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‘‘I have to fight to play’’

The small group of young men walk confidently into the gymnasium in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, sit down and casually unfasten their prosthetic legs. The limbs vary in size and shape; some are adorned with Nike trainers, others sport Pumas. They are left standing in a neat thicket around a small volleyball court drawn onto a hard concrete surface as the men take to the floor and manoeuvre themselves into position.

It has been a tough month for the Rwandan sitting volleyball team, with double practice sessions each day. The team have the biggest matches of their lives to prepare for – a sub-Saharan qualification tournament against the likes of Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The tournament is due to take place on home soil, in Kigali, and the Rwandans are the favourites. But it’s not just local bragging rights at stake. The winner will secure a place at the 2012 London Paralympics.

“No one in Rwanda talks about the genocide any more, but the amputees remain as a record of the country’s brutal past”

For the Rwandan team qualification will mean more than for most. Their nation is still synonymous with the 1994 genocide that saw the slaughter of close to a million people in eight months. Today the country is still in the process of rebuilding from that brutal era. The country’s president, Paul Kagame, has imposed a new rule of law with a strong hand, getting involved in even the smallest of details. Plastic bags, for instance, are banned in Rwanda in an effort to preserve the country’s burgeoning tourist sector. Parking tickets are issued and paid promptly from fear of Rwanda’s swift new justice system. No one goes out on their motorbike without a helmet, lest the police spot them and issue a significant on-the-spot fine.

Some argue that Kagame is ruling with too strong a hand. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair calls him a visionary leader – largely for his role in ending the genocide  and then leading the country to stability and economic growth after he took power in 2000 – but local journalists and human rights advocates point to his increasingly authoritarian rule. Only a few days before I meet the sitting volleyball team, the managing editor of The New Times, Kigali’s most popular English language newspaper and a pet project of Kagame’s, was arrested for reporting on corruption in a number of government-funded public works projects. He was later released without charge.

Kagame’s rule has been characterised by the drive to forget, to move on. Like Spain after its bloody civil war in the 1930s, reconciliation in Rwanda was reserved for the generations born after the conflict. Asking those who lived through it to come terms with the butchery means reopening old wounds. But there is one sign of the genocide that cannot be erased so easily. The hundreds of thousands of amputees who survived the violence but were left maimed move silently through the crowded markets and streets like apologetic ghosts. No one in Rwanda talks about the genocide any more, but the amputees remain as a record of the country’s brutal past.

It is a situation that the young men sitting on the floor practising sitting volleyball are only too aware of.

The team’s captain Dominique Bizimana, who is also the head of the Rwandan Paralympic Committee, was directly affected by the events of 1994. “There was the genocide and we were young, there were mines and by bad chance I lost my leg when I was 16,” he explains.

“I was a volleyball player before I lost my leg. But when I lost my leg I said: ‘No, I cannot give up. I have to fight to play sports.’ And I started to play sitting volleyball in 2004. We are lucky because sports is one of the only ways to integrate people with disabilities [into society].”

25 year old university student Emile Vuningoma, who plays as an attacker in the team, agrees.

“When I first saw the game in 2009 I wasn’t comfortable with it, but after a year I saw it was a good game for people with disabilities,” he says.

Vuningoma was born with his disability, but his parents didn’t have the money to pay for the medical treatment that might have allowed him to use his leg. Playing for the team has given him the sense of purpose that many disabled people in Rwanda have yet to find.

“To be at London is very important for people with disabilities in Rwanda,” he says. “We have to be there to represent our country. There are so many people in Rwanda who have injuries from the genocide and do not have the capabilities to be part of society. We are working extremely hard to go to all the provinces and try to help them.”

The players move across the floor at unbelievable speed, careful to keep part of their backside and thigh on the floor at the same time (the main rule in sitting volleyball) and making a mockery of their disabilities. Standing over them is Peter Karreman, the team’s coach, who masterminded Rwanda’s qualification to the sitting volleyball World Championships in 2010. They lost every game, some heavily, but the experience ahead of the the Sub-Saharan qualification tournament was invaluable.

“About eight years ago I was training regular volleyball and by coincidence I saw sitting volleyball and it got me, it hit me in my heart,” says Karreman. He was so moved by seeing how young disabled athletes had learned to play sitting volleyball that he offered his services to sitting volleyball’s world governing body. “I became the head coach of the Dutch team. And then the Rwandan team asked me.”

Unlike some  other disability sports, sitting volleyball is so tough to master, and so fast that the technique of some of the top players is arguably better than those in the able-bodied game.

“I think we are superstars. For us disability is nothing. It is not inability. We are able”

“The rules are the same, but the term ‘sitting’ is misleading,” explains Karreman. “They are moving on the ground, always moving. The rest of the game is the same. But it is fast, the field is smaller. So it’s very attractive. It’s good to play for the regular players too because they learn how to play fast as well. It’s very good for their technique.”

Preparing the team for a possible tilt at the Paralympics has been Karreman’s hardest job yet. The facilities are austere. In the corner stands a heap of twisted wheelchairs. The showers have long run dry. And the floor is so hard that Karreman is surprised the Rwandan team are happy to play on it. “In Europe they would refuse to play on a floor this hard,” he says.

Real progress, however, will require funds. “To get them really improved they need money” says Karreman. “It is still a problem.” The difficulties were highlighted a few weeks earlier when it was revealed that the Rwandans were still £3,000 short of being able to host the qualification tournament and were close to cancelling it – and with it the team’s Paralympic dream. Happily the British High Commissioner for Rwanda stepped in and found them the cash.

“They have the government’s attention now,” said Karreman before going back to his players for another gruelling training session. “This will give a boost for the rest for the country that Rwanda is in London with this team.”

The tournament went ahead in the same hall that the Rwanda team practiced in. Karreman’s charges decimated the opposition. They won every game with consumate ease, conceding just once, beating Kenya in the final 3-0 and qualifying for the 2012 Paralympics in London. After training together for six weeks – not to mention all living together at a nearby hostel for close to six months – they proved unbeatable.

They are still a long shot for a medal, though. As the coach points out, they would have to “train 48 hours a day” to get even close. And other problems have arisen. The Rwandans had to cancel another regional tournament due to a lack of funds, a typical occurrence in African disability sport.

Yet Bizimana believes that their appearance in London will send a message to those still struggling to come to terms with how their lives changed forever in 1994, a message that will resonate far beyond this tiny, scarred African state.

“It is very difficult to have confidence, to accept what happened,” he says. “Some people don’t. They are still fighting it. Walking on crutches. But now we are thinking that Rwanda is doing well, there is a law on disability and a national council for the disabled so the political will is there.”

“I think we are superstars,” he continues. “For us disability is nothing. We are able. We are making sure we tell people disability is nothing. It is not inability.”

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