The extraordinary achievements of self-taught miracle worker Toni Ruttimann I B Y R O B E R T K I E N E R

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BRIDGES

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Toni Ruttimann perches on a bridge he is helping to build in Argentina

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ust outside the southern Laos market town of Saravan almost 80 men, women and children are hunched over, digging their bare feet into the rich red mud of a slippery riverbank. Under the merciless midday summer sun, they are straining to push and pull a nine-meter long, 1100-kilo steel bridge support up a steep dirt embankment. But they can barely budge it; it’s just too heavy. Suddenly, as if by magic, more villagers appear from out of the nearby forests and rice paddies. Whooping and shouting, they all push together and the massive H-shaped bridge support begins to inch up the hill. Emboldened, they start hollering, “neung, song, sahm!” (“one, two, three!”) and redouble their efforts. “It’s moving!” cries a wizened old woman. “Don’t stop now!”

The rag-tag construction crew manhandles the massive structure to the top of the embankment, overlooking the deep brown Saravan River. Then the villagers collapse in a heap, laughing and clapping one another on the back. For the next few days, under the direction of a remarkable Swiss volunteer Toni Ruttimann and with no tool more complex than a hand-powered cable puller, they will help build a 105meter long footbridge across the river. For the first time in their lives, these dirt-poor people won’t have to wade across the river or pay a ferryman to carry their produce to the market in nearby Saravan. “That was people power,” explains Ruttimann, a trim, jeans-clad figure, lifting his battered white cap and wiping beads of perspiration from his sunburned forehead. “These villagers just

ian aid by building bridges that change lives. Since he built his first foot bridge in Ecuador in 1987 he has helped people in Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Colombia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Argentina, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to build nearly 350 suspension bridges, from 30 meters to 264 meters long. Ruttimann Some of these were re“MISTER TONI,” “Toni el and villagers Suizo” (“Tony the Swiss”), work on a bridge placements for bridges lost in “the bridge builder from over the Saravan floods or earthquakes. But River in Laos most were built where no Heaven.” These are just a few bridge had been built before, of the nicknames bestowed on over rivers that were too dangerToni Ruttimann as he has carried out his mission to change the world, ous to cross or in valleys too remote. Ruttimann insists on keeping his one pedestrian bridge at a time. He describes his life work as “a love story,” bridge building as low key and cost-efexplaining, “Building bridges for poor ficient as possible. He uses donated people is the way I express my love for steel cable and steel piping and is this world and the people who live in it.” funded almost exclusively by individRuttimann, 39, has carved out a ual Swiss donors. He holds expenses to unique niche in the world of humanitar- a bare minimum, refuses government proved what you can accomplish if you believe in yourself.” He should know. Over the last 20 years he has helped tens of thousands of people help themselves by building pedestrian bridges throughout Latin America and Asia. And he has done so with almost no formal training.
ROBERT KEINER

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grants or donations and does not pay himself a salary. He has no secretary, website or office. Nor does he own a home or a car. Ask him where home is and he’ll smile wryly and hold up one of the three small black bags he carries with him. In it are three pairs of trousers, two pairs of jeans, four shirts, two T-shirts, a pair of work boots and a tie for special occasions; all the clothes he owns.

RUTTIMANN HAD a comfortable, uneventful upbringing in the town of Pontresina in a small valley near the ski resort of St. Moritz. Just before he left high school in spring 1987, Ecuador, a country he had only read about, was hit by a massive earthquake. The boy was horrified by the scenes he saw on television. Thousands of people had lost their lives and homes.

ments of bridge building and idea of how to spend them. Vital link: bought cement and other supIt took him three days of Toni’s bridge plies with his Swiss francs. riding buses, hitch-hiking, over the With the help of the local peorafting rivers and walking to reach the devastated north- Guandacarenda ple and volunteer workers in Argentina from the nearby oilfields, he eastern Amazonia region, 450 built his first 55-meter suspension kilometers from Quito. The teenager soon realized that what the bridge at the foot of the Andes. It took stranded villagers of Flor del Valle five months. After finishing the bridge Toni reneeded most urgently was a new bridge. The earthquake had literally cut them turned to Switzerland and enrolled in a

Inquire about his office and he’ll hold up the other bag, which contains his computer, international cell phone, electronic organiser and a few files. He travels as cheaply as possible. He also demands that any peasants who want a bridge agree to contribute most of the labor needed to build it. “He makes some other charities and humanitarian organizations look like spendthrifts,” says BP oilfield supervisor Al Wright, who met Ruttimann when he was building his first bridge in Latin America and offered him surplus oil pipe. “Toni has an uncanny knack for turning junk, like discarded cable and oil pipe, into beautiful, useful bridges.”
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His friends were being drafted for their six-month compulsory army service but Toni had been turned down because of a skin condition. The urge to “do something” gnawed at him. He made up his mind to go to Ecuador. “What can you do? You don’t even speak Spanish,” scoffed his father George, manager of a chemist’s shop. “I know, you’re right,” said Toni. “But I have to go.” He raised nearly $7,500 in donations from friends and neighbors, and spent his own savings on a plane ticket to Quito, Ecuador’s capital. He arrived with all the enthusiasm of a 19-year-old, a wallet full of Swiss francs and little

