shows me. I take the bird in my hand. The feathers do feel like silk. “There’s a gap here in the feathers,” Paul points out. “People would frown on that.”

Sanjay 1, exhausted by his once-in-a-lifetime journey, sells for $6,000. “If we could export these pigeons, they would sell for $30,000,” Paul explained. “But nobody wants to take that big of a chance.” A moment later, someone whispers in his ear and he winces, then he explains, “I’m told my pigeon just arrived now.” Frank McLaughlin buys a pigeon named Black Champ for a friend. “Well done on that pigeon,” the auctioneer says. Al-Juwaisri 1, the 13th-place pigeon, who has a particularly good bloodline, and top results in the preliminary races, goes for $13,000—twice the price paid for the first-place bird, who had the day of his life yesterday.

In the back, I find the great pigeon breeder Jan Hooymans, a tall, gentle Dutchman, who is talking to an Australian man named Ben Williams, who has bought two of his birds. “You hear that a lot of good pigeons have very soft feathers and are built very well, and that’s an important thing,” he instructs. “For example, if you make a selection for the Olympic games, in the marathon, a skinny guy may win. And if you have a 100-meter sprinter, you need strong, bulky legs. So first you think, what distance does the bird need to fly?” After that, he continues, the key is selection and breeding, with the goal of always returning back to the bloodline of the stock pair. “Selection, selection, selection,” he insists. “Fly a lot, breed a lot.”

When he is done, he hands over a business card with a pair of pigeons on the front. “That’s the stock pair,” he explains to me. “All the children from that pair, almost all, 90 percent, have good racing results, some better than others. And also good breeding results. It’s phenomenal. I have had pigeons all my life, and I have never had such a pair.”

A top-shelf fancier is lucky to find a truly great pair once in his lifetime, so every detail of how the pairing was made is worth remembering, on the off chance that lightning strikes twice. “I had a good cock, a son of the Blacksen,” he remembers. “That’s my Young Blacksen. And all the hens I put him on produced good or very good birds. So I said, This is my chance. I have to look for a very special hen. I went to Gerard Koopman”—perhaps the greatest fancier in Europe—“and I bought at auction the daughter of Kleine Dirk,” a famous champion racer who was also inbred, “named Amore Re. And I put them together, and the youngsters were wonderful. There was James Bond. I think he bred eight or nine top-ten birds. Harry flew three times in the national—he came in first, first, and third of 30,000 pigeons over 500 to 600 kilometers. His sister won first in the national and went directly to the stock loft.

“And now I’m looking again for such a pair,” he continues. “But it’s tough. When I was a child, I was always going to auctions, looking at the winning birds, how they are, how they must be. But I can’t look into a pigeon. I had luck.”

Pigeon racing is no way to make money, he explains. He supports his pigeon-racing habit with the money he makes from running his family’s mushroom-compost factory. What drives him is his dream. “My dream is to make world-famous pigeons,” he explains. “And I remember the mistakes I make. I make hundreds of mistakes. And I don’t forget those mistakes. And then you learn.”   

Pigeons will always fly home, no matter how far away you take them, because that is how pigeons are bred and trained. Whether people are made the same way is an open question. However, one answer I did receive on the night of the banquet has stuck with me. It came in the form of a story from Alfred Piaget, the 85-year-old pigeon fancier, who told me a coda to the story about the Cattrysse brothers loft and the bravery and self-sacrifice of the people of Moere, who ensured that the famous birds of their village survived to breed more champions after the war.

Years ago, Alfred told me, he made a personal pilgrimage to Moere, where he met the daughter of one of the Cattrysse brothers. She had been a little girl when the Nazis occupied her village. She told him that 26 or 27 years later, when she was then a young mother, she heard a knock at the door to her home. She opened the door to find an old man standing there. He was clearly not from the village, but she felt that she had seen him before. As he stood in front of her, she recognized the young officer who had been stationed in her house and had allowed her family’s pigeons to live if other birds would die in their place. He felt that he needed to apologize for what he had done during the war, he said. He wanted to come home.

The Desert Blues


The Desert Blues

In 2001, two unlikely friends created a music festival in Mali that drew the likes of Bono and Robert Plant. Then radical Islam tore them apart.

By Joshua Hammer

The Atavist Magazine, No. 48

Joshua Hammer is a former Newsweek bureau chief and correspondent at large in Africa and the Middle East. He is a contributing editor to Smithsonian and Outside, and his writing also appears in The New York Review of BooksThe New Yorker, the AtlanticThe New York Times MagazineNational Geographic, and many other publications. His fourth book, The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, will be published by Simon & Schuster in early 2016.

This project was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Editors: Katia Bachko and Joel Lovell
Producer: Megan Detrie
Designer: Gray Beltran
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Images: Alice Mutasa, Nadia Nid El-Mourad (including cover photo), Jonathan Brandstein, Corbis, Associated Press
Video: Joe Conte/Ola TV
Music: Samba Touré, “Fondora”; Noura Mint Seymali, “Tikifite”; Super Onze, “Adar Neeba”; Lo’Jo, “De Timbuktu à Essakane”; Terakaft, “Alghalem”; Khaira Arby, “La Liberte”

Published in May 2015. Design updated in 2021.

Author’s Note — November 20, 2015

The terrorist attack at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, wasn’t supposed to happen. Just a little more than two years ago French forces crushed a ragtag army of a thousand jihadis who had seized control of most of the African country. Opération Serval initially seemed a smashing success: French soldiers killed hundreds of extremists, dispersed the rest deep into the desert, and restored a sense of fragile normality to a region where, for one grim year, music was banned and adulterers were stoned to death.

