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Abused Champion: “How My Cycling Dream Was Shattered”

Bertin Mukarukundo was born in 1998 in remote hills of Nyamiyaga sector in Gicumbi district.

She has four siblings.

This energetic and joyful lady is not shy and looks you straight in the eyes when engaging her in any conversation.

She is basically optimistic about her future. Taarifa caught up with her recently for an exclusive chat.

For both Primary and Secondary education, Mukarukundo studied in schools at Nyamiyaga sector part of 21 sectors that make up this steep-hills district in the Northern Province.

She was in form two in college when she saw a poster pinned at the Sector public notice board calling upon girls to join cycling.

Like many youngsters in this district, she had learnt how to ride a bicycle and this pushed her into deciding to join.

“Around April 2016, I and other girls assembled at Nyamiyaga sector for screening. A competition was organised, we had to ride local bicycles and I emerged the best. Three of us were selected,” she remembers, adding that the competition was very tough.

She told Taarifa that the top three of them were later transferred to Kigali where they would found a new cycling team named Inyemera.

“We were accommodated in a residential house in Remera and its where more other girls joined us, selected from other districts,” Mukarukundo said adding that she was very excited about the new life of being trained into a professional cyclist.

However, as days flipped by, Mukarukundo noticed there was something wrong with the accommodation arrangement.

In the house, there was a male team coach, Straton Nzabazumutima, and another male, a moto-taxi operator not connected to cycling.

The girls started undergoing very tough training sessions, but this time with sports bikes.

They would be granted a one week leave to visit their families and recuperate.

Mukarukundo would travel back to Gicumbi and link up again with her friends and family.

Umurenge Kagame Cup 2019: Bertine Mukarukundo gets cash prize and bicycle after emerging winner using 55 minutes.

Everything seemed to be going on well and the girls were quickly gaining excellent cycling skills and adapting to new life in Kigali that is very different from upcountry settings. “But Team Coach Nzabazumutima started making indecent jokes about me, for example telling other girls in the house that he was attracted to me,” Mukarukundo said.

“One day we had gone back to our respective homes for a week-long leave but Nzabazumutima called me back days before the end of the leave. He told me to report urgently and immediately. I boarded a bus back to Kigali,” she explains.

While back at the Remera based house, Nzabazumutima had a one-on-one chat with Mukarukundo and poured out his heart saying he could not hold back his feelings for her.

“I was very surprised and always thought he was joking. I told him that it was not possible to engage in intimate affairs with him,” Mukarukundo narrates, taking short breaks as though being swayed away by deep anger and pain. She then recollects and speaks up again.

“Why am I telling you all this,” Mukarukundo interjects during the conversation, “OK let me tell you everything. After Nzabazumutima told me all that, he started touching me and it was a very long fight. He pulled me to his bedroom and forced me into sex.”

At this point of our conversation, tears rolled down her cheeks as she extended her hand to wipe them off.

Mukarukundo told Taarifa that after the incidence, Nzabazumutima promised he would get her into cycling competitions out of the country including other things like buying her a new bicycle.

“I felt so disappointed and scared. I feared to tell my teammates when they returned to the house a day after, but I continued to do all training and competitions. I was best performer in my team,” she says.

“After three months it’s when I realised that I was not getting into monthly menstruation cycle. I realised I was pregnant but continued cycling and training harder without anybody knowing my situation,” says Mukarukundo.

However, Mukarukundo could not manage to tame nature with a six-month pregnancy; “I decided to meet Munyenkaka Ancile, the team patron. I opened up to her about what happened to me and informed her I was going back home to my village in Gicumbi.”

In her narration, Mukarukundo remembers that after she opened up, Munyenkaka called for an urgent meeting the following day and the matter was discussed.

“It is from that meeting that the team coach Nzabazumutima admitted what he had done to me and put everything in writing.”

“I agree to take full responsibility and I’m ready to provide all necessary support to that girl that got pregnant from my house,” Nzabazumutima said in part of the letter signed February 20, 2017.

This is an authentic letter handwritten by the coach which Taarifa has obtained from a trusted source.

Immediately, Mukarukundo was handed the letter and travelled to her village in Nyamiyaga sector.

While at home, Nzabazumutima called Mukarukundo’s mother and pleaded with her never to report to police or any authorities.

“He sent my mother Rwf10,000 via mobile money transfer,” she says.

On April 14, 2017, she gave birth to a baby girl at Byumba Hospital.

“My baby was very well at birth, I started breast feeding her then later doctors took her away from me saying she was crying a lot. I would go to where she was and feed her. However, two days later the doctors came to me and told me the baby had died,” Mukarukundo recounts with excruciating pain.

Mukarukundo’s mother was also at the hospital. She helped taking her daughter and body of granddaughter back home.

“When I gave birth, I informed our cycling team management and when my baby died, I also informed them but there was no form of support or help. I was just ignored and buried my baby.”

According to Mukarukundo, she doesn’t understand why doctors at the hospital did not give any document showing what caused the death of the baby.

“The death of my baby was mysterious and the hospital did not provide a postmortem and never provided any letter explaining the cause of death,” she adds.

Meanwhile, since she left Kigali, her coach has never met or talked to her. “Even after knowing about the death of the baby, Straton has never talked to me nor bothered to find out how I am surviving. This is how my dream was shuttered.”

During Taarifa’s deep investigation into Rwanda Cycling Federation (Ferwacy), it was discovered that Richard Mutabazi, a Deputy Director of Africa Rising Cycling Centre, on May 16, 2017, wrote to the Federation’s top management, bringing to their attention the matter.

“One of the coaches, Straton misbehaved vis-à-vis our girl riders…we have developed a policy that will protect athletes from any sort of sexual abuse at the same time protecting the coaches and staff from being wrongly indicted for such an improper conduct..,” reads part of the communique.

This is an email that was sent to management with an attachment of minutes upon which the Federation’s leadership was supposed to act against the accused coach. Taarifa was able to confirm it’s authenticity.

However, this proposed policy was never designed nor implemented.

What Taarifa saw was a proposed athletes’ protection policy from other agencies without any relationship with Rwanda.

“The federation and my cycling team ignored me when I went through all this challenge caused by my own coach. I informed my Patron Munyenkaka about all my challenges but she ignored me. After all these challenges, I managed to meet Munyenkaka but she insulted me so much,” Mukarukundo says when she recently returned to Kigali.

Mukarukundo told Taarifa that team coach Nzabazumutima was later arrested and detained, but was released two weeks after. The federation President  Aimable Bayingana instead rewarded Nzabazumitima by appointing him as coach to another cycling club instead of being fired and banned from cycling.

Caption: Bertin Mukarukundo rides during criterium of Rubavu on 6 August 2016 (photo by FERWACY Flickr)

“I don’t know why everything has been happening mysteriously and unfair to me. I thought I would get justice but I have failed. I want my dignity back and be able to return to sport.”

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