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Rocky Mountain News September 22, 2005

Big post-strife strides

Brothers have put distance between selves and civil war

By Scott Stocker

The steps taken by three brothers who have helped make Denver North into a Class 5A cross country powerhouse have been substantial.

But they pale in comparison to those their family took to escape the civil war-ravaged east African nation of Burundi to arrive in Denver.

Severin Ndagano, Eric Ndikumana and Joseph Manilafasha have helped North make a statement this month by winning efforts at the prestigious Arapahoe and Liberty Bell invitational meets.

The road traveled by the brothers has been a difficult one, though.

Their father, Severin Mirenako, was killed in the Burundi civil war in 1996. The war began in 1993, is ongoing and has claimed the lives of about 200,000 people, according to GlobalSecurity.org.

Soon after Mirenako's death, Cenereuse Ntiranpeda, the boys' mother, took the family to Tanzania, which borders Burundi to the south and east. She then tried to have the family emigrate to Canada in 2000 but was denied admission into the country.

"We did not have any idea why they refused us at first," Ndagano said. "As it turned out, it was because she could not speak French. But the U.S. took us in 2001 and we were able to come to Denver. We could not speak English, but over the last four years, we have learned."

The brothers, who speak four languages, have high praise for the efforts of their mother and what she has done to support them. She works as a dietitian at a Denver nursing home.

"She is a very brave woman," said Ndikumana, 15, a sophomore.

The change in setting has made all the difference for the family.

"It's safer," said Ndagano, who plans to pursue a career in medicine and is the team captain for North this season. "You do not hear the bullets from the guns at night and we don't have to feel afraid all the time."

Instead, their biggest worry now might be explaining why three siblings with the same parents all have different last names.

"Our names come from special occasions or from a specific day, holiday or perhaps something special from our families," said Ndagano, 18, a senior. "In Burundi and a few other African nations, this is not unusual, not to have our parents' last names."

It has been an interesting situation for North coach Jeff Young and assistant Hector Martinez, a former cross country standout at North.

They are elated with the progress of the brothers and with the contributions they have made to the Vikings, ranked third in 5A. The brothers also offer high praise for their coaches.

"Three boys with different names and the same mother is sometimes very confusing," Young said with a chuckle. "They are straight-A students and kids with great determination and dedication. They have been through serious life situations others would have difficulty understanding.

"Whatever they put their minds to, they do," Young said. "I think the Burundians are incredible. Their mother rules them with an iron fist, which is probably a good thing. I'm fortunate to coach them."

North traditionally has had one of the finest cross country programs in the Denver Prep League. This season, the Vikings might have their finest team in school history.

Despite their talent, Young has only seven runners, which could present a challenge in the event of injury. Rounding out the North varsity are seniors Omar Torres and Julio Bonilla, junior Moe Martinez and sophomore Orion Ocampo.

"I think we are having a good season as the team goes because of our close packing," Ndikumana said. "From last year we lost three people (to graduation), so we've had to train hard to be where we are now. We are very close. But the whole team is like brothers, not just the three of us."

Said Young: "Eric and Joseph are my two best runners (by time), very similar, just like pit bulls. And, I believe they could be the best freshman/sophomore combination in the state. You are going to hear a lot about these kids for the next three seasons."

Young, a veterinarian who doesn't teach at the school, said Ndagano looks like the most talented of the brothers.

"But Severin is a little more reserved, I think because of a bigger burden in his family role," Young said. "Still, he is a very fine athlete, he just seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders."

Manilafasha, 14, and a freshman, said he is glad to have the opportunities before him. As the youngest, he looks up to his older siblings.

"They are fine role models for me, setting high standards for me in school and sports," Manilafasha said. "We will all do track this year, too. We have worked very hard, and that hard work is paying off for us.

"I would like to be the best freshman in the history of Denver North in cross country. I think I'm already coming close," Manilafasha said.

Young said the most talented runner overall on the team, though, is Torres, who needs to learn to perform at a higher level. The biggest surprise has been Bonilla, who is in only his second season.

Martinez, who is battling the effects of an appendectomy, is considered the joker of the team, and Ocampo is starting to come into his own.

Torres also is the most realistic when it comes to where the Vikings might finish at state.

"Fort Collins (ranked No. 1) is so deep, I don't know if we can overcome them," Torres said. "But we won't back down. It's a challenge, one I think we are up to, but, nevertheless, a strong challenge."

But challenges are nothing new to this group of runners.

Copyright 2005, Rocky Mountain News