Since early this year, however, Mali’s home-grown insurgency—which some say inspired the Islamic State—has come back to life. Militants have chased African peacekeepers out of the desert and carried out a series of murderous attacks across the country. On Friday—precisely one week after IS terrorists murdered 129 people on the streets of Paris—Mali’s jihadists carried out their most daring operation yet, storming the gates of the luxury hotel, seizing dozens of hostages and murdering at least 27 people, as of this writing. The hotel was a regular destination for Air France flight crews on the Paris-Bamako route, and some theorized that the act had been carried out in solidarity with IS. Whatever the case, France now appears to be waging war on at least two fronts. And Mali, its former colony, is spiraling again into instability and violence.

I have reported in Mali for more than 20 years, drawn to its vibrant music scene. In 2014, I traveled to the region to understand how the country’s musicians became a target of the Islamist rebels. What I discovered was the story of a friendship between two men who have lived the conflict in the most intimate way imaginable.

—Joshua Hammer


When Mohamed Aly Ansar studied international law at the University of Bamako, in the capital of Mali, he spent his days thinking about how to bring development to his impoverished nation. But at night he had a much different dream, one that came to him over and over: He saw himself standing in the middle of the desert near a stage, watching as a helicopter descended. The chopper was carrying the Swedish pop group ABBA, and Ansar was there to receive them.

Thirty years later, on January 12, 2012, a version of that dream came true. Ansar stood on the tarmac at the airport just outside Timbuktu, searching the dark sky for the lights of a private jet. Ansar was the founder of a three-day concert series called the Festival in the Desert, sometimes referred to as the African Woodstock, and on this cool night, he was waiting for Bono to arrive.

Around 8 p.m., the plane carrying the U2 front man alighted on the small runway, and Ansar climbed aboard to greet his guest. He found Bono relaxing on a sofa with his wife and a few friends. The group was excited about the festival, and Bono, dressed as always in black, asked Ansar, whom everyone called Manny, whether he thought Timbuktu was safe.

The situation was fine, Ansar replied. And everything was fine, but he knew more than he was saying, and he didn’t want to scare his guests.

For years, Mali had been among the most stable countries in western Africa, a democratic, laid-back, tourist-friendly oasis. It also had one of the world’s most vibrant music scenes. The Festival in the Desert had flourished since its inception in 2001, and some of the most famous musicians in the world—Robert Plant, Damon Albarn, and other Western stars—had come to play with popular Malian musicians. But things had grown darker in recent months. The Tuareg, a group of nomadic Berbers who periodically rose up against the government in the remote northeast corner of the country, were restive again. Radical Islam, introduced to North Africa in the 1990s, was rapidly gaining converts. And the Arab Spring, which began as a moment of hope in late 2010, had created ethnic and religious chaos that threatened to destabilize the entire region.

Even as Ansar reassured Bono—and it was true that at that moment the city of Timbuktu was enjoying a period of temporary calm—a large group of jihadist fighters were encamped in the desert. Armed with weapons stolen from the armories of the recently murdered Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddhafi, the jihadists had announced their plans to attack the government’s weak army. Six weeks earlier, three Europeans had been kidnapped and a fourth killed at a hotel in Timbuktu. Ansar didn’t mention his fear that his famous guest might be abducted.

Bono and his entourage boarded a guarded convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles and drove to the festival grounds outside Timbuktu—a wide, sandy tract bordered by white domed tents. Troops patrolled the dunes outside the festival grounds, scanning the horizon for suspicious movement. As the crowd of 7,000 braced against the cold night air, Ansar escorted Bono to a VIP box. After an hour, Bono retired to a French-owned luxury guesthouse, where he was guarded by a dozen troops. The next day, he took a hike alone past the military perimeter and into the dunes while Ansar waited anxiously in a tent on the festival grounds.

That evening, Tinariwen (pronounced tee-na-ree-wayn), the festival’s headliner, took the stage. The band was composed of former Tuareg rebels who had achieved international fame with their haunting music, known as the desert blues. The group had formed in exile in Libya during the 1980s, and their music was deeply rooted in the Tuareg’s turbulent history: Like protest singers in the United States during the Vietnam War era, the musicians gave voice to an angry, alienated generation. They sang not about peace but about war, a fight for the dream of an independent Tuareg nation, which they called Azawad—“land of pasture.”

The crowd exploded when Bono got up to join the band, dancing and improvising with the singers and guitarists. A few hours later, he boarded his jet and flew to Bamako, in the south, far from the jihadists’ stronghold.

A year later, I sat with Ansar in the garden of a riverside guesthouse in Bamako. He described the palpable relief he felt once his celebrity charge had departed. The festival had been an artistic success, he said, and had even made some money, but there was no time to celebrate. In the weeks before the event, newspapers had predicted that the Islamist rebels would attack and Western embassies had warned that northern Mali was highly dangerous. Ansar knew too well that those fears were well founded. After all, Iyad Ag Ghali, the man who commanded the fighters, had been one of Ansar’s closest friends—and had even inspired the festival that he and his rebels now saw as an affront to their vision for an Islamic state in Mali.

The story of their friendship, sealed by music before it was severed by ideology, is in many ways the story of Mali itself, and of the fractures between radical and moderate Islam that have emerged across the globe. But for Manny Ansar and Iyad Ag Ghali, their estrangement revealed more fundamental questions—about belief and betrayal, and about how well we really know those closest to us.

On January 14, roadies dismantled the stage and fans began the long journey home from Timbuktu. Meanwhile, somewhere in the desert, Ansar’s old friend was rallying hundreds of jihadist fighters. Once everyone departed, Ansar wondered if he had just closed his last festival and whether Ghali would deliver on his threat to destroy everything they had built together.

