John Peters figured out long ago that the refugee relief business has more than its share of oddballs. It was 25 years ago, in fact--after the physician had joined in a series of medical relief missions that involved parachute jumps into Peru, Nicaragua, Honduras and Bangladesh in the wake of natural disasters. The experience threw him together with a tatterdemalion crew of shady adventurers and backwoods healers, wide-eyed holy rollers and salty combat veterans, including one ex-Green Beret named Robert K. Brown.
"Those were some pretty strange people we were jumping with," Peters recalls. "Real cowboys, people who were just in it for the glory rather than qualified medical people. Brown and I and some others decided that we should form our own group and have some more control."
Brown and Peters first met during a relief operation in Peru following a 1970 earthquake. At the time, Peters was a general practitioner on Colorado's Western Slope with no military experience but with a passion for skydiving; Brown was a Vietnam vet with vague ambitions to get into publishing. By the mid-1970s Brown had launched a controversial new magazine in Boulder, and Peters had become the medical director of Refugee Relief International, a nonprofit closely aligned with Brown's venture in spirit and deed.
Compared to conventional relief organizations such as the Red Cross, RRI may seem like an even stranger group than the parachute teams Peters joined in the early 1970s. The all-volunteer effort includes not only doctors and paramedics but several ex-military types eager to return as impartial angels of mercy to war-ravaged areas where they once played a highly partisan role. For the most part, the group's funding has come from the pockets of its participants and from the readers of Brown's magazine--Soldier of Fortune, the brash, blood-and-guts "Journal of Professional Adventurers" known for its vivid firsthand reporting from the world's trouble spots.
The relationship with Soldier of Fortune has been both a help and a hindrance to Peters's group over the years. RRI has been able to draw on the close ties that SOF enjoys with military officials in several Latin American countries in order to gain access to areas where other relief organizations don't care or don't dare to go. Despite its modest size and budget (now around $40,000 a year, excluding the medical supplies and transportation donated by drug companies, airlines and others), the group has also been able to mount several ambitious forays into civil-war zones in Southeast Asia that might be too daunting for larger, more bureaucratic organizations.
"People ask us to come to areas where, for reasons of security or remoteness or because the locals are Indians and nobody cares, they get no help," Peters says. "A lot of the guys pay their own way; we usually end up paying about half of it ourselves."
In recent years, Peters and his colleagues have brought equipment and medical supplies to a hospital on Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast, a place so isolated and neglected that local doctors were compelled to reuse disposable gloves and syringes and make diagnoses without benefit of a microscope, much less an EKG machine. They have instructed native surgeons how to perform emergency amputations on Karen tribesmen injured by ancient land mines in the Burmese jungle. They've tracked famine in Afghanistan and advised Guatemala on its rural health program. Nobody gets paid, and all donations are earmarked for the actual expenses of the operation, Peters says.
But the SOF connection has always made RRI suspect in liberal circles, particularly during the magazine's early days, when its mercenary-for-hire ads and swaggering support of right-wing regimes attracted widespread criticism and Justice Department investigations. In the Reagan years, at the height of the civil war in El Salvador and the Contra campaign in Nicaragua, SOF's "action journalists" walked a thin line between reporting on the conflicts and actively training and assisting the anti-communist forces in both countries. RRI's efforts to deliver medical supplies and treatment in the region were soon regarded as a kind of front for further military assistance, a perception of the organization that persists to this day.
"There are still some people turned off by the Soldier of Fortune name," notes Ralph Edens, a longtime contributor to the magazine and RRI member. "It can be counterproductive. Back in the 1980s, there was a significant portion of the left that regarded any support for the Contras, regardless of what it was, as military. I don't care who went down with us and saw the two or three thousand people we treated--they were still thinking that we were up to something."
Peters says the group's members have "decided to completely divorce ourselves from the military connotation" of Brown's operation. Brown hasn't been directly involved in RRI for years, he insists. (Brown didn't respond to a request for comment.) A sister organization, Parachute Medical Rescue Service, has been phased out so as not to confuse potential donors with images of paratroopers wearing camouflage. Further restructuring of the group's management is in the works, Peters adds.
It's unlikely that RRI will ever completely shed its maverick reputation, particularly since several of its key participants tend to be the sort of well-traveled adventurers featured in Brown's magazine. Edens, for example, is an ex-military entrepreneur who was active with anti-Castro groups in Florida in the early 1960s. Although he didn't participate in the abortive attempts to overthrow the Cuban leader, he was later convicted of violating the Neutrality Act after bombing the palace of Haitian dictator "Papa Doc" Duvalier in 1969. There's a picture of him in a 1983 issue of Soldier of Fortune crouching over the bodies of two Salvadoran rebels who were gunned down by government troops Edens had accompanied in the field that day.
