Commentary: A Sudan 'Lost Boy' finds a life-saving mission

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramMarch 24, 2013 


Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.


Although he has found a home in Fort Worth -- a place he has come to love -- in many ways 33-year-old Gatjan Deng is still on a journey that he began when he was only 9.

That was in 1989, when he left his family, as did thousands of other boys, to escape a brutal civil war that ravaged southern Sudan from 1983 to 2005.

Deng was among about 20,000 youngsters, known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan," who trekked from their small villages to refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia and beyond. About half of them wouldn't make it, falling victim to animal attacks, starvation, disease and enemy bullets.

He had imagined a sojourn of a few days, but the boys walked hundreds of miles for about three months before finding refuge in Ethiopia.

Just two years later, the Ethiopian government was overthrown, and the youngsters were forced to flee for their lives again, heading back to their home country.

Deng recently recalled one of the most horrifying experiences of that journey: when they got to the Ethiopia-Sudan border, with the crocodile-invested Gilo River in front of them and Ethiopian rebels behind. He saw many of his young comrades perish trying to cross the river. Some were shot, some drowned, and some were eaten by the crocodiles.

As a child who couldn't swim, Deng could have been among the 500 to 600 who died that day. But an older boy told him to grab on to his shoulders, and the young man swam across with Deng in tow. When Deng looked back, he saw the river flowing with blood, he recalled.

Back in Sudan, the kids were recruited into the ranks of Sudanese rebels, armed and made to fight.

The boy who had gotten Deng safely across the river was killed in 1995, he said.

By 1999, Deng was back in an Ethiopian refugee camp, where he became part of the first wave of refugees to be relocated under a United Nations resettlement program.

He arrived in Fort Worth, a totally different world, but one in which he would learn the language, become educated and get a job to support himself.

Since 2002, he has worked at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, where he is a patient care technician.

He has never forgotten home, and he returned to his Fangak village in 2010 and found his mother. She didn't recognize him, he said. A baby sister he had left behind was now the mother of three.

Deng also saw people, including many children, dying from cholera, typhoid, yellow fever and malaria.

He first thought of trying to help build a school or clinic, but he said he realized that he needed to attack the source of the illnesses -- the drinking water, contaminated by animal and human waste.

This "lost boy" says he has found a solution. He wants to build 264 freshwater wells in 22 villages, where there would be clean water within in a 35-minute walk for every family. He's in touch with an African engineering firm that can dig the hand-pump-operated wells for $14,000 each.

Last year, he set up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization called the Village Help Foundation and has opened an account at Wells Fargo Bank to accept donations. He also has been telling his story at churches and to anyone who will listen.

In 2011, on his second trip back to his home village, he took a photograph of young boys around a pool of contaminated water from a nearby river, water that has become the current enemy killing people in the new country of Southern Sudan.

He's ready to fight that battle. He's ready to complete this long, arduous journey.

But he needs help.

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