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A 'Lost Boy of Sudan' Finds His Mission

Salva Dut fled the war-torn African nation and wound up in the U.S. He hopes to use the skills he's learned to bring clean water to his village.

October 10, 2004|Ben Dobbin | Associated Press Writer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Fifteen years after Salva Dut fled in terror into the African wilderness, losing all contact with his family, a sketchy communique from a cousin reached him in his home in faraway America.

"I've found your father," the e-mail read.

The father, Mawien Dut, had shown up seriously ill at a United Nations hospital deep in a Sudanese jungle. His stomach was riddled with parasites, the result of drinking contaminated water.

The news was another reminder of a vow that his son had made as one of the rescued "Lost Boys of Sudan."

"The first day I come to America and see the life of America, I said immediately that if God will help me, I will help my suffering people," Dut said during a break from his job as a church clerk in this city of 220,000 on Lake Ontario.

He was about to be catapulted back to the chaos of his homeland.


The brutal civil war in southern Sudan sent thousands of children into exile. At age 11, Dut ran from his school amid a pandemonium of gunfire and jet-bomb blasts. Escaping Thiet as it came under deadly assault from government troops backed by Soviet MiG fighters, the boy scrambled daily to avoid being conscripted by rebels or slaughtered by Arab militias. Then came the horrors of his trek across hundreds of miles of wind-swept desert to an Ethiopian refugee camp; his Uncle Jewiir's execution by bandits from a rival tribe; a friend being devoured by a lion while they slept; an ambush that killed 200 children.

Chased back across the crocodile-infested Gilo River in 1991 by rampaging Ethiopian soldiers, 11,000 of the 17,000 Lost Boys ended up in a city of the dispossessed in Kenya. From there, Dut was among 3,800, many of them orphans, sent to live in the United States.

The tall son of a Dinka cattle herdsman landed in 1996 in a church-sponsored oasis in the United States. He had no way of contacting his loved ones, no way of knowing they were alive. Back home, Dut said, "we had no electricity, telephone, no mail system, nothing" -- no way to inquire about his family's fate.

"I did try. The Red Cross said if your parents are not in the refugee camps, it would be impossible to find them."

It was four years after his arrival in the U.S. when, at age 25, Dut received word of his father from a relative working for a relief agency in Zimbabwe.

Overcome with joy, Dut followed his impulse, soon leaving Rochester in hopes of seeing him again. Church brethren paid for his passage and lighted two candles in the sanctuary.

Bribing his way through Kenya -- one security official at an airport demanded $500 -- Dut hopped on a plane to Billing, a town 110 miles from his village of Lou-Ariik, where his father had gone for treatment at a U.N. hospital.

In a shanty near the hospital, the well-dressed visitor drew puzzled looks.

"Who are you?" Mawien Dut asked the young man.

"I am Salva," he replied.

His father was shocked at first. "Then," his son said, "he got up and he hold me. His eyes were, like, bubbling with tears, and he said, 'God is great!'

"My parents never totally accepted I was dead. People in the village had wanted to kill a cow to mourn for me but they refused."

His father, so much older than he remembered when he ambled off to school on a December morning in 1985, was recovering well after surgery to remove Guinea worms, schistosomes and other parasites contracted from infected water. He sprinkled water on his son's head and shoulders, a tribal blessing for "someone who has disappeared and come back," Dut said.

They talked for hours.

The son told his harrowing tale, but the father had wrenching stories as well. Two of his four sons had been slain. His own survival was jeopardized by drinking from fetid pools in the dry season.

With war still seething at the time, he persuaded Dut not to visit their village.

"I wanted to see my mother," said Dut, his voice trembling. "I think she cries a lot of the time."

He learned that his parents had hidden in swampland near their ruined village, safe from combatants of all stripes. They stayed there on and off for five years before returning to rebuild. This explained why no one knew their fate.


Back in New York a month later, Dut's resolve to help was stronger than ever, and he suddenly knew what to do.

When he saw his father's condition -- and, ironically, when he felt the drops of water sprinkled on his head in blessing -- he decided to try to bring clean water to his isolated village and others like it in one of the poorest places on Earth.

With help from fellow parishioners at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, he founded a nonprofit, Water for Sudan Inc., a well-drilling project that has been inching toward fruition over the last year. His target is $200,000 and, so far, the polite 29-year-old has raised $42,000 via presentations in churches. If he hits $75,000 during this October-to-May dry season, he will hire a reputable Italian firm in Uganda to begin drilling 32 wells, one for each village in Tonj, his home county.

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