Audience members at the Festival in the Desert. Photo: Alice Mutasa


Manny Ansar and Iyad Ag Ghali met for the first time in January 1991, at the villa of a prominent Tuareg politician in Bamako named Baye Ag Mohamed. Four months earlier, Ghali and 45 rebels armed only with knives and hand grenades had ambushed a small army camp in northeast Mali. In close combat, rebels killed nearly 100 people and captured armored vehicles, mortars, and rocket launchers. The attack, the most brutal in a series of them, forced the army to retreat, and Mali’s military dictator Moussa Traoré began negotiations with the rebels.

Government officials and rebel commanders met in Tamanrasset, a large town in the southern Algerian desert. The enemies reached a ceasefire agreement, and the regime brought a delegation of five rebel commanders to Bamako for a round of ceremonial events. Mohamed invited Ghali to stay with him and arranged a meeting with Ansar. 

The roots of the hatred between the Tuareg and the Malian government date to the end of the 19th century, when the French colonial army forcibly occupied the Tuareg’s traditional homeland in the central Sahara. French administrators joined the arid north with the Niger River valley and the southern savanna, both dominated by black Africans, creating an awkward colonial construct they called French Sudan, later known as Mali. It would never be an easy peace, in part because the light-skinned Tuareg traditionally believed that blacks were inferior and kept many as slaves. (Descendants of those black slaves, known as bellah, speak Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, but tend not to identify as Tuareg because of the racial divide.) In the 1950s, the colonial administration considered joining the north with the Saharan regions of other French colonies to create a separate Tuareg state, but the idea was abandoned because the territory wasn’t viable without access to the Niger, Mali’s lifeblood.

In 1991, Ansar was working as an administrator for a Norwegian development organization in Bamako. He was also the leader of an association of young Tuareg students and professionals from the Timbuktu region that raised money from European donors to build wells and primary schools in the northern desert.

In college, Manny Ansar made recordings of traditional Malian musicians. In 2001, he founded the Festival in the Desert to celebrate their music. Photo: Jonathan Brandstein

Ansar and his fellow urban Tuareg didn’t support the rebellion, but they were in awe of the insurgents’ military prowess. “Everyone wanted to see these people who, when they started to fight, put Moussa Traoré in the position of begging,” he recalled. “They were like Rambo. There was something mystical about them.” Some worried that he was committing treason, but Mohamed assured Ansar that the rebels wanted to make peace. 

Ushered into Mohamed’s salon, Ansar laid eyes on the guerrillas for the first time. The men’s hair was long and tousled, their faces sunburned. Though they had done their best to attire themselves properly, with vests, trousers, and button-down shirts, it was clear that they had just emerged from the desert. Tall, slender, and bare headed, with expressive eyes, a wild black mane, and a walrus mustache, Ghali stood out. Ansar regarded him with a mix of admiration and trepidation.

Ansar invited Ghali and his four fellow commanders to a reception at a popular Bamako restaurant. He didn’t know what to expect, but he decided to break the ice with music and had crafted a mix tape of songs by some of Mali’s biggest stars, including Ali Farka Touré, a masterful guitarist and vocalist from the north, and Salif Keita, an albino troubadour from southern Mali. Four of the Tuareg commanders chatted up the female guests and danced, but Ghali sat silent in his chair. “He was closed off, shy, naturally fearful,” Ansar remembered, speculating that he had had little interaction with women before this, or that he had suffered some trauma that made him suspicious and guarded around strangers.  

When the meal was over, Ansar and Ghali retreated to a private room. Ansar told Ghali that because his father was a decorated Tuareg officer in the Malian army, he grew up on military bases and saluted the flag every morning. 

“What made you want to raise arms against the state?” Ansar asked.

Urged on by Ansar’s extroverted nature, Ghali began to talk. For the next several hours, he recounted his tumultuous youth, which followed the contours of Mali’s difficult path. Ghali grew up near Kidal, a dusty administrative outpost of 2,000 people living in wattle-and-daub huts in the shadow of a French colonial fort. 

When Mali achieved independence in 1960, long-smoldering ethnic animosities reemerged. Tuareg, who comprise about 3 percent of Mali’s population of 16.5 million, felt oppressed and ignored by the central government. In 1963, when Ghali was a small boy, Tuareg rebels swept across the desert on camels, seized rifles from government depots, and ambushed government soldiers. The government forces could not defeat the rebels and began to target civilians and their livestock. Thousands of innocents died. Ghali’s father, who served as a guide to the government army, was killed by a Tuareg rebel. And yet, after witnessing the killings of so many of his fellow Tuareg, Ghali, like many of his generation, came to believe that his people’s survival depended on forming their own state. During a devastating drought in the 1970s, government troops stole food donated by international aid agencies and sold it in markets. Many young Tuareg fled into exile, and Ghali left Kidal. “We didn’t believe we had a future here,” he told Ansar.  

He traveled by camel and on foot to Libya and settled in a shantytown outside Tripoli while he looked for work. A photograph of Ghali taken around this time shows a teenager with an Afro and flared jeans poking out beneath an embroidered Arab gown. In Tripoli, in the 1970s, Ghali began to frequent cafés in Tuareg neighborhoods, where a vibrant music scene was preserving the Tuareg culture. Many of the exiles’ songs recalled the rebellion of 1963 and the dream of a separate Tuareg nation. The singers modernized the traditional music of northern Mali, replacing the four-string lute, or teherdent, with acoustic and electric guitars. A typical song declared: 

You should be in the desert 

Where the blood of kin has been spilled

That desert is our country 

And in it is our future.