Edens, who still writes for SOF under the name of Don Rafael Iguana, prefers not to talk about such ancient exploits. He would rather talk about RRI's many trips to Nicaragua, where the group has treated ex-Sandinistas and ex-Contras alike.
"You can take a map of the world and throw a dart at it, and you'll find medical need there," Edens says. "Regardless of how big the organization is, you still can't take care of everybody--look at Kosovo. Because we spent time in Nicaragua during the war, we knew the need was there and that it wasn't being met after the war ended. So we started doing what we could do."
Peters, who now lives in rural Nevada, has made two trips a year to Nicaragua since 1995. Last February, in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, RRI embarked on a ten-day, twelve-person expedition to a remote northeastern village called San Jose de Bocay. The group saw hundreds of patients until the supplies they'd brought were exhausted. Edens assisted Adam Weaver, a dentist from Milwaukee, in extracting 435 rotten teeth.
San Jose de Bocay is a rugged area, and some locals who didn't turn in their guns after the war now make their living as bandits. Security for the RRI group, which included Peters's nineteen-year-old daughter, Mandi, a college student, was provided by former Contras, Edens says.
"The government promised the Contras aid and resettlement, but nothing ever came of it," he says. "They have a clinic there and two doctors, but they don't have any supplies, not even toothbrushes. It's terrible to see a little girl, ten or eleven years old, and you're pulling out her primary teeth already."
During a break in the medical mission, Edens and several others took a four-hour mule trip up a mountainside to inspect the wreckage of a B-26 that crashed there 38 years ago with two Cuban exile pilots on board, a decaying reminder of another forgotten war, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. The tug of memory is a powerful force driving folks like Edens back to Latin America, but he stresses that Refugee Relief is completely apolitical; he says he would welcome a chance to participate in a medical relief mission to Cuba.
"We treat everybody," he says. "Even as rabidly anti-Castro as I am, I'd like to do it. I don't care if you're a Sandinista. I don't care if you worship rocks. I don't expect you to have to listen to me before we treat you and feed you. That's a strong difference I have with some of the relief organizations. I've seen them sitting there giving a goddamn sermon before they give treatment. We don't do that."
It's a point of pride among RRI volunteers that they dispense the supplies they bring themselves. "We found out years ago that if you give them to the government, half of the stuff gets sold on the black market," says Peters. "We deliver it to the people who use it."
For his relief efforts, Peters has been knighted as a Knight of Malta, one of the oldest military orders in the world. But the honor hasn't opened a lot of doors for RRI with major relief organizations. Last year the 65-year-old physician had trouble convincing the rest of the world that the people of central Afghanistan were facing a famine of biblical proportions. Officials at the United Nations and the Red Cross said the situation was under control, but they were getting their information from the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic militia that was in the process of seizing power in the strife-torn country.
Peters, for his part, was delivering emergency supplies to relief workers near the Uzbekistan border, where hundreds of thousands of Hazara tribesmen had been pinned down by a Taliban blockade. The workers said that people had been driven from their villages and were living in caves; they expected up to 400,000 people to starve by spring. But when Peters asked for surveys and other documents to back up those claims, the workers said their superiors wouldn't permit them to share their findings.
Still, one international aid adviser from central Africa decided to help Peters anyway. "He said, 'I watched a lot of my countrymen die during a famine while the bureaucrats sat on their butts,'" Peters recalls. "'I'm leaving for ten minutes, and if this stuff is gone when I get back, I don't give a damn.' We proceeded to loot his office."
Peters brought the proof to California congressman Dana Rohrbacher, who waved it under the noses of a House subcommittee on Asian affairs. The United Nations resumed airlifting food to the region a few weeks later. But Peters isn't sure his work made any real difference in the situation.
"Three months later the Taliban overran the area," he says. "We understand the doctors we worked with were killed."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
In recent weeks, Peters has been fielding inquiries about a possible mission to Kosovo, but he doubts RRI will get involved in that conflict. "There's no real reason for us to go," he says. "The big groups do that kind of thing very well, and we're not equipped for that at all."
Edens agrees. On the Macedonian border, RRI would be just one more pack of overwhelmed food-tossers, lost in a sea of misery, rather than the lone yanquis wandering into a village where no one has seen a yanqui since--well, since the wild old days.
"My view is that we can do more by getting into an isolated area where nobody else goes," Edens says. "You get a real sense of doing something good.