Twenty years ago, Rwanda athletics legend Dieudonne Disi was forced to run the race of his life at the age of 14 not to win a medal but to save his own life. His athletics skills saved his life but not his family. The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi claimed his entire family.
Today, the 34-year-old is a world-class half-marathoner with a personal best of 59 minutes, 32 seconds.
Speaking to Times Sport in an exclusive interview from Kenya’s rift valley where he is undergoing intensive training in preparation for this year’s Commonwealth Games in Scotland, Disi said it has been a tough experience as he tries to cope with the horrors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
“Like most people who were affected by the Genocide, I was distressed to almost beyond repair. The pain I have endured for the last 20 years has shaped me into a resilient person. I have learnt a lot and for me to be alive today, it’s because I have strived for my life,” Disi said.
At the age of 14, Disi escaped from his village in Ntyazo, Butare, 50 kilometres near the Burundi border. On the same day his family was brutally wiped out by the Interahamwe militia.
The Genocide claimed the lives of over a million people.
These days his running is for the glory of the country but Disi knows he will never run for higher stakes than that harrowing night-time dash to escape the blood thirsty killers.
“I know my past has affected me but I have decided to focus on my future. I might not bring back my loved ones but I believe excelling in what I do best will make them contented wherever they are,” Disi spoke of his determination to keep going.
Disi recalls the fateful day with a lot of pain.
“On that deadly day my father asked me to offer my last prayers to God. There were eight people in the house—my mother, my father and my brothers and sisters. My father said we were all going to die. He said that he wanted the whole family to pray and prepare to go to heaven,” Disi recalled.
When everyone closed their eyes to pray, Disi went outside and hid in the garden. Shortly after, he heard the militia knock on the door.
“I believed that it was over. It was death. I have never forgotten that my father asked me to pray in preparation for heaven. I used to pray every day with my family but when my family died, I stopped praying for five good years.”
Fleeing to Burundi
Disi then fled to neighbouring Burundi. “That day I hid until evening and when it was dark I started my journey to Burundi. During the day I hid in shrubs and continued in the evenings. It took me two days to reach the border.”
“I ran away to save my life. Other (family) members couldn’t do it. Today I live to tell that tale to everyone,” the 34-year-old recounted.
Disi later joined the Rwanda Patriotic Army (now Rwanda Defence Forces) but did not abandon his passion for athletics. In 2003, he represented Rwanda at the World Military Cross Country Championships where he emerged the winner. The following year he finished second.
Disi went ahead to compete at the Athens in 2004 and Beijing Olympics four years later, and other international championships.
Singing national anthem
In 2005, Disi represented his country in the Francophone Games and took gold in the 10,000 metres and bronze in the 5,000 metres.
When he won the gold medal in the 10,000m at the 2005 Francophone Games, the organisers didn’t have the Rwandan national anthem, so Disi grabbed the microphone and sang it while standing on the podium.
It was his first major title, a feat his family never lived to witness.
Four years after his Francophone Games triumph, he successfully defended his title in Beirut in 2009, winning another gold medal. Disi also competed in the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, but bowed out of the marathon race after 21km. He continues to compete in international half-marathon events.
“Through running, I bring pride to my country and honour the memory of my family and all the innocent Rwandans who died during the Genocide,” he says.