When Ghali spoke of Tuareg music, Ansar felt the distance between them shrink. As a boy, Ansar had been drawn to Tuareg warriors and their doomed struggle. He had grown up in a desert encampment 75 miles north of Timbuktu, a region of rolling dunes and a few scattered Artesian wells. When he was five years old, a tall bronze man, wearing a purple turban decorated with silver jewelry, arrived at his home. The man wore a traditional white gown, or boubou, from which dangled goatskin bags covered with red and green embroidery, and he carried a teherdent made of wood and leather. He was a griot, an itinerant singer and oral historian who traveled from village to village, telling stories about Tuareg culture and history. The adults laid carpets in the dunes and gathered the family around a bonfire; people from neighboring encampments came to watch the griot’s performance. The griot sang about Ansar’s great-great-grandfather Ngouna, who was the chief of the Kel Antassar clan when the first French soldiers arrived in the Sahara. In the late 1890s, Ngouna led the Tuareg resistance against the French military occupiers; he died in an ambush in the very dunes where the griot performed. 

While he was at university, Ansar had often traveled back to his ancestral home with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, capturing the performances of traditional musicians. He made cassettes of the music and played them for his fellow students back in Bamako. 

While Ansar graduated from college and started working in rural development, Ghali became a mercenary. In 1981, Gaddhafi began recruiting a force to expand Libya’s influence in Africa and the Middle East, and Ghali joined the fight. He spent the next decade in and out of Gaddhafi’s camps, training in Syria and fighting in Lebanon alongside Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, and later in Chad, where Gaddhafi was trying to unseat the country’s president. 

Whenever Ghali returned to Libya, he lived in a Tuareg military camp near Tripoli. There he met Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, a skinny, brooding man with a billowing Afro. Alhabib’s father had been executed for helping the rebels in 1963. After the government destroyed the family’s livestock, he fled to the Algerian city of Oran, on the Mediterranean. In exile, Alhabib fashioned a guitar out of an oilcan and a bicycle cable. He was a musical omnivore, drawing on everything from the protest music of the Maghreb and Egyptian pop to the desert blues of Ali Farka Touré to Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, and Carlos Santana. The music he composed was often nothing more than a couple of chords and a repetitive phrase. It was austere and haunting, with Alhabib’s unpolished voice imparting a ragged authenticity. 

“They murdered the old folk and a child just born,” Alhabib sang in “Sixty-Three,” one of his early songs:

They swooped down to the pastures and wiped out the cattle

’63 has gone, but will return. 

Before long, Ghali began writing romantic ballads and martial songs for Alhabib and his band, including an anthem that would become the national hymn of Azawad:

Like true warriors we are going to trample on the enemy

Yes, in the name of God, we rise up and begin. 

By 1990, the Tuareg rebels in exile had become disillusioned with Gaddhafi, who promised to provide them with arms and vehicles but never delivered. Ghali left Libya with about 100 rebels and returned to Mali. “We are not bandits, but we want to claim our rights as Malian citizens,” they declared in a communiqué. “Today, these rights are trampled upon by the Malian government, which considers us strangers.”

Ghali’s army soon grew to more than 1,000 men. Their years of fighting for Gaddhafi had created a fierce force skilled in close combat. They seized vehicles from an international relief agency in northern Mali and captured weapons from poorly trained Malian soldiers in the north, who were quick to abandon their bases. 

In the evenings, the rebels gathered to hear Alhabib, and other Tuareg musicians who had joined the fight, play music around a fire. Bootleg cassettes of these sessions circulated throughout the north, attracting more young Tuareg to the insurgency. As Alhabib sang: 

Let the blood boil if it is really in your veins

At the break of day, take your arms and take the hilltops

We kill our enemies and become like eagles

We’ll liberate all those who live in the plains.

For months, Ghali’s men hammered the Malian forces, until the government finally conceded in September 1990 and negotiated the ceasefire. In Bamako, Ghali was stunned by what he found—educated Tuareg like Ansar, with decent jobs, and plenty of black Malians who didn’t want to exterminate the Tuareg. “Before I came here I thought Mali was an evil place,” he told Ansar. “I’ve seen a different reality.” 

Tuareg rebels in the Malian Sahara, November 1990. Photo: Getty Images


Ghali worked to maintain the ceasefire, but the accord began to unravel. Moussa Traoré’s dictatorship collapsed in the face of nationwide protests in March 1991. The interim leader, a former military man named Amadou Toumani Touré, pledged a quick democratic transition and committed himself to a lasting peace in the north. But many fighters in Ghali’s ranks believed that the instability afforded them an opportunity to wrest more concessions from the new government and urged him to resume their fight. European and American diplomats, as well as representatives from Mali’s powerful neighbor Algeria, warned Ghali that the Tuareg faced international isolation if they picked up their guns again.

Caught between powerful forces, Ghali organized a conference in June 1991 and called upon his new acquaintance Ansar to help him urge their fellow Tuareg to keep the peace. Ghali was waiting at the airport in Tamanrasset when Ansar arrived. The rebel chief brought Ansar to his modest house, introduced him to his wife and daughter, and took him out for a meal. “I’m going to lose the peace, Manny,” he said. Ansar reached out to influential young Tuareg from the north, and soon after, Touré organized a special flight to carry 30 Tuareg tribal chiefs and politicians to Tamanrasset. 

For the next ten days, Ansar met Tuareg leaders from across the country in the grand salon of the Tamanrasset governor’s mansion, urging them to stand behind the accord and persuade the fighters to lay down their arms. In the evenings, he and Ghali walked in the lively streets of Tamanrasset, stopping at small cafés to hear live music. 

