In a posh hotel room overlooking Lake Michigan on a sunny November day, Sir Edward Artis urges me, “Write this down:
W ... B ... K ... N ... S.” Slowly, emphatically, he continues, “We ... Be ... Knights ... Not ... Saints. I want it on all my business cards.”
I’ve crossed paths in Chicago with Artis, who’s here for the opening of the film Beyond the Call, a documentary about his unconventional humanitarian career as an “Indiana Jones meets Mother Teresa” adventurer, as the film’s billing puts it. Having seen the film recently myself, I had asked to interview Artis about his life of knightly heroism and, dare I say, “saintly” benevolence. He’s a robust man, gray-haired and clad in a practical but crisply pressed denim shirt and his signature khaki vest emblazoned with the American flag—the attire of a man of action, not a bureaucrat comfortable doing philanthropic work from the safety of an office desk.
Artis is the head of Knightsbridge International, Inc., a unique nonprofit organization that provides direct emergency assistance to people at risk from armed strife or natural disaster. But unlike most aid workers, he goes into the heart of the most intractable situations determined not only to deliver urgently needed essentials to sustain life but to personally carry a message of hope and solidarity to each and every individual who receives a packet of food from his hands. Undaunted by gunfire or byzantine administrative regulations, he’s traveled the globe more times than he can remember in order to help—and, no less importantly, to satisfy his own indomitable need to go to places where few dare to tread.
As we settle into the interview, he tells me about a dark rainy night in Nicaragua back in ’96 when a typhoon hit. He and Jim Laws, his Knightsbridge partner, were disembarking a tramp steamer after a bone-soaking nine-hour journey downriver to the former pirate town of Bluefields. Clambering their way to the dock, they were greeted by a sawed-off shotgun and a bellowing voice . . . Soon I’m lost in the first of many spellbinding tales of high adventure and daring that stretch beyond my capacity to envision.
What I learned that Friday afternoon as Artis answered my questions made the most quixotic novels of my youth seem like a mere reflection of full-blooded reality.
“This fervor,” Artis tells me, “this thing that we do, started back when I was in the television business. I went to Russia to interview a bunch of Russian Vietnam veterans about their involvement in our war. They had nothing, and when I saw their plight, I started giving them aid. Next thing you know, it’s like eating that first cashew.” Artis’ involvement in Russia grew over time, and he eventually became friends with Gorbachev and received support from the KGB. But the defining moment came in August 1993, when he was persuaded to be inducted into a self-styled priory of the Knights of Malta. Though initially skeptical of any organized religious association, he had attended a Russian Orthodox mass the day before the knighting ceremony and “was moved to tears. There’s something happening here,” he sensed. “Just go with it.” It was then that he first encountered Jim Laws, an osteopathic cardiologist from Ohio, recognizing the set of Airborne wings he was wearing.
Artis and Laws discovered that they’d been in the same paratrooper unit in Vietnam two years apart. That was the beginning of an uncommon friendship that would lead two years later to the founding of Knightsbridge and eventually to saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. “Knights . . . bridging,” Artis tells me, “filling the gap.” Together, he and Laws have distributed millions of dollars of food, medicine, clothing, and other basic supplies to some of the most remote, inaccessible, and dangerous places on earth. They’ve weathered scorching sun, driving rain, illness, snow, bombs, and bullets in such far-flung hot spots as Rwanda, Afghanistan, Burma, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Laos, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan, and others. They now count nine members among them—all knights, all working without remuneration—and they collaborate with organizations as diverse as the U.S. military, Taiwanese Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, Green Empowerment, Sharing Resources Worldwide, Partners International, REMEDY (Recovered Medical Equipment for the Developing World), and Hope for the Children.
According to the background information they provide, Knightsbridge is like the “Delta Force” of NGOs. “We don’t overengineer stuff,” says Artis. “We’re successful because we’re small, under the radar, focused, almost like a surgical strike. Boom. Get it done. Get out of the way.” He makes it sound simple, but Knightsbridge often goes in, at great personal risk and huge logistical challenge, after groups like the Red Cross have evacuated because there is extreme danger or before they can mobilize assistance. Their guiding principle: “It must be high adventure, and it must provide a service to humanity.”
