At a very young age, Gatjang Deng was forced to leave home. One day in 1989 he found himself on the Ethiopia-Sudan border with hundreds of other youngsters trapped in a perilous place.
Before them was the crocodile-infested Gilo River, and behind them was a heavily armed Ethiopian rebel force.
Deng could not swim, but an older boy instructed him to hang onto his shoulders as the elder youth began to swim with Deng in tow.
Looking back, Deng said he saw the river turn to blood that day when 500 to 600 kids fleeing their war-torn country died — many shot, some eaten by crocodiles and others drowned.
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About 20,000 youngsters had been forced to leave their villages, fleeing to forests and refugee camps in Ethiopia and other countries.
Only about half would survive.
Those survivors became known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”
I told Deng’s story in this column last year as he was determined to raise money and return to Sudan to build freshwater wells, because water contaminated by animal and human waste was the main cause of diseases that affected so many people.
His dream was to drill 264 wells in 22 villages, providing fresh water within a 35-minute walk for most families.
Deng, who was among the first wave of boys to be relocated under the U.N. resettlement program, had returned to his country for the first time in 2010.
He found his mother, who did not recognize him.
A second trip in 2011, during which he saw young boys drinking contaminated water from a nearby river, convinced him even more that he had to do everything possible to find money to build the wells, which would cost an average of $14,000 each.
Deng, who has worked since 2002 at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, last year set up a nonprofit organization, began speaking to churches and organizations to create awareness, and raised some money, about $5,700.
But South Sudan, which became independent in 2011 and seemed ready for much development with its oil resources, took another nosedive when rebel forces started another civil war last December.
In a matter of months, a million South Sudanese had been displaced, many living in refugee camps.
And when Deng returned again in March hoping to talk about wells, he was met with despair and disease in his homeland.
At a village on the Sudan-Uganda border where some 15,000 refugees are living, water is still very much an issue, he said, because people have to wait in line for hours to fill their containers.
But the immediate need is medicine, because so many suffer from such illnesses as diarrhea, tuberculosis and malaria.
The money he collected in Fort Worth went for medical supplies instead of wells.
Besides, he said, even if he had enough funds to build even one well, there would have been no one to dig it. The well-digging companies left because of the fighting.
When we spoke last month, he was often on the verge of tears as he talked about all the children who had lost their families, reminding him of the time when he was forced to leave home.
Deng sees another generation of “lost children.”
“When I was 9 years old — no mom and no dad — and I see the children and what is happening to them, it hurts very much,” he said.
Deng is ready to return to area churches and groups to tell his story, hoping they will assist in raising money that he can take back on his next trip in November or December.
If you want to help or invite him for an informative program, contact:
Village Help Foundation
P.O. Box 121971
Fort Worth, TX 76121