One afternoon, Ghali drove Ansar to a dry riverbed in the shadow of the Hoggar Mountains, which rise to more than 9,000 feet. A dozen all-terrain vehicles were parked at a camp, and mutton sizzled on a grill. Ansar sat beside Ghali on a carpet in the white sand, and together they watched low clouds on the horizon glow orange, then purple. Alhabib, Ghali’s friend from the camps in Libya, and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, a former rebel-musician from a family of Islamic scholars deep in the Malian desert, set up a rudimentary sound system and played the songs they’d written in exile. As their guitars and raw voices echoed across the riverbed, Ansar drifted back 25 years to songs he had heard as a child.

My God, this is Ali Farka Touré singing in Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, Ansar thought. Ghali, too, seemed transported. “All the stress, the rebellion, the attacks were left behind,” Ansar recalled. One of the songs that the group sang was “Toumast,” or “The People,” a call for rebel unity:

A divided people will never reach its goal

It will never cultivate an acacia tree with beautiful leaves

A divided people will lose its way

Each part of it will become an enemy in itself.

Despite Ghali’s efforts the ceasefire collapsed, and Tuareg radicals resumed attacking army posts and camps. In 1992, after the deaths of hundreds more fighters and civilians, Ghali finally persuaded factional leaders to sign a new accord. Funds were set up to support former rebels and compensate victims. Government troops agreed to withdraw from many posts in the north, and hundreds of former rebels joined the Malian armed forces. 

After the new pact was signed, fighters began collecting their weapons. In March 1996, the country’s newly elected president joined Ghali at a ceremonial burning of 3,000 Kalashnikovs in Timbuktu. The weapons were encased in the Flame of Peace monument to commemorate the occasion. Nearby murals painted by local artists depicted Malian soldiers clasping the hands of Tuareg insurgents. For the first time since 1990, Mali was at peace.

The government hailed Ghali as a statesman and a peacemaker and considered various political and military positions for him but ultimately decided that the Lion of the Desert, as many called him, would never be satisfied in a conventional post. “Because he was the biggest fighter, no one was in a position to be the chief of Iyad,” Ansar explained. In the end, Ghali became an unofficial security adviser to the president and a diplomat without portfolio. He worked out of his villa in Bamako and also at the so-called Commissary of the North, located next to the president’s palace, a whitewashed Moorish-style villa perched atop an extinct volcano. He traveled with the president on diplomatic missions to Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, and other countries, and often brought Ansar along. Ghali now wore a Rolex watch, bespoke suits. and finely embroidered boubous, (“He was fascinating to people,” Ansar said, describing the many admirers who showered his friend with gifts), but he didn’t greedily pursue power or wealth. 

Nor did he practice his faith. Ansar prayed five times a day and fasted during Ramadan, but Ghali avoided prayers and never set foot in a mosque. “I was the good Muslim and he was the bad Muslim,” Ansar said. Ghali smoked, was reputed to be a big drinker—though Ansar never saw him touch a drop—and, when they traveled, was often out carousing all night. “People wanted to talk to him in the morning, and he just wanted to sleep,” Ansar recalled. “You could only bother him after 11:30.” 

Ansar frowned on such habits, but Ghali had earned his respect. During the factional fighting that had followed the breakdown of the peace in the early 1990s, Ghali’s men had brutally mistreated a captive, who later died. Ghali was infuriated when he learned of the crime, and he punished his men, he told Ansar. “He was a rebel commander, but he never condoned torture,” Ansar said. “He had a warrior’s code of honor.”

Ansar lived on the outskirts of Bamako, in a large house he had built for his family. (His wife gave birth to a daughter in 1995 and a son five years later.) He often hosted parties at which insurgents turned musicians were regular guests. As the evenings wore on, they would climb a spiral staircase to a rooftop known as La Terrasse des Fêtes, the Party Terrace, and listen to music and talk until dawn. On most Sundays, the friends gathered near the Niger River, a few miles outside Bamako, and held informal concerts hosted by Ghali and Ansar. Here, Alhabib and Alhousseyni would play for hours in the shade of a mango tree, typically joined by two female musicians, one playing the traditional imzad violin, the other the tindé drum.

The two former fighters formed the core of a group that had played together since they met in the Libyan rebel camps. Ansar became their manager, booking them into concert halls in Bamako. The rebellion was over, but they still sang songs about insurgency and the mythic Tuareg nation of Azawad. 

In 1999, the band accepted an invitation to play at a festival near Nantes, France. They chose La Groupe Azawad as their name. and Ansar booked flights and secured passports. They flew to Brussels Airport on Sabena Airlines, but when they arrived they were pulled aside for questioning. The police detained the group in a windowless cell after inquiring what the band, clad in traditional Tuareg veils and robes, were doing in Europe and whether they had sufficient funds. (They didn’t.) Seventy-two hours passed before the authorities finally released them. Alhousseyni commemorated the ordeal with a song: 

We thought we would arrive in paradise with Sabena 

Instead we ended up in prison with Sabena.

Despite the complications, the concert was a resounding success. Immediately after returning to Mali, Ansar decided that the name La Groupe Azawad was too politically charged, and he asked them to find an alternative. The musicians started calling themselves Kel Tinariwen, the People of the Desert, which was soon shortened to Tinariwen. 


In January 2000, Ghali invited Ansar to Intejedit, a remote valley of rocks, reddish sand, and unearthly silence in northeastern Mali. Ansar traveled there by Jeep from Bamako, a three-and-a-half-day journey. This could be Mars, he thought as he drove through the scorched, barren land. The valley of Intejedit was fiercely hot. Barren sand dunes lie to the west, while in the east rose the Adrar des Ifoghas massif, a nearly impenetrable range of eroded sandstone and granite boulders surrounding sandy riverbeds.

