And in many cases, he notes, the fighting pitted Christians against Christians.
A conversation with his mother during a brief visit home in 2007 helps keep Nsabimana centered on the need to forgive.
“I asked my mother how she felt. She lost her husband and two of her sons, but she was still going to church,” Nsabimana says. “She said it is really hard, but we are supposed to forgive them. If we believe in God and that he created the people who did this, then there is no way we can run away from forgiveness.”
He told his mother that it hurts to both remember and forgive.
“Who ever told you that Christ didn’t suffer?” she replied.
Even before Burundi’s civil war began, Nsabimana saw signs of ethnic conflict. While attending a residential high school, where Nsabimana lived in a dormitory, he and fellow students were terrorized one night by men prowling across campus with long knives. A riot broke out, and students fled into the woods. Nsabimana walked home, a four-day journey, and his school was closed for two weeks.
When Burundi’s first democratically elected president was assassinated in 1993, violence rose to an epic scale. Rwanda’s genocide of 1994 garnered more headlines — nearly one million people were killed in 100 days — but hundreds of thousands also were killed in Burundi as Hutus and Tutsis committed atrocities against one another throughout the ’90s and early 2000s.
Nsabimana fled his homeland for the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1995 after 250 Hutu students were murdered at the university he attended in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura. But the threat of war reached him there as well, eventually forcing him from Congo, where he had become a student, and leading to the standoff with immigration officials in Tanzania and the refugee camp.
For three months, Nsabimana and his cousin endured hunger, exhaustion, and the constant presence of death in the camp. They were safe from soldiers, but malnutrition, cholera, malaria, and other diseases were ever present. Children and the elderly were hit hardest.
“We were burying children on a daily basis,” Nsabimana says. “I have never experienced anything like that.”
Eventually, with help from Burundi’s United Methodist bishop, Nsabimana managed to enroll in Africa University in Zimbabwe, a school supported by the United Methodist Church. From there, he was accepted to a master’s degree program in agriculture and economics at Oklahoma State University, where he lived at the Wesley Foundation and became a friend of campus minister Michael Bartley D’94.