This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
PARK CITY - Gunfire, explosions and the screams of his mother woke him. "Mith! Mith!" the woman yelled, calling for her children in the Dinka language.
Naked, confused and tripping over others in the darkness, he fled into the bush. Behind him, flames engulfed homes, people were gunned down, women raped.
John Dau had just turned 13 when a civil war, fueled in large part by religion, hit his village of Duk Payuel in southern Sudan. He and the other Christian villagers had heard about the country's civil war, which began in 1983, about a decade after a previous one ended. But it took four years for the Muslim government army of the north to catch up with them.
did, Dau said he was one of many thousands of boys from across the
south, who jointly came to be known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan" that
Theirs was an exodus, by foot, of 1,000 miles during which they struggled to survive ambushes, unforgiving desert conditions, famine, thirst, sickness and attacks by wild animals. A three-month journey took them to Ethiopia, the Lost Boys' first extended stop before war there in 1991 drove them on a six-month trek to Kenya.
Of the 19 he began walking with, two were killed and 12 died of thirst before reaching Ethiopia.
Sitting in a luxurious, Glenwild community home Monday morning, Dau spoke about the journey that brought him there. He was one of 4,000 Lost Boys, who eventually resettled in America. His story was featured in the documentary "God Grew Tired of Us," the 2006 Grand Jury prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival, and was recently published in greater detail in a memoir by the same name. He flew in from Syracuse, N.Y., where he now lives, to both increase awareness about his country's ongoing needs and to raise money for The John Dau Sudan Foundation, a Utah organization created to establish medical clinics and educational facilities throughout Sudan. The foundation is backed by Utahns who were touched by his story.
Dau, now 34, saw hyenas feasting on corpses. He and others drank urine, chewed on grass for its juices and "ate mud like mashed potatoes," he said. He watched his best friend die on the trek. At a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where he lived for about three years, Dau was in charge of 1,200 suffering children. He buried two or three of them a day.
His faith, the teachings of his father and a sense of responsibility to his community kept him going, he said.
"You want to help other people," he explained. "That's the African way."
When they were hungry, the boys might have yearned for their mothers who fed them. When they were threatened, their thoughts could have turned to their fathers, their protectors. But day-to-day, when the boys felt they could die at any moment, grieving for family members fell in importance, Dau said.
In 1991, war broke out in Ethiopia, forcing the Lost Boys and other refugees on another harrowing trek. At one point while being chased by Ethiopian rebels, the refugees had no choice but to cross a crocodile-infested river. By the time they reached the opposite bank, 9,000 of them had been killed or drowned. The survivors found security in Kakuma, Kenya. The camp there was home to 86,000 refugees from various wars. "It was a good place, a new chapter," Dau remembered.
In Kakuma, there was clean water, a hospital and education. Beneath the shade of a tree, using a stick in the dirt, Dau began to learn.
"That's where I started my A,B,Cs, 1,2,3s," he said. "I was 17 years old."
He went as far as he could in school, got a job for $20 a month working in rehabilitation services and even was given a bicycle, which he taught himself to ride after many crashes. He was happy.
In 1999 and 2000, Americans started visiting and talking about a resettlement program. Dau went through the interview process, open to what the future might hold.
"Hope was never lost," he said. "I refused to believe that this was it."
One day in August 2001, his name was posted on the board of those who had been accepted. Within a week, he'd be leaving for Syracuse, N.Y. There was a crash course in "cultural orientation," he said. And there were the stories to process: Could you really sit down to eat, press a "chicken button" or "beef button" before the meat would just appear? Did American girls really carry guns in small bags? To be safe, Dau decided he'd stay away from them.
At 27, he'd never flipped a light switch, stepped on an escalator or seen a shower. The "magic door" at the grocery store shocked him, as did the aisles of food for cats and dogs. "Mind boggling," he said, shaking his head.
He kept busy working multiple jobs - flipping burgers, making gaskets in a factory, serving as a security guard and unloading trucks for UPS - and attending classes at a community college. Even so, and despite having two roommates who'd traveled with him from Kakuma, loneliness kicked in.
"In American factories, people don't talk," he said. "In a typical American view, one or two people is enough . . . In Africa, we stay as a group of 30 or more."
His spirits lifted on Oct. 28, 2002, when he opened a letter mailed from Uganda. It was from one of his brothers and included photographs. His parents and siblings were alive.
"My heart was beating so loud," he beamed. "I didn't believe it was them."
He has since returned to Africa to see his family members and brought his mother and youngest sister - who he met for the first time in the airport - to Syracuse, where they now live with Dau, his wife (a Lost Girl) and their 9-month-old daughter. The 22-year civil war that killed about 2 million and displaced 4 million others ended in 2005. Dau is working on a bachelor's degree in public policy at Syracuse University, but is focusing his attention on rebuilding his country.
With the help of Utah donors, the first medical clinic opened in May. The foundation has plans under way to build five others, and educational efforts are ramping up as well.
"In America, you strike while an iron is hot," Dau said. "I want to take this chance to do this while people still remember Sudan."
Hear Dau's story
Local opportunities to hear more from John Dau.
* Today he and Geoffrey Tabin, an ophthalmologist working with Dau to advance eye treatments in Sudan, will be on KPCW's and KCPW's Midday Utah radio program, which runs from 9 to 10 a.m.
* Thursday, from 7 to 9 p.m., The John Dau Sudan Foundation is hosting an event at Spotted Frog Bookstore, 1635 W. Redston Center, Suite 115, Park City. Dau will be there signing copies of his book, God Grew Tired of Us. For more information, call 435-575-2665.
* To learn more about The John Dau Sudan Foundation, visit http://www.johndaufoundation.org.