Jean-Baptiste Alaize: 'I run to survive. That is my destiny'

When the Paralympian was three he lost his mother, and his right leg, to a machete attack in Burundi’s civil war. He reveals how he outran his trauma and is about to star in a documentary

French Paralympian Jean-Baptiste Alaize has flown in to Paris from Miami, where he’s been living, on a cheap flight that has taken about 22 hours and a couple of stop-offs. The film company behind a new documentary featuring the world champion athlete has explained he may be late – he has a flexible relationship with punctuality, they say – and very tired.

Are they kidding? Alaize turns up within minutes of the arranged time, full of energy and raring to go. He certainly does not need the strong double espresso he orders from the sports centre cafe. Instantly warm, friendly and irrepressible, he is the human manifestation of an overexcited puppy delighted to find himself the centre of attention.

Following a machete attack as a child, Alaize has a prosthetic between the knee and the fluorescent orange trainer on his right foot, but even when he’s in running shorts, it’s not the first thing you notice.

As he chats nineteen to the dozen, his “handicap”, as he calls it, seems almost incidental. The language is important: the organisation estimates there are 6 million disabled people in France; the government says there are twice as many. Those with some form of physical or mental disability are classified as les handicapés – and they can take part in handisportswhile the able-bodied are les valides. But there is a significant lack of infrastructure for those with mobility issues.

“Try getting around Paris in a wheelchair. Impossible!” says Alaize, who insists he is not disabled. “We all have some kind of handicap. Mine is my leg. But for me it’s not a handicap, because I do what I want in my life. If I want to play football, I play football; skating, I go skating; snowboarding… and when I want to jump far, I jump far,” he says. “A handicap is something that stops you from doing what you want… but not me. I’m not handicapped. Everything is OK for me, because I feel good in my head.”

Watch a trailer for Rising Phoenix.

It’s taken 26 years for Alaize to feel this good, but despite his conviction, the reality is slightly more complicated.

Alaize was three years old at the height of the civil war in Burundi, east Africa, when machete-wielding Hutu neighbours attacked his Tutsi family, decapitating his mother in front of him and leaving the small boy for dead with devastating cuts to his neck, back, arm and right leg, which was later amputated below the knee.

A new Netflix documentary, Rising Phoenix, recounts his subsequent Paralympian sporting triumphs: at under-23s, he was four times world champion in the long jump; he won two bronze medals and a silver in the 100m sprint; a bronze in the 200m; and a long jump bronze at the 2018 European championships.

Lawrence Terry, Alaize’s trainer back in Miami, admires the athlete’s work ethic. “I believe in him strongly. He falls, he gets up, he falls, he gets up again… and again,” Terry has said.

Rising Phoenix directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, who wrote, produced and directed the 2018 film McQueen, about fashion designer Alexander McQueen, were similarly impressed with Alaize when looking for Paralympians to take part in the documentary.

“His personal story and survival against all odds left us speechless. He struck us as such a genuine and charismatic presence,” Ettedgui said.

Rising Phoenix tracks the history of the Paralympic Games, from their origins in the dark days following the second world war under Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a German Jew who fled the Nazis, came to Britain and worked at Stoke Mandeville hospital. Alaize stars alongside Paralympians including Jonnie Peacock, a British amputee sprinter who won gold at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics, Bebe Vio, a gold medal fencer, who lost her legs and forearms to meningitis when she was 11, and Ellie Cole, a swimmer and wheelchair basketball player who has one leg.

“We are all superheroes because we have all experienced tragedy, we have all lived through something that should not have allowed us to succeed, and that is our strength. We are trying to save the world,” Alaize says in the film.

Alaize has not always felt as self-assured as he does today. He regrets that nobody is much interested in his story in France, where he is not a household name, in spite of his medals. This is why he prefers Miami, where, he says, there is far less racism and discrimination.

Jean-Baptiste Alaize.
‘If you really want something, you can get it’: Jean-Baptiste Alaize. Photograph: Ed Alcock/The Observer

“They don’t take me seriously in France, and I don’t know why. After all, I’m French and I have done some good things for France in athletics, but nobody seems interested. Nobody has called me to congratulate me over the Netflix film – not even French journalists want to write about it. I can only think it’s jealousy,” he says.

“France portrays itself as a country of liberty, equality and fraternity, but everyone is put in a box: there’s a box for whites, for blacks, for Arabs, for Jews. Where’s the equality in that? It’s 2020 and there’s still a lot of racism in France, but nobody talks about it.”

