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What an Ex-Soldier's Fortified Bulgarian Compound Says About the UK Independence Movement

VICE News traveled to Bulgaria to meet John Rees-Evans, a defense-obsessed survivalist who stood as a UKIP candidate in last week's election, when the anti-immigration party took 12 percent of the vote.
Photo by Ben Bryant

"I don't think I would have killed him," I say. "You probably would have," says John, tracing the outline of his cheek. "Hollow point rounds would fragment and shatter the cheekbone, and take out quite a bit of brain."

Next to me at the shooting range a 20-something girl in a Nirvana T-shirt is firing a Luger erratically while her boyfriend looks on. Through the bulletproof glass behind us families drink rakia — a fruit brandy — and eat steaks. British ex-soldier John Rees-Evans squints at the punctured paper terrorist in front of us, five holes marking where my shots landed. It is March 2014, and we are firing live rounds at a range in rural Bulgaria, where Rees-Evans has a home.


A few weeks later, Rees-Evans will decide to stand as a candidate in the UK general election — which has just been decisively and surprisingly won by the right-wing Conservative party. He will stand for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a right-wing anti-immigration group that has surged in popularity in recent years, in the Cardiff South and Penarth constituency. Some say this is due to the party employing the politics of fear, while others believe it is caused by a public fatigue with British political establishment.

Cardiff South and Penarth has been a left-wing Labour Party stronghold since it was established in 1983, and its MP Stephen Doughty is a local, an Oxford University graduate, and a good friend of his predecessor, with a career arc that in many ways typifies the route to power of UK politicians.

Standing on UKIP's right-wing, libertarian ticket as a complete outsider should be unthinkable here — but Rees-Evans will emerge with a surprising chunk of the vote, mirroring a surge in the growth of his party across the country. So how has UKIP, and this defense-obsessed expat, managed to chip away at Britain's established political class?

* * *

Rees-Evans is not a career politician. He does not normally even live in the UK. The ex-soldier is the kind of guy who speed runs up mountains and cycles across the US for fun. He owns a Ghillie suit. When he last went to IKEA, Rees-Evans persuaded the sales assistant it would be safer to let him carry his handgun, in case terrorists laid siege to the building.


He runs a successful Kilimanjaro mountain climbing company in Africa and has properties around the world. In the remote part of Bulgaria I visited in March 2014, he had bought up more than a dozen houses.

Bulgaria's rural areas are facing an exodus of residents as people move to the cities or to other European countries. The specter of mass migration from eastern Europe to the UK is one of UKIP's favorite bogeymen, used to justify its anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Before European immigration restrictions were lifted on Bulgarian and Romanian citizens in January 2014, UKIP warned that almost 30 million people would flock to the UK in search of a "civilized country" — though, in the end, a small fraction of that showed up. Rees-Evans, aware of the irony, has migrated to Bulgaria because he feels more liberated there. Extremely cheap, with plentiful arable land and an unassertive government, he sees it as the perfect place to establish a secure compound that will support his family and friends in the event of global meltdown.

When it's finished, it will include a church, a leisure complex with spa, sauna, and jacuzzi, an underground bunker including a garage for seven cars, a firing range with a cache of weapons, and a panic room. There will also be a watchtower that will double as a diving platform for a swimming pool below.

"I'm not very good with water," he tells me. "But it's a good aerial confidence training facility."


John Rees-Evans, center, with his two nephews at his home in Bulgaria.

Rees-Evans outlined his plans in his SUV on the way from the firing range to his home. He is articulate but softly spoken, and although alert, is measured and temperate. It would probably come as a surprise to many people to learn that he owns a cache of weapons that includes a bow, several handguns, and a sniper rifle.

"It's kind of a passion for me, anything to do with defense," he said.  "I'm not a troublemaking or aggressive kind of person, but you kind of think there's something in your blood. Virtually all my ancestors have been soldiers or whatever. It's something very hard to describe."

'I prefer to go overboard and cultivate a paranoia that's not naturally mine'

What he is defending against isn't immediately clear. Rees-Evans joined the UK's parachute regiment at 19 and spent five years in the army. He talks at length about the end of the dollar, the rise of China and Russia, the collapse of the world economy and the need to protect his family. Bulgaria — a country whose entire population could fit inside London — is a place where he can be "totally at peace," he said. But in the back of his mind, it seems there are always threats.

"This idea of being prepared to confront a threat is a kind of passion," he added.

