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Rwandan genocide survivor embarks on new life in US

TWO years ago Candide Uwizeyimana could not speak a word of English. A survivor of the Rwandan genocide, she lost her family and later was separated from those who rescued her from an orphanage.

Survival was the focus of her first 16 years. But drive, determination and some luck have given Candide the opportunity to live a new life north of Seattle, where she is about to graduate from high school.

Rwanda was filled with fear and panic in 1993, a year before the country exploded in ethnic violence that claimed as many as 1 million lives.

Life was becoming unbearable for Joseph Rurangwa and Beatrice Nilabakunzi and their five daughters, Candide and her sisters, Leaticia, Adeline, Angelique and Theodette.

When the family dog started bringing home human body parts, the couple decided it was time to flee. Amid the crackle of gunfire they set out on a dusty road, joining a stream of people trying to escape.

For three-year-old Candide, it was a confusing and scary time. Men and women yelled at each other, children cried, and all Candide could hear was the voice of her father urging her and her sisters to walk.

Somehow they made their way to Congo, about 80 kilometers away, and settled in the Kashyusha refugee camp in Kinshasa. The United Nations provided food, clothing, medicine, blankets and plastic sheeting to craft into huts.

The family stayed for two years, until intermittent waves of violence made the parents decide to leave.

Candide can never forget a turning point at the village of Ishanjyi. The family was resting there when gunfire broke out among the refugees.

Candide's father handed her a bag of food and talked to the five-year-old about how difficult the next hours and days would be. Keep walking no matter what, he told her; if the family got separated they would find each other later along the road.

More gunfire and screams echo in her memory now -- along with the recollection of finding herself entirely alone.

In the days ahead, she followed her father's instructions, dragging herself along on sore feet, sleeping near strangers each night for warmth and security.

At night, people called out, seeking their families. But no one called Candide's name, and she adds, "my voice was almost gone because I had been screaming and crying for days."

One day a man she recognized from the refugee camp stopped to ask her where her parents were and invited her to walk with him.

But after walking with him for days, she remembers sitting down by the side of the road, too tired to go on.

He begged her to continue. She refused. "Do you want to die?" he asked.

"Yes," she replied.

She remembers this time merely as a series of long walks and lonely nights, but at last, after days or maybe it was weeks, Candide met her father and younger sister, Adeline.

Together they reached another refugee camp in Congo, and Candide says she often thought of her mother.

Hunger was everywhere.

Some people started to sneak off to the native Congolese gardens to steal food. When caught, the thieves were beaten -- sometimes fatally.

"I could hear these innocent people crying and screaming until they died. I will never ever forget the sound of someone who is dying," Candide said.

Not long afterward, shooting began at the camp, and her father rushed to tell his girls to get ready to flee.

The days and nights started to blur -- until one night when, as Candide remembers, her father tried to wake her from a deep sleep, and she thought she was dreaming. He walked away, probably thinking she was trailing behind. But she was asleep, and when she awoke she was alone again.

She never saw her father or her sister again.

Eventually, with other refugees, she arrived at Brazzaville, Congo, and was moved into a camp orphanage, where life stabilized.

One day, a woman told her about a businessman from Cameroon, who might help if she moved to another camp.

Jean Damas, 39, a food seller in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, took Candide in at age nine and changed her life. He sent her to school and gave her a job in his store.

Her adopted family encouraged Candide, at this point a high school student, to apply with the UN for refugee status. This would get her assistance and allow her to go somewhere that resettles refugees.

She passed every test the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees gave her.

Today, Candide faces another turning point, though one full of promise instead of terror.

On June 14, she graduates from Shorecrest High School in Shoreline, a suburb north of Seattle. She's applying for colleges in the area, and education is her No. 1 goal.

"She takes initiative and takes adult responsibilities," said foster mother Christiane Munyemana. "Some people just give up easily. She did what she needed to do."


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