At his birth, on 10 May 1991 in the hills of Muyinga in north-east Burundi, near the Tanzanian border, Alaize was named Mugisha – meaning blessed and lucky child. He was the youngest of six children in a relatively well-off family – his father was in the military.

On 23 October 1994, Alaize was playing outside with friends and siblings in his village, surrounded by banana plantations, when a group of armed Hutu neighbours arrived with machetes and spears. Earlier that year, a 100-day genocide that pitted Hutus against Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda had left between 800,000 and a million people dead. The conflict spread to Burundi, where it would kill an estimated 300,000 people before it ended in 2005. Unicef estimated 558,000 Burundian children lost at least one parent (and 77,000 lost both).

Alaize was one of those children, but says that before that day in October 1994, the Hutus and Tutsis of Muyinga had lived peacefully together.

“Nobody expected this. If they had, maybe we would have been better prepared, but everything was good between us Tutsis and Hutus. These were people that came to the house to eat every day, even the day before, and who knew my parents well. When we saw they wanted to kill us we were in shock.

“The men arrived in the afternoon. They were making a lot of noise and I remember they had machetes and spears and other arms. We realised they weren’t happy about something, but we were playing and didn’t pay much attention, even when they said they were going to kill everyone that evening.

“Three hours later, at 8pm, they came back. We heard lots of shouting and screaming and saw houses on fire and people everywhere. Suddenly they were doing what they said they’d do, killing everyone.”

Jean Baptiste Alaize (left) as a child.
Jean Baptiste Alaize (left) as a child. Photograph: Facebook/Jean-Baptiste Alaize

Alaize says his mother tried to return to the family home to hide, but was unable to enter because there were so many people around it, and decided to try to run to safety.

“Maman had me in her arms and she was running but we didn’t make it very far; barely 30 metres. Five or six men surrounded us. They stabbed Maman in the stomach. Then, before my eyes, they cut off her head. They deliberately wanted me to see this, but I was little, I didn’t understand, I was crying and screaming. It was horrible.

“I was very close to my mother, as the baby of the family I was with her all the time. I threw myself on her body, not understanding what had happened, and the men turned on me. They cut me with the machete on my arm behind my head, my back and my leg; they kicked me too. Then they left, thinking I was dead.”

It is a scene that Alaize has relived in nightmares and recounted many times, and his eyes well up as he recalls it.

“I threw myself at my mother, but when I saw she had no head I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to hide. I wanted help. There was so much blood. At that moment, I saw this tunnel and the light coming nearer and it was so beautiful, and I felt strangely content. Then I woke up and was in hospital and they had amputated my leg.”

Initially it was uncertain whether Alaize would survive, given the basic resources of a rural African hospital and the fact he was transfused with blood from the wrong group. When Alaize’s father collected him from the hospital, he left him at the local orphanage, promising to come back when he had a prosthetic leg. Every day for three years, Alaize, who believed the rest of his family had been wiped out, waited for his father to return, unaware he had signed official papers putting his son up for adoption. Alaize would never see his father again. When he returned to Burundi in 2013, for the first time since leaving for Europe at the age of six, he met his three surviving sisters, but learned his father had died, taking with him the secret of why he had deserted his only living son.

“For many years I saw it as an abandonment, because I didn’t understand why. Every day I thought I would see my real father, but no. Now, at 29, I think I understand: he couldn’t say he was sending me away for a better life, so he preferred to lie.”

That “better life” was the gift of Robert and Daniele Alaize, a couple from near Montélimar in south-east France, who had already adopted a Hutu survivor of the Rwandan genocide, whom they named Julien, and fostered many other children. Robert, a former soldier, had lost both his legs after a car accident and could empathise with the boy in photos sent by the orphanage.

Alaize remembers the day the man he calls “my father” turned up in Burundi while the civil war was still raging.

“He arrived with a pair of trainers and it was such a strong moment. From three to six years old I didn’t see anyone in my family. My real father had abandoned me and I’d lost all sense of love. I didn’t think it was possible to find a person who would love me. My father said: ‘You will go to France and we’ll get you a new leg.’ I didn’t even know where France was, and I didn’t understand, as I didn’t speak French.