Amid this striking scenery, Ghali had organized an event he called the Kidal Festival. Hundreds of Tuareg nomads had pitched goatskin tents around a makeshift stage. They slaughtered sheep and settled in for three days of music, camel races, and a camel “beauty pageant”—all arranged by Ghali to drum up tourism and development in the region. At Ghali’s request, Ansar had brought a Malian television crew to film the event for the national network. 

Ansar and Ghali were inseparable. They watched camels thunder down a sandy path, listened to Tinariwen perform, and soothed an angry Tuareg chieftain who felt that his clan had been shortchanged by the peace agreement. The festival culminated with the “dance of the camels,” featuring a group of Tuareg women draped in black who sat in a tight circle beating drums, chanting, and rhythmically clapping their hands. Tuareg riders in turquoise gowns and turbans led their camels, bearing richly embroidered saddles, in a circle around the women. “He was proud of how well the camels had been trained,” Ansar remembered. “He was proud of his culture and happy to have the chance to show it to me.” At the end, Ghali presented his friend with a large white camel—“the most beautiful animal I had ever seen,” Ansar said—as a token of their friendship. It was, Ghali told him, “the number one camel of Kidal.” 

During his days with Ghali at Intejedit, Ansar began to realize the potential of a commercial music festival in the Sahara, one that would attract Western tourists and musicians and promote Tuareg culture. He envisioned a roving concert series that would take place in a different venue each year and include Tuareg clans across the north, all of whom would share in jobs and revenues.

In January 2001, Ansar joined with members of Ghali’s clan, the Ifoghas, to produce the first official Festival in the Desert, also north of Kidal. Through his development group in Bamako, Ansar persuaded the embassies of France, Germany, and the United States, as well as Mali’s Ministry of Culture, to contribute financing for the three-day affair. The chief of Ghali’s clan organized tents, firewood, food, water, and provisions for the crowd; Ghali himself, a power broker in the region, assured Ansar that he would keep the visitors safe.

At the time, political tensions were roiling. Months earlier a recalcitrant Tuareg rebel and close friend of Ghali’s, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, had turned against the peace pact and launched a small-scale rebellion near Kidal. Malian officials hoped to use the festival to dissuade Tuareg from joining Bahanga’s uprising. Conferences took place during the day, followed by music at night. One evening, to Ansar’s annoyance, the politicians ordered the producer to delay opening the concert because the meetings were dragging on. 

Ghali used the occasion to carry on his own clandestine peacemaking mission in cooperation with the Malian government. While Tinariwen performed on a makeshift stage in the sand, before Western ambassadors, government ministers, and 2,000 Tuareg men in cerulean robes, Ghali huddled on a dune a few hundred yards away with Mali’s prime minister and Bahanga, trying to talk the rebel leader into laying down his arms.  

Festival entrance, Essakane. Photo: Alice Mutasa


During the winter of 2002, around the time of the second Festival in the Desert, a friend in the Tuareg community told Ansar that a group of Muslim missionaries from Pakistan had arrived in Kidal, Ghali’s hometown, to preach their version of the religion to the Tuareg there. Mali’s Muslims are predominantly Sufist. Theirs is a tolerant, mystical form of Islam whose adherents venerate Muslim saints and chant wazifas, or the names of God. 

The missionaries who arrived, by contrast, belonged to the fundamentalist Tablighi Jamaat sect, which extols a return to the austere lifestyle led by the Prophet. Members of the group that came to Kidal sleep on rough mats and use twigs to brush their teeth. They spend a portion of every year on overseas proselytizing missions.

“The Pakistanis are up there converting all the former Tuareg rebels,” Ansar’s friend told him. “They’re all becoming devout.” Even Ghali, Ansar learned, was going to mosque now on a regular basis and had expressed keen interest in what these strict Muslims had to say. 

A year later, Ghali invited Ansar to visit him at his home. When he entered, he found Ghali seated on the floor, absorbed in a copy of the Koran. Ansar had never seen him reading the Holy Book before. Soon after, Ghali again summoned Ansar to his home and began to lecture him. He thumbed through the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, and told his friend that life is “like a waiting room in an airport when you are in transit,” a brief interlude before the “real journey” begins. “You had better be prepared,” he admonished. Ghai pressed Ansar to cancel the Festival in the Desert. It was a “materialistic pursuit,” he said, that “won’t speak well for you before God after you are dead.” He handed Ansar a book about the proper way to pray and urged Ansar to read the book and put it into practice. 

Ansar fended him off gently, defending the festival as a source of much needed hope and jobs. “Leave me alone for five more years, and when I turn 50, I’m going to stop everything and follow your advice.”

“No, that’s too late,” Ghali replied. “You don’t know if you’re going to die today.” 

Soon after, Ghali invited Ansar to meet him at a Salafist mosque. Salafism is a radical branch of Islam that worships the Prophet and his original followers, the salaf, or ancestors. Ansar arrived to find Ghali seated on a mattress in a small prayer room, a stubbly beard forming on his cheeks. Delighted that Ansar had come, Ghali suggested that he spend the entire weekend there. Ansar looked at the cramped cubicles, the dirty mattresses, the bearded acolytes, and politely declined.

Ghali had given up his rich diet of lamb and couscous, his bespoke suits and embroidered boubous. He seemed to subsist on nothing but milk and dates, and he dressed in a white djellaba, a long Middle Eastern robe, and short trousers that ended well above his ankles, as favored by fundamentalist Muslims. He removed all photographs and paintings from his house, made his wife wear the veil known as the hijab, and kept her confined to home. And he began giving away his prized possessions, handing his expensive Rolex watch to another former Tuareg rebel. Ghali confided to Ansar that he was saying “twice as many prayers” as those required by Islam, because “of all the things I have done that I regret.”

Ansar was mystified by his friend’s devotion but tried to remain open to it. “He was always smiling,” Ansar said, “like a child.” 