off from the rest of the country. People were dying because they could not reach a doctor or hospital in time. He walked into the office of Sol Lepp, an American oilfield engineer based in the jungle. “I was wondering if you had any surplus pipe,” Toni began. The hardboiled oilman found himself captivated by the teenager’s resourcefulness and his desire to help others. In less than an hour Toni convinced Lepp to give him enough pipe and steel cable to build a bridge. Explains Lepp today, “As many others would learn over the years, it’s very hard to say no to Toni Ruttimann.” Toni also enlisted the aid of a Dutch oil field engineer to teach him the rudiP H OTO G R A P H E D BY D I EG O L E V Y

civil engineering course. But he could not get the image of the needy Ecuadorian villagers out of his mind. We have so much while they have so little, he told himself. Just six weeks into his university course he quit and returned to Ecuador. He had found there his life’s work. A second bridge followed, then another. With each one Toni learned more about bridge building and grew ever more skilled at seeking out donations of time and materials. Because he had so little money, Toni was forced to improvise. Normally cranes or heavy equipment would be used to stretch cables across a river or to lift bridge pylons
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$3,000. A commercially built bridge would cost more than ten times as much. Constantly traveling—he says he has not slept in the same bed more than three nights in a row over the last 20 years—Toni still manages to oversee numerous projects simultaneously. Speeding along a bumpy Cambodian road in the back seat of a Toyota, he flips open his IBM laptop, hooks it up to his cell phone and downloads information on bridges that Walter is overseeing in Latin America. “We have 21 bridges in various stages of completion in Ecuador,” he explains as the car’s driver blows his horn at a massive water buffalo that has ambled onto the road. into place. Toni relied on the brute months later Toni and Walter were strength of hundreds of villagers, who scouting the Cambodian countryside also hauled sand and stones from the for suitable locations. Walter then rerivers, cut wood from the forests and turned to Latin America where he carries on building bridges under Toni’s mixed concrete by hand. Word soon spread through Amazo- supervision. Assisted by Cambodian nia: “If you need a bridge get in touch welders and mechanics, Toni has helped with Toni el Suizo.” Toni joined forces to build more than 100 bridges in Camwith a like-minded Ecuadorian welder, bodia, Vietnam and Laos. Walter Yánez. For the next 13 Gracias, years they travelled throughTONI USUALLY makes three amigo! Toni out Latin America, seeking out visits to a location. First he the most remote and impov- with the villagers finds a site, surveys it, makes erished communities, and of Salvador Mazza calculations and asks villagers in northern building bridges in Nicaragua, for their help. On the second Argentina El Salvador, Argentina, Colomvisit, he oversees the villagers as bia and Mexico. they lay the concrete foundations In 2000, after hearing about Rutti- for the bridge towers. Finally, he returns mann’s work in Latin America, Cambo- to erect the towers, bridge cables and dian Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed walkway. On average it takes five weeks that he should bring his expertise to to complete a bridge. Costs vary, but that war-ravaged Asian nation. A few most bridges are built for less than
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e rarely pauses to relax. Every night he reads and answers his email and checks his database of bridges. Swiss cable car companies are donating used steel cable and Toni needs to arrange for it to be sent to Cambodia. Tenaris, an Argentine steel company, is donating thousands of pounds of steel pipe and he must apportion that between his Latin American and Asian projects. He has to pay his welders and helpers in both regions. The list goes on and on. “Here’s a touching email,” he says, reading from his laptop. A couple in Switzerland asked that their wedding guests not buy presents but instead donate money to Toni; they sent a bank order for 1000 Swiss francs (almost $800). The story reminds him of a 10-

year-old Swiss boy, Daniel, whom he saw playing the violin on a street in Davos. With a catch in his throat he says, “At his feet he had a sign that read, ‘I play for Toni’s bridges.’ He has sent us 400 Swiss francs (about $315).” What does the future hold? Toni smiles wryly and answers, “I only see as far as the next bridge. I have no future. In fact, I shouldn’t even have a present.” In the spring of 2002, while building a bridge in Cambodia, he was struck down by Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a paralyzing, often-fatal disease. When he reached hospital doctors told him he had been only “hours from death.” It took him a year of intensive therapy in a Thai rehabilitation center to recover his mobility. He still walks with a slight limp. Although he lay partially paralyzed for months, he never lost hope. As he wrote at the time, “When the time comes, my spirit will lead my body back to where it belongs: to the people in need, to the rivers, to the bridges to be built.”

BY WEEK’S END the bridge across the
Saravan River has been completed and thousands of people, many of whom helped to build it, can now carry their fruit, vegetables, chicken, woven baskets and other produce into Saravan without having to brave the river waters or pay for the ferry boat. In time they may be able to afford a bicycle or motorcycle and carry even more to market. Saravan resident Noi Thiphaphone speaks for many when she says, “Mister Toni changes lives. We will always thank him for that.”
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