Dominique Bizimana and Jean Rukondo make unlikely teammates. Eighteen years ago they were on opposite sides of a brutal sectarian conflict that spawned the worst mass slaughter since the Second World War. Now they fight together as members of Rwanda’s Paralympic volleyball team. “We always joke when we are playing with young kids that I think that man who shot me was Rukundo,” says Bizimana, an infectiously enthusiastic 36-year-old from Rwanda’s Tutsi ethnic grouping whose lower left leg was torn off while fighting for the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). “Now we are friends and we train together. Our team is always together. It’s a good example for young people in Rwanda. Our team is a model for other generations.”
Rukondo, an ethnic Hutu, was stationed on the other side of the front line as a soldier in Rwanda’s national army. While leading a patrol he stepped on a landmine losing his entire left leg. Over the course of the next year Rwanda tore itself apart as Hutu nationalist death squads slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis and those Hutus they perceived to be sympathetic to their enemies. The genocide was only ended when the RPF launched a final offensive putting the death squads to flight and seizing the capital Kigali.
“Dominique comes to my house. My children see him they call him uncle,” explains Rukondo who, despite being Hutu, spent much of the genocide on the run from the death squads because his wife is Tutsi. “They don’t look at the past, they look at the future.”
In a country with such a blood- stained past, the future is vital. Reconciliation is more than just a word in Rwanda. It is a national philosophy that has been drilled into every level of society to make sure the country’s painful history remains buried. And sport is seen as a vital tool in bringing former foes together.
Paralympians are at the forefront of that fight. Rwanda has never won an Olympic medal. But in 2004 Jean de Dieu Nkundabera became a national hero when he snapped up a bronze at the Athens Paralympics in wheelchair racing. They sent individual athletes to Beijing, but 2012 is the first time a sub-Saharan nation has fielded competitors for a team sport.
In a country with no shortage of disabled people, Paralympians can not only help unite people under the Rwandan flag, they can reduce the stigma attached to impairments in what is still a primarily rural sub-Saharan nation.
“Like in many countries, disability is seen in a variety of ways,” explains Simon Cordon, a former civil servant from Walsall who now works with Rwanda’s Paralympic team through the Voluntary Service Overseas TNX. “Some are comfortable with it and others are very disrespectful. It can be seen as a curse to have a child with disability. Some will find a way for a disabled child not to survive the first few weeks.”
The volleyball team is helping to change that. Earlier this year VSO helped the Rwandans organise an international competition for sub-Saharan African volleyball teams in Kigali. Rwanda won every one of their games and beat Kenya in the final earning themselves a place at London 2012.
“The crowd that hangs around the stadium in Kigali loves football and it was a similar gang,” recalls Mr Corden. “They painted themselves in Rwandan colours with emulsion paint, the vuvuzelas were out. It was an absolute din. The celebration afterwards was something else.”
For Celestin Nzeyimana, chef de mission of Rwanda’s Paralympic team, the next few weeks provides Rwanda with an opportunity to tackle prejudices both inside and outside his home nation.
“It will make a great impact for people in Rwanda,” he predicts. “They didn’t expect people of disability could play, they didn’t think we could represent our country and they didn’t think we’d qualify for Paralympics. But people from [Britain] will change their mind as well. They think all people do in Africa is fight but we will show them we can play and enjoy many things.”
From conflict to competition
Like the UK, America actively scouts for potential Paralympic talent among wounded soldiers – timely given that military amputations reached an all-time high last year: 10 per cent of its 200 Paralympians are military veterans. Expect medals in the swimming pool.
A nation scared by war, Bosnia has used its violent past to generate one of the world’s best sitting-volleyball teams. They first submitted atheletes to the Paralympics in 1996, just months after the country’s brutal civil war ended. Since then they have won two silvers and one gold – all in sitting volleyball.
Given its recent history Cambodia should be a Paralympian powerhouse. But few Cambodians will travel to London because they simply cannot afford the equipment. The south-east Asian nation is the second best in the world at standing volleyball – a comparatively cheap sport – but the event has been dropped for London. Cambodian 100m wheelchair sprinter, a wild card entry, Van Vun is their best chance.