“You must not lose yourself entirely in religion,” Ansar told him. “You were the one who created these problems for the state and for the society, so you have to stay in charge, to maintain the peace.” 

Ghali waved him off. 

When I spoke with Ghali’s old musician friend Alhousseyni of Tinariwen, he told me that Ghali “began to lose his friends, his acquaintances, and he became solitary. He entered a different world.”

In 2003, Ansar moved the festival across the Sahara to Essakane, west of Timbuktu, a remote and otherworldly sea of dunes that served as a traditional gathering place for his clan, the Kel Antassar. The British guitarist Justin Adams arrived to play with Tinariwen, whose first album he had recently helped produce. Adams was joined by Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, who jammed with Tinariwen and Ali Farka Touré before an audience that included hundreds of foreign tourists. Thanks to Plant, the festival drew media attention around the world. It also produced some awkward encounters. Vicki Huddleston, who had just arrived in Mali as the new U.S. ambassador, reached Essakane on the festival’s first afternoon. Huddleston made her way to a section reserved for diplomats and briefly inspected her designated tent, marked by an American flag flying out front. When she returned late in the afternoon, she noted with puzzlement that the flag had been removed. 

“Is somebody in there?” Huddleston’s public affairs officer inquired, standing outside the tent.

Out stepped Robert Plant. 

“This is the ambassador’s tent,” the officer said.

“But I am ambassador to the world,” Plant protested, before surrendering the quarters to Huddleston.

Preparations for the 2003 festival in Essakane, west of Timbuktu. Photo: Nadia Nid El-Mourid

In the spring of 2003, an organization calling itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, based in Algeria, kidnapped a group of European tourists—most of them German—on a desert highway and led them on a punishing hike south through the Sahara, to the Adrar des Ifoghas massif.

Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Touré, realized that he had a radical Islamic threat inside his borders and reached out to Ghali for help. The leader of the group, a former Algerian paratrooper who called himself El Para, offered to free the hostages in exchange for a ransom from the German government, and Touré asked Ghali to make the deal. 

Surrounded by barren hills, the Tuareg negotiator and the Arab terrorists sat on blankets in a dried-out riverbed and discussed terms. El Para agreed to a five-million-euro ransom, and Ghali delivered the money, flown down from Germany in a government jet, in a batch of suitcases. The hostages were freed immediately, earning Ghali the goodwill of both the Malian government and the jihadists. 

Soon after, Huddleston met with Ghali in Kidal. Huddleston and other American officials worried that the Germans’ five-million-euro payment would enable the Saharan radicals to buy weapons and recruit jihadists. They were also concerned about Ghali and his flirtation with fundamentalism. In 1998, John Walker Lindh, a young American, had traveled with preachers from Ghali’s sect, Tablighi Jamaat, to Pakistan and soon joined the Taliban. Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States for the September 11 attacks, regularly attended a Tablighi Jamaat mosque in France. 

For half an hour, Ghali and the ambassador talked about the state of things in the north and the importance of keeping the Tuareg at peace for the sake of development. Huddleston noted his piercing eyes and full beard, the flowing white robe and intricately folded head scarf typically worn by Tuareg. He looked, she thought, like a classic desert warrior. When she pressed him about possible ties with Islamic terror groups, Ghali assured her that he had no interest in their cause.  

Vieux Farka Touré performs. Video: Joe Conte/Ola TV


As the festival grew, Ansar began to believe that it could help unite all of Mali through music. Although he was growing distant from Ghali, he took solace in the fact that the festival that Ghali had inspired was providing jobs to Tuareg and establishing Timbuktu as an international tourist destination. Western journalists and diplomats were praising Mali as a symbol of hope and freedom on a deeply troubled continent. And stars from around the world were clamoring to appear at Essakane.

Around 2007, Ansar began receiving warnings from Tuareg elders that a new movement of Islamic jihadists in the Sahara, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, viewed the festival as an abomination. The group was made up of some of the same Algerian jihadists whom Ghali had first encountered in 2003, when he negotiated the release of the European tourists being held by El Para. “They are saying that you’re spreading debauchery, that you’ve created some kind of Sodom and Gomorrah in Essakane,” he was told. And yet, AQIM never attacked the festival, and the radicals—who had begun seizing Western tourists and aid workers across northern Africa and holding them for ransom—never attempted a kidnapping in or around Essakane. When I asked Ansar why, he said he couldn’t be sure, but he believed that his longtime friend was quietly protecting it—and him—from violence.  

Outsiders, meanwhile, had little idea of the tension behind the scenes. I visited the Festival in the Desert in 2008, at the height of its popularity, when 8,000 people came to Essakane, a quarter of them Westerners. Tourists in safari jackets filled the sandy streets of Timbuktu. They flooded the markets and packed their rented Land Cruisers with tents, coolers, bottled water, food, first-aid kits, extra fuel, GPS devices, and other supplies for the two-hour journey down a rough track through the desert.

The festival was a grand, unforgettable scene. White canvas tents and traditional nomadic dwellings stitched together from the hides of goats dotted the wind-rippled white dunes. After a day in the heat and a communal meal with a party of young Australians on a months-long trek through Africa, I fell asleep in a tent before midnight. Two hours later, awakening to an infectious guitar phrase, I scaled a 50-foot-high dune overlooking the floodlit stage. I lay back on the cool sand, stared at a sky filled with stars, and let the hypnotic vocals and guitar licks of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Tinariwen’s lead singer, wash over me.

Tinariwen perform. Video: Joe Conte/Ola TV

In late 2008, Ghali informed Ansar that he had accepted a diplomatic assignment to the Malian consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

“I want to be close to the Great Mosque of Mecca, where I can pray every Friday,” Ghali said.