We delivered a hundred thousand cases of Cipro to the camps to stop a cholera epidemic,” Artis says. He’s talking about Rwanda now, just after the genocide that ravaged the country in the summer of 1994, causing the death of over eight hundred thousand victims in only ninety days. Artis was there within weeks after the killing stopped, having been asked by the Vatican to save the lives of forty-three nuns trapped in the maelstrom of the pillage. “We got the French Foreign Legion to do it,” he explains. “They went in and got the nuns. But they would never have done it if it weren’t for us.”
It’s 1995 and the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan. “We’re going to Kabul and everyone else is leaving. The United Nations has shut down its offices, the Red Cross has closed; everybody has fled to Pakistan. But Jim and I are going to go. We’re like salmon swimming upstream.” That was the first of Knightsbridge’s nine trips to Afghanistan, all of them entailing treacherous and circuitous routes through the “backside of Russia,” as Artis puts it, via places like Azerbaijan and Dagestan and Dushanbe, names tinged with equal parts exoticism and menace.
Another particularly harrowing mission, maybe the scariest of his thirty-five-year career, occurred in 1997 when Artis and Laws made their way to Chechnya. Vividly, he relates a tale of sneaking-into-Russia-gone-wrong, complete with a loose hand grenade rattling along the floorboards of a rickety Volga and an audacious scheme to hide in the engine of a Russian train for border crossing. Then he launches into an account of how they were kicked off the train by a surly second-rate army officer flashing an AK-47 and left in the middle of no-man’s land without papers and with trigger-happy border guards at their rear.
The trouble started when the pair, determined to enter Chechnya following the first insurrection, was refused a visa by the Russians. “Most people try to sneak out of a country like Russia. Who in their right mind tries to break in? Knights with noble purpose,” he says with no small measure of pride. They had already paid off customs officials by threatening retaliation from their host, Shamil Basayev, the infamous guerilla leader who later masterminded the Beslan school siege and the Moscow subway bombings. And they had already given their donations—medicine and a blood gas analyzer—to the smugglers who would slip them into the country. They then bribed their way onto a train when things took a turn for the worse and they found themselves without a visa in a country fresh from war. In a sequence of events more Chaplinesque than James Bond–like, he and Laws miraculously made it back to Azerbaijan safely and quickly. Immediately, they headed to the Russian Embassy in the capital city of Baku, where word of their deeds had preceded them. Pounding on the bulletproof window of the visa section, they were greeted by name and promptly escorted to the Consulate General’s office to receive their documents.
“I’ve been referred to by some Afghan warlords as the scariest good guy you’ll ever meet,” Artis goes on. These may have been precisely the words uttered by one warlord who, having just killed two thousand Pakistani prisoners, forced down Artis and Laws’ aircraft in a kidnapping attempt. “You don’t want to do that,” Artis told him, making it perfectly clear that to keep them overnight meant “I will not be your friend and I will not bring anything to your tribe.” Soon, the two middle-aged Americans were on their way, “because he knew I’d just shut everything down.”
That kind of boldness mixed with a certain recklessness surfaced early in Artis’s life. He was a hyperactive kid, not keen on school. As a teenager, he skipped class regularly and got into trouble. After one particularly wild night of breaking into a liquor store for beer, stealing a car and some guns with his buddies, and robbing a jewelry store for cash, he faced a choice of five years in youth detention or three years in the Army. Quick to do the math, Artis opted for the military, a tour of duty that stretched into ten years, three Purple Hearts, and what he would later see as an invaluable boot camp for learning what it takes to be a resourceful, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer, big-hearted, danger-loving, swashbuckling one-man humanitarian relief force.
His concern for those who can’t get themselves out of harm’s way—the women, men, and children who are caught in the crossfire of war or exposed to natural disasters—also emerged early in life. At the age of fifteen he saw a program on TV about an earthquake in South America and responded by going door to door with a friend to collect clothing for the victims. When he showed up at the high school in his father’s car stuffed with clothes, the staff didn’t know what to make of it, but they quickly saw the goodness of the effort and joined his campaign to solicit donations for the Red Cross. “I have no idea what motivated me, other than I was touched by the black-and-white images of people suffering and it struck a chord in me.”