KIGALI – From April through this time each year is a difficult period for Adrien Niyonshuti. It is then that his mind more readily casts back to the 100 days from April 6, 1994 when an estimated 800,000 of his countrymen were killed in the Rwandan genocide.
Among the victims were six of his brothers. Amazingly, the seven-year-old Niyonshuti and his parents survived the mass murder as they escaped from their home to hide in the neighbouring bush for days on end without food or water.
To this day, the 24-year-old still bears a scar on his left leg, although he can no longer recall how he got it. More damaging, though, are the mental scars that he must be carrying.
Bearing in mind the tragedy that has befallen Niyonshuti, he is an unwaveringly positive human being and that bright outlook has been accentuated by having achieved his ambition of qualifying for the London Olympics, the first of his cycling countrymen to do so since Barcelona in 1992.
Niyonshuti is not expected to push for a medal at the Games as the 160th best rider in the cross-country mountain biking event – just making it to the Olympics is remarkable enough – but nor will he disgrace himself, either.
As Olympic tales go, his one of triumph over adversity is difficult to match but that story is one marred with a litany of tragedies.
“I took up cycling to forget,” is his honest assessment of how his love affair with the sport began, riding his uncle Emmanuel’s steel-framed bike whenever he could.
“For cycling, I have to focus the whole time, it’s not easy.
“Cycling is my job and I have to give it all of my focus. It’s the thing that helps me forget my problems. In my case, the problem is genocide and it helps me forget what happened.”
There are parts of his mind that try to block out the atrocities but certain memories remain.
“I was so young, just seven years old when it happened, so I do not remember it all,” he says.
“I remember my mother telling me to run, that people were coming. Even now it is very difficult for me to explain what happened. These people came to my home and my school and killed my family. I don’t know why they killed my family.
“I lost my family, my brothers, my grandmother. There is nothing I can do about it now. I have to survive this life I’ve been given. I have to thank God for what I have and to try to believe that anything can now happen in my life.”
Niyonshuti was taught about the genocide in school after the horror had finally subsided and believes it is important such teaching goes on to avoid a repeat of what happened 17 years ago.
“Everyone in this country fully knows what happened and we just have to hope that this is not going to happen again,” he says. “You never forget but I try to be positive. Sometimes I’m negative as well — for me the hardest time each year is April when I often remember the genocide.”