Ansar was appalled. He couldn’t understand why Ghali would leave the country for an inconsequential post, especially at a time when Tuareg insurgents were stirring again and radical Islamists had begun kidnapping Western tourists, aid workers, and diplomats in the north. Ghali had recently negotiated on behalf of the government and freed hundreds of soldiers captured by a Tuareg splinter group around Kidal. “God gave you this intelligence, the power to find solutions,” Ansar argued. “You don’t have the right to leave it all behind.”  

Ghali said that he was tired of the internecine warfare between Tuareg factions, and tired of Malian politics in general. He wanted out, and he was searching for a new direction. A few weeks later, Ghali boarded a plane for Jeddah. But after less than a year he returned to Mali, with newspapers reporting that he had been expelled from Saudi Arabia for allegedly making contacts with radicals.

Ansar shrugged off the news. In fact, he would later admit, he was pleased that Ghali had been forced to leave a dead-end job in Saudi Arabia, auguring a possible return to a domestic political role. Ansar continued to regard Ghali as a “great man,” he said, “who had always been respectful toward me, in spite of my resistance to his offers to lead me along the ‘right path.’” He regarded his piety as a good thing, on balance. “I had nothing against someone who transformed himself into a monk,” he would say years later, “to leave behind all the good things in life in order to nourish his faith.”

“Are you sure you’re not heading down the road of violence?” Ansar asked him upon his return. Ghali shook his head emphatically. “We are pacifists,” he said.

When they met again in February 2010 by chance in a roadside restaurant north of Bamako, Ghali was far less warm. Ansar was driving north to the Festival on the Niger, a five-day concert event set on a barge in the river. This time, Ansar said, Ghali stared at him with contempt, offering an unspoken rebuke to his former friend for continuing his passion for music.

It was the last time the two men would see each other, but it wasn’t long before Ansar realized how fully his friend had immersed himself in his fundamentalist faith and violent Islam.

Fighters from Ansar Dine in the desert outside Timbuktu. Photo: Associated Press 


In December 2010, Tunisians rose up against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a repressive figure whose free-spending wife had come to epitomize institutional corruption. The Tunisian revolution inspired Egyptians to demand the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, who fell weeks later. Soon it was Gaddhafi’s turn. In Benghazi, in eastern Libya, security forces killed many protesters, and rebellion spread. NATO forces, acting on a United Nations Security Council resolution, attacked Gaddhafi’s army. Gaddhafi called on the Tuareg of Mali for help, and several thousand answered his plea. Despite their help, Tripoli fell in late August. In the ensuing chaos, Tuareg looters ripped off the gates of arsenals across Libya and filled their trucks with heavy weapons. Then they headed back across the desert to Mali.

Ghali, meanwhile, was plotting his next move after his disgraceful expulsion from Saudi Arabia. He watched with keen interest as a rebel movement, consisting of secular Tuareg, coalesced in northern Mali. That fall he drove to the camp of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, as the group now called itself, and made a bid to become its commander. But Ghali had few diehard supporters left among the Tuareg rebels, some of whom viewed him with suspicion because of his longtime ties to the government; others were repelled by his fundamentalist leanings. The rebels rejected him.

A short time later, in Kidal, Ghali established his own rebel movement, Ansar Dine—Defenders of the Faith—consisting of Tuareg who embraced fundamentalist Islam. Ghali made an alliance with AQIM, whose confidence he’d won years earlier by arranging the five-million-euro ransom for the German hostages. 

Ghali’s new Islamist coalition soon proposed a partnership with the nonreligious Tuareg rebels who were encamped, with their heavy weapons, in the northern desert. The secular rebels were deeply divided. Some viewed the Al Qaeda fighters as criminals, killers, and international outcasts, and wanted nothing to do with them. The majority, however, saw the alliance in opportunistic terms. By merging their men and their heavy arms with AQIM and Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Dine, they would likely roll over the Malian army and achieve their long-held dream—Azawad.

Iyad Ag Ghali (second from right) with Tuareg fighters. Photo: Corbis

Four days after the Festival in the Desert, on January 18, Ghali and the Ansar Dine rebels attacked an army camp in a remote village in northeast Mali. They overran the compound, then lined up nearly 100 soldiers and civilians and executed them, either by slitting their throats or shooting them in the head. The French government accused Ghali of Al Qaeda tactics. 

“My God,” Ansar exclaimed when he saw his old friend in combat gear, surrounded by armed jihadist fighters, on Malian TV. “He always swore to me that his Islam would never become violent.” 

The insurgents were growing in number, capturing weaponry and moving freely through the desert. In Bamako, mobs attacked businesses run by Tuareg. The president pleaded for calm. 

“Do not confuse those [Tuareg] who are shooting at military bases with those who are living amongst us, who are our neighbors, our colleagues,” he said on state television, but the message didn’t get through. 

“It’s you who have destroyed the country,” one man shouted at Ansar as he was stopped in traffic in downtown Bamako. 

In Bamako, threats against Tuareg intensified. As the situation worsened, Ansar flew with his family to Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso. A few weeks later, President Touré arrived there on a state visit. In his hotel suite, Touré pleaded with Ansar to return to Bamako, promising that the situation was stable. The Tuareg population in the south felt vulnerable and afraid, he said, and he believed that Ansar’s return would send a positive signal to them. Even now, Ansar realized, Touré failed to understand the enormity of what was happening in his country. His military was collapsing, Mali disintegrating. Ansar’s eyes filled with tears—Touré took his hand, and then the president teared up, too. 

In a show of fidelity to the president, Ansar left his wife and children in Burkina Faso and returned home on the presidential plane. But