In U.S.,'Lost Boy'Won't Forget Sudan

Sunday, November 19, 2006

By BEN DOBBIN, Associated Press Writer


ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Two days after crossing the border into southern Sudan, the pop of a blown tire halted Salva Dut's return journey to the war-scarred land he fled as a child in 1985. The two spares had already been shredded by sharp stones on rutted African backroads.

The 31-year-old church clerk from Rochester, one of the thousands of refugee "Lost Boys" resettled in the United States, waited by the road in 110-degree heat all night and much of the next day. A United Nations aid truck finally came by, allowing him to drive back to a border town to buy four extra tires.

"I was a little scared," he recalled. "I didn't worry about wild animals or bad people, more about running out of water. It made me realize again how important the water is in our life."

For six months each year, beginning with that arduous trip in January 2005, Dut has been drilling wells in the mud-hut villages in semiarid southern Sudan, an area as large as Texas. His homeland was wracked by a 21-year civil war that killed 2 million people and sent legions of orphans wandering for years through the wilderness.

The first seven wells tap into aquifers as much as 200 feet down, providing clean running water for at least 26,000 villagers. In one of the poorest spots on earth, they lend stability to tribes that have always had to roam far when water holes dry up _ or become stagnant _ during the October-to-May dry season.

Dut, the son of a Dinka cattle herdsman, expects to install as many as 20 more wells early next year using a $67,000, trailer-mounted drilling rig built in Opelika, Ala., that halves construction costs to $5,000 a well.

"Even though that country caused me grief, I still have the heart to go back and not forget about it," Dut said while working his part-time job at Downtown United Presbyterian Church. "I'm glad I can help my people."

His adopted homeland has helped, too. In 1996, he was one of the first of 3,800 children plucked from refugee camps and sent to the United States. The war between Sudan's Muslim-dominated north and mainly Christian and animist south ended with a 2005 peace agreement establishing an autonomous southern Sudan.

Contributors, mainly in western New York, have donated $280,000 to Water for Sudan Inc., a church-sponsored nonprofit he launched in 2003.

Dut had just turned 11 in December 1985 when war blazed through his birthplace of Lounariik, shattering his family along with so many others. He only found out his parents had survived when his father, sickened by contaminated water, showed up for surgery at a U.N. hospital in 2000. Dut was cheered by his father's recovery but his anguished experience focused him on a goal of bringing clean water to his people.

At first, his fundraising was limited to church gatherings. But as word of his mission has spread, he's been invited to speak at high schools, civic clubs and charitable foundations and drawn benefactors like Rotary International to his side.

Speaking to youngsters who filled a lecture hall last month at the upscale Harley School in the suburb of Brighton, he said, "You are growing up and soon this world will sit on your shoulders. We need each other no matter what part of the world we're from. The little things you decide to help with, that's what counts."

Teacher Doug Gilbert is hoping his class can find creative ways to help, such as selling bottled water with "Water for Sudan" stickers. Dut's "track record of success getting important things done very cost-effectively," Gilbert said, helps encourage donations.

The actual work in Sudan is often grueling and filled with anxiety. Dut negotiates with village chiefs to decide where to drill, organizes local drilling crews, and trains villagers how to maintain the wells and arbitrate water disputes.

When revisiting a well drilled in 2005, Dut said he not only found the community building houses around it but a shift in the social order. "Women no longer have to walk miles and miles to bring water to their family, and the girls can go to school," he said.

Hurdles are unavoidable in his work. Last January, after a month of waiting at the Kenyan port of Mombasa, Dut had to pay an extra $500 in bribes to get the drilling rig delivered to Sudan via Uganda.

"I'm stressed out there _ it's too much work, I'm not comfortable with heat," said Dut, who loses about 20 pounds on his already skinny frame during each trip. "I don't realize I'm making a difference until I get back."

The difference he makes can be glimpsed in his photographs _ of adults collecting rocks to help build a well's concrete base, of children with nothing of their own playing with toys donated by Rochester students.

A recent photo-and-video presentation at the George Eastman House photography museum documented Dut's efforts.

After attending the show, Dr. Dean Arvan, a fellow parishioner at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, said he expects Dut to take on other needs of his native land _ food, health care _ just as he's worked to bring water. "Salva is very unassuming, very open and dedicated," he said.

Nancy Frank, who has toured Sudan as mission-and-outreach coordinator at St. Paul's, imagines Dut eventually becoming a well subcontractor for groups wanting to build a school or a clinic in underserved places.

"In Africa, they're in need always," Dut said. "If I have a way to help, I will help. You cannot turn your back."


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