SUDBURY, ONTARIO — During one especially moving scene in Rising from Ashes, riders with Rwanda’s national cycling team list family members lost during the genocide. Adrien Niyonshuti, the team’s star cyclist, notes he lost six brothers, in addition to 60 others on his mother’s side. His eyes are mournful, but his voice steely, his tone matter-of-fact — testament to the two decades since the darkness, as well as his push to heal. Each time he pedals forward, he moves further from the unrepentant terror of 1994.
Rising from Ashes is a feature-length documentary about Jock Boyer’s efforts to build a national cycling team in Rwanda. It will screen April 24 at Cambrian College’s Open Studio, 93 Cedar St., suite 303.
Twenty years ago, on April 7, Rwanda, a tiny land-locked country in central Africa, spiraled downward into a putrid stew of massacre and bloodshed. From 800,000 to one million people were killed during 100 days of genocide. About 80 per cent of Tutsis were murdered and entire families were deleted, like a word on a computer screen that never existed.
The genocide in Rwanda remains unparalleled in its vastness and efficiency.
“The nature of the killing, with so many thrown into pit latrines or buried and dissolving in dank mass graves, makes an accurate count impossible,” writes journalist Scott Peterson in his 2000 memoir, Me Against My Brother: At war in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda. “They were murdered eyeball to eyeball by friends and neighbors. A mathematical calculation of Rwanda’s national suicide makes the speed of any other recorded catastrophe or single act of war pale by comparison. … No system of genocide ever devised has been more efficient: the daily kill rate was five times that of the Nazi death camps.”
Jean Pierre Kanuma (he has asked that his real name not be used publicly) can relate to the staggering, incomprehensible loss. He lived through it. The Cambrian College student, who left Rwanda to study in Canada in 2011, lost both his parents during the genocide, as well as more than 10 other family members.
Although he was only two years old and no longer recalls his mother’s smile, the events of April 1994 have been etched into his memory like a branding iron.
“No kid should ever see what I saw,” Kanuma, 22, says. The young man smiles easily when discussing his homeland, but turns somber at the mention of the genocide. He is reticent to discuss the specifics of his parents’ murders; his world was gutted and the wounds are yet to fully heal. Kanuma’s grandmother, who survived, raised him.
“I don’t remember a lot about my parents, but my family says they were good people. They liked to help everyone – they had big hearts,” he says. “People didn’t even need to ask for help; my parents would just be there for them.”
Kanuma’s uncle was killed at the technical school in the neighbourhood of Kicukiro after seeking refuge. The grounds were under the protection of the Belgian contingent of the UN mission (known as UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda), but on April 11 the paratroopers pulled out after 10 Belgian peacekeepers were disarmed and killed by government soldiers, leaving Rwandans defenseless against the murderous militias. Some people were killed on site, but most of the 2,500 victims were slaughtered — by grenade, machete or club — after enduring a death march to a garbage dump on the outskirts of Kigali.
He was a young man, barely into his 20s and not yet married. Kanuma has little recollection of his uncle, but the loss has shaped his outlook.
“Anything can happen in life, really quickly,” Kanuma says. “Things can go from white to dark in the snap of a finger.”
Redemption and second chances
A fellow cyclist introduced Jock Boyer to Rwanda. The American phenom could not locate the thumbnail-sized country on a map and knew little about its sad history, but he wanted a change. Building a national team from the ochre-hued earth of a volcanic land was the antidote Boyer needed, following his own downfall and incarceration. It was his second chance and he believed it could be his redemption.
“The way I could see the past in their eyes is pretty much the hope the bike gave them,” Boyer says of the team. “You could see how much they were hanging on for dear life on the bike, because it was their way out.”
Boyer was sentenced in 2002 to one year in jail and five years’ probation after pleading guilty to 10 counts of lewd behaviour with a minor. He was released after serving eight months.
There is a secondary narrative woven into the frames of Rising from Ashes, a 2012 documentary about Rwanda’s national cycling team: Can the best thing a person does make up for the worst thing? Should it? Is redemption possible? Is reconciliation possible and what role does sport play?
For the members of Team Rwanda, cycling is more than sport — it is a means of providing for their families, of pushing through the shadows of the genocide, of rebuilding a country that was shredded.
“(Team Rwanda) is about relationships, it’s about reconciliation,” Boyer says during the film. “It’s about people who, in another situation, wouldn’t get along, but in this particular situation, they’re allies, they’re best friends. And they become lifelong friends.”
Rising from Ashes dips briefly into Rwanda’s past and the 1994 genocide, but it centers on Team Rwanda, its efforts to overcome old and shoddy equipment, and Niyonshuti’s rise to the global stage. It casts an uplifting and hopeful glance on the country’s future, and showcases the breathtaking beauty of Rwanda, a country of hillside farms with terraced fields; footpaths carved from volcanic red soil; and lush banana groves.
These days, Kanuma lives with relatives in Greater Sudbury. April is always a difficult month, but he mourns quietly and honours his parents steadfastly.
“When it starts on April 7, yeah, I remember everything,” he says. “It happened and I’ll never forget it, but I don’t want to be reminded.”
He chooses to focus on the future.
“I think about what (my parents) would want me to do to look forward, to move forward in my life,” Kanuma says. “I want to make them proud. I know they’re up there looking down and I just want to make them proud.”
Mostly, Kanuma wants people to know the good things about his homeland.
“People love each other – the genocide happened, but it does not define Rwandans,” he says. “They share with each other. Rwanda is rising and moving forward.”
His days in Canada are spent juggling sports, his studies and his girlfriend.
In Kigali, Kanuma’s time is filled with friends, soccer, bars and weekend getaways to the beach – in this case, Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s Great Lakes, which runs along the western border of Rwanda and separates it from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A typical Friday night includes dinner at a local pub and drinks at Kigali’s most popular club, Papyrus. At about 4 a.m., Kanuma’s entourage will go for breakfast before heading home, fatigued but content, to settle into sleep as the sun peeks over the city’s seven hills.
“When I go back to Rwanda, it’s so much fun,” he says.
Kanuma seeks neither sympathy nor pity, for himself or his homeland.
“I am Jean Pierre Kanuma, full stop,” he says proudly.
Originally published on April 12, 2014 in The Sudbury Star