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African family’s survival a miracle

Now that the Western and Middle Eastern worlds are seemingly focused 24 hours a day on the war in Iraq, it’s easy to forget that there are other areas of the world where innocent people suffer from man’s inexplicable inhumanity to man.
Oscar Niyiragira, 39, a “survivor” of civil wars involving several countries in Central Africa, can’t forget that. He and his wife and two small children spent months fleeing from country to country, trying to escape the brutality of ethnic fighting. Now a resident of Louisville and a French teacher at an elementary school, Oscar told his story to about 200 well-behaved seventh graders at the Corydon Central Junior High School on March 20.
Apologizing for his accent (“English is not my mother tongue,” he said), Oscar told the students that his daughter, Sandrina, a fifth grader, had won an award for a one-page essay she wrote about the freedom-less life in Burundi.
People who disobey rules were jailed or killed. It doesn’t seem right that a country whose history goes back 1,000 years should be caught up in ethnic turmoil, but it was and is. Most of it’s due to fighting between the minority Tutsis, a tall warrior tribe that came down from Ethiopia 600 years ago, and the majority Hutus, a farming people who became Tutsi subjects for protection.
According to information on the Internet, the Tutsis and Hutus lived in harmony for centuries until the colonial era, when Belgium ruled Central Africa. The two groups had lived together and intermarried and spoke the same language.
Oscar and Reginia have a mixed marriage: he’s a Hutu and she’s a Tutsi, which made them easy targets for both groups.
Everything changed with independence from Belgium. The monarchy was dissolved, the Belgian troops left, and the two tribes started fighting to fill the power vacuum. Two countries were formed in 1962: Rwanda, dominated by the Hutus, and Burundi, dominated by the Tutsi.
During a civil war in Rawanda in 1994, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by extremist Hutus in one of the worst cases of genocide in world history. Tutsi rebels won control, and a million Hutu refugees poured into Zaire and Tanzania.
In Burundi, the article said, the Tutsis yielded power after a Hutu banker won the first democratic election in that country, in 1993. However, he was killed in an attempted coup four months later, and his successor, plus the Hutu leader of Rwanda, were killed in a suspicious plane crash in 1994.
The killing continues. Just last week, 24 Hutu rebels were killed in fighting around Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura.
One rainy night in 1993, Oscar and Reginia took their two children, Jean Mystere, 4, and Sandrina, 2, and fled into the dense forest on the Burundi-Rwanda border. Two days of running left them vulnerable and exhausted in the mountains. During a heavy rainstorm, a stranger, another fugitive, offered to help carry Sandrina, and – wouldn’t you know it? – they got separated. Oscar and Regenia feared they would never see her again. It was a nightmare, and they prayed hard for help.
Four days after they had arrived in a village in Rwanda, Sandrina showed up at the village her parents were in.
There were other harrowing moments, especially when Oscar literally stopped a Hutu mob from murdering his wife.
They traveled through Rwanda, back to Burundi, to Congo, to Tanzania. “It was like a war following me,” Oscar said. More than a million people were killed in 90 days in the area, more than 10,000 each day. It was worse than World War II, he said, “unprecedented killing,” not by bombs, tanks and weapons of mass destruction, but machetes and spears.
It was ironic: here he was, a Christian, the well-educated son of a Seventh Day Adventist Church minister and his peace-loving family, running away from their family and home in a war that had turned their world upside down. He had begged his parents to leave their village and come with them, but they were too old to leave. His mother gave them six potatoes. Oscar believes his mother was betrayed by a neighbor whom she had befriended, was murdered and cut into pieces. Half of all his relatives, including his father, died or just disappeared.
“Civil war is worse than anything you can imagine,” he said. People who survive have to start all over.
“Thanks to God, we survived. It’s a miracle,” he told the students. “I can’t explain why I survived.
“There are so many beautiful things in life. I don’t want to concentrate on the ugly things,” he said. He told the students they live in a wonderful country, the most economically powerful country in the world. “You should know that you are so advantaged, so lucky,” he said.
“Peace is so very good, so valuable. You cannot understand its value until you miss it,” he said.
Oscar and his family (they now have two more children) came to this country “by the grace of God,” via the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and the U.S. government. They worship at a church in Jeffersonville.
Oscar said, “God has been so good to me. I would like to tell the world what God has done for me and show how people live on the other side of the world.” He’s written a book about his experience, and it can be found on the Internet at