For the duration of my two-night stay with Rees-Evans, he always seems to be well prepared. Dressed in a salmon-pink shirt he wears base layers, combat trousers, five-finger toe shoes, and carries a concealed Glock handgun — legal in Bulgaria — most of the time. When we leave the rifle range, we go for dinner at a local restaurant, and at the table he produces a large flick knife which he uses to slit open a sachet of honey.


He is also extremely fit. His first marathon was at 21, he explains, with a full rucksack, when he was in the parachute regiment.

"I was young and single and I read in a book that ninjas, when they were working, would kill someone 25 miles from where they lived," he said. "So I decided that since we were in a similar profession I should do that. I substituted the killing for a visit to a bookshop. Theological books. That was the extra weight."

'I saw them as Britain's only hope really [for] retaining any kind of vestiges of its sovereignty.'

Several hours' drive east of Sofia, Bulgaria's capital, sits Rees-Evans' compound. When we arrive, it becomes clear it is very much still a work-in-progress. In five years he has pieced together two of the family homes, a well, an eight-feet tall outer wall, and 16 CCTV cameras. Still, he always has several projects running at the same time. It seems surprising that he is constructing this annex away from the world at a time when he has also run for office back in the UK.

"I always I had kind of a vague concept of wanting to be of service," he continued. "The way I had been brought up was that we're not here for ourselves, and if you're not going to serve and be of use you might as well give over."

UKIP were the obvious choice "because I saw them as Britain's only hope really [for] retaining any kind of vestiges of its sovereignty," he said. The party's Euroskeptic views and conviction that it stands for the concerns of ordinary people has proven a powerful cocktail for some British voters — but it has also led to accusations that its members are closet racists.


Less afraid to back its candidates' right to air their radical views on the state of the nation — be that in mocking drowned migrants or demeaning women — UKIP thinks it gets a rough deal in the UK media for refusing to play by traditional political rules.

Rees-Evans does not back all of his fellow candidates' views, but he believes the party's decision to support them is usually right. "I had a feeling that if they decided to throw out the conventional PR philosophy of how politicians speak, it might be refreshing to people."

* * *

Rees-Evans checks out the target.

It is late when we arrive at the compound, and after a few games of table tennis, we head to bed. His two 22-year-old nephews are staying with him, helping with the building work. They are identically attired in five-finger toe shoes and outdoors gear. Breakfast in the morning is three eggs — Rees-Evans lives on a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet.

We take a walk around the compound. The soccer-field sized front yard is covered in soil and there is a flatbed truck resting in a corner. There are two houses, both designed by Rees-Evans. Beside them he has dug an eight-meter well which supplies his house with clean water, via a complicated filtration system, removing the need for mains water.

"I didn't need to," he said. "But I prefer to be independent."

Born in Hampshire, England, Rees-Evans was taken to South Africa as a baby and spent his childhood moving around, attending 11 schools. "My parents didn't want to have to endure a socialist government when Labour got in in the late 70s," he said.


'She knew that I was totally obedient, that meant that she could give me far more liberty'

His childhood was a happy one, but it was pretty disciplined. "If my mother called me, and I walked, I'd be smacked with a horse whip," he recalled. "A riding crop. Not a whip, a crop."

I suggested that this sounded pretty painful. "It is. But you're not going to commit the same offense twice unless you're really stupid. So if my mother called me I would run. As far as she's concerned, a child shouldn't keep an adult waiting."

Rees-Evans made sure he was never late for his mother, and he was rarely punished. "Because I believe that she knew that I was totally obedient, that meant that she could give me far more liberty," he said.

"That is the way that I think a country should be run. Where basically the individual should have freedom to do whatever he likes so long as it doesn't damage somebody else. But the moment he does damage to somebody else, he should be severely dealt with. Not kind of punitively or spitefully or aggressively, but just as a matter of course, just to enforce procedure and to remind him of the seriousness of his breach."

We walk past the stables, currently just a line of brick walls, and towards the area where his underground complex will be built.

"I prefer to go overboard and cultivate a paranoia that's not naturally mine," he said, "but as a kind of a discipline, so that I take all of the necessary precautions. Because knowing I've got all these additional levels of security, I can then just totally forget about everything."


Construction is a long way off. Where the entrance to the garage should be, there is instead a Byzantine font which he plans to install in his church, and use to baptize his sons. Eventually, though, it will be the gateway to a garage, panic room, and firing range that will house his weapons, including a sniper rifle.

"It's the TIKKA T3 Tactical. Varmint. Which is a really beautiful weapon. Kind of similar to — have you seen that film Shooter? With that guy, Mark Wahlberg. He uses a weapon that's quite similar to that."

Inside Rees-Evan's compound.

Rees-Evans has a weakness for firearms, but there is another reason for the rifle. "Ultimately what I'd like to do is a little bit of community service in the shape of taking out a wolf," he said. "It's a little bit like when they're offering a reward for Bin Laden, they've got a reward for wolves."

Would he feel guilty taking out a wolf? "Where the wolf is endangered, and he's minding his own business and he's not a threat, I'll say what a beautiful animal — let's take photographs of it. But if the local authorities say no, this isn't really acceptable, then he's a worthy adversary.

"With the army I made the same kind of decision. You guys decide how we make this country safe. I'm not going to quibble. If I shoot someone who's innocent then the blood is not on my head because I'm just doing it to serve my country, and it's you politicians who have made a bad decision."


UKIP is the only major political party in Britain that committed to the NATO guideline of spending two percent of GDP on defense — equating to $25 billion over five years. Its commitment to defense spending goes hand in hand with its devotion to border control. Its detractors loathe its anti-immigration rhetoric, and say it is an inward-looking party for people obsessed with the threats posed by foreigners. But its determination that Britain should not cede control to Europe has clearly struck a chord with other voters.

Does Rees-Evans also feel very strongly that in Britain his rights as an individual are being curtailed by the state? "Oh absolutely, absolutely."

He still feels that leaders need to be paternalistic, though. "In a way, but I think we all know that democracy is a little bit like running a family. The father isn't necessarily going to do everything that the children approve of. Because the children — and I don't say this in a patronizing way, with respect to this being analogical — but the children don't necessarily have all the facts to hand to interpret every decision you make in terms of whether that's going to be in their best interests or not."

'I think so many humans are not happy because they're not serving.'

I don't get the chance to meet Rees-Evans' immediate family — his wife and three children are all in Cardiff when I visit — but we talk a little about his wife, Rebecca.


"I'm kind of her elected official," he said. "We're very old fashioned. It says in one of the [Bible] verses that the man is the head of the woman, and that doesn't mean that he's any cleverer as far as we believe. It just means that he has responsibility to protect her and make decisions on her behalf."

Wandering through the garden, Rees-Evans elaborates on his points. There is a dog chained to a post in his garden that is ecstatic to see us, which he scoops up in his arms.

"There's something so special about dogs," he said. "I don't generally get kind of emotional about animals because I can't really justify giving them the time but they seem to really want to be close to humans. You know, they want to be loyal. And to serve.

"I think so many humans are not happy because they're not serving. I think dogs get depressed because if you just feed them loads and they just sit on the floor under the kitchen table."

* * *

May 7, 2015 — polling day in the UK. Rees-Evans hasn't won, but he is pleased with the result. He has taken 14 percent of the vote, with 6,423 votes — a long way from the Labour incumbent's 19,966, and still third place after the Conservatives — but an impressive swing. Nationally UKIP has managed to secure 3.8m votes — 12 percent of the electorate.

Thanks to the UK's first-past-the-post voting system, that only translates into one parliamentary seat, but it is still a major election success for the party, which has seen a 9.5 percent increase in the vote share since the 2010 election. UKIP is now in second place in 120 different constituencies.

Rees-Evans was determined to keep traditional PR out of his campaign, and like many UKIP candidates, drew media attention for his unguarded remarks. Once, he told picketers outside the constituency office that a "homosexual donkey" tried to rape his horse, and a few weeks later informed an audience at a Hustings event he urinated in a bottle to reduce his carbon footprint. But he says he wasn't met with ridicule on the doorstep.

"I'm really encouraged and hopefully it's indicative of a change by the British people who don't feel represented by mainstream parties. So many people say there's not really much point in voting. While we're not everyone's cup of tea we do represent a different type of politics, not a professional kind of politics. It's quite refreshing that we're growing," he said.

He hasn't decided whether to stand again at the next election. But it's clear his flirtation with politics hasn't given him a taste for a role among Britain's political class. "I'm going back to Bulgaria for a couple of weeks," he explained. "We're going to start organizing stag parties.

"Instead of just getting drunk and watching strippers we'll be throwing them out of aeroplanes and firing Glocks, Kalashnikovs and sniper rifles." That's a sideline you can't imagine David Cameron carving out.

Follow Ben Bryant on Twitter: @benbryant