Alaize at the European Championships in Berlin, 2018.
Alaize at the European Athletics Championships in Berlin, 2018. Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy

“Every evening there was shooting outside near the orphanage, and we were both afraid. He took a great risk for me. He was ready to do anything for me, but at first I was afraid of him, because I had never seen a white person before. We have fairytales like you, except in yours the blacks are the cannibals and in ours the white people eat the black children. He was not just a foreigner, he was an extraterrestrial.

“I could never have imagined someone like him, so full of love, so full of opportunities, would come to look for me, but he did.”

Robert took Mugisha back to the Alaize family home in Bonlieu-sur-Roubion, a village of fewer than 470 inhabitants, where he was renamed Jean-Baptiste.

“I was not a normal child. I was traumatised from the war, I had had no mother’s love, I didn’t always behave well. But my parents gave me everything I had lost: love and self-confidence.

“I was still having nightmares. Each time I closed my eyes, I had a flashback and saw the killing of my real mother and the attack on me. For years I would try to sleep, but it was impossible, I couldn’t get over it.

“My mother, who was a nurse, gave up her job to help me. She would stay up all the night at my bedside.

“In the village there were just two of us, my brother and me, who were black. It was difficult… when something bad happened, locals would say: ‘Oh, it’s those little blacks from the Alaize family.’ In secondary school I was called a negro, bamboula [a primitive drum], or worse, a dirty cripple or a monkey.

“For a long time I hid my handicap, because I don’t want to add to my problems. But I had to adapt, and I did so by showing people I was normal. I couldn’t do anything about my colour, but I could be good at sport.”

Alaize celebrates after winning bronze in the men’s long jump at the IPC World ParaAthletics Championships 2017, with gold medalist Markus Rehm of Germany and silver medalist Ronald Hertog of the Netherlands.
Alaize celebrates after winning bronze in the men’s long jump at the IPC World ParaAthletics Championships 2017, with gold medalist Markus Rehm of Germany and silver medalist Ronald Hertog of the Netherlands. Photograph: Moto Yoshimura/Getty Images

It was during a school sports day that Alaize discovered his real talent.

“I was in our class relay team and they asked me to be the last runner. It was such a responsibility. We were last, but I ran like an arrow, caught up everyone, and we won. Nobody knew I had a prosthetic, and I had beaten people who were normal. I was so happy,” he says.

Away from his classmates, Alaize showed his sports teacher his missing leg, hoping he would keep the secret. Instead, the teacher told the whole class.

“He said: ‘Look, he has a handicap, he has only one leg and voila! He still won you the race. You should respect him; he is black and handicapped, don’t judge him or push him to one side.’

“I’d wanted him to be discreet, but actually it was a strong message and as if a barrier had been opened. Suddenly my classmates knew I was different, but despite that difference I could run fast, I was good at heart and I could be like everyone else.”

On the advice of the same PE teacher, who saw a future champion in Alaize, the boy joined a local athletics club and was soon winning against able-bodied runners. Alaize uses the French word valides for his non-disabled rivals.

“I was around 13 or 14 and still having nightmares, but after the first training session I felt so good. When I tried to sleep that night I felt a sense of peace. I had never slept so quickly since the crime. I had found the one thing that would change everything.”

When Alaize started to win races against valides with a standard walking prosthetic, it was time to get a running blade, like his then hero, South African double below-knee amputee and Paralympian sprinter Oscar Pistorius (the first amputee to win a world championship medal in non-disabled athletic events, and who was later convicted and jailed for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in 2013).

“My prosthetic specialist brought out a blade costing €15,000. I said: ‘Can I just try it? It’s not like I’m going to have a career as a world champion or anything like that, but I’d like to just try it on like a pair of shoes,’” he says, laughing.

Anxious to help their son fulfil his dream, the Alaizes organised fundraising and persuaded their local authority to contribute. Shortly afterwards, Jean-Baptiste was invited by the national sports federation to take part in the world championships in Dublin.

“I loved it. It was the first time I had seen so many handicapped athletes competing against each other. I loved the fact we were all in the same races, and I came home with three silver medals.”

More medals followed, and Alaize was admitted to Insep, France’s National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance in Paris, where he trained for the 2016 Rio Paralympics, where he came fifth in the long jump.

He says the Tokyo Paralympics – postponed because of Covid-19 until at least 2021, and possibly 2022 – represent his long-awaited opportunity to go for gold, though he will settle for silver or bronze if he feels he has done his best.

“What I am missing is an Olympic medal. Tokyo was my dream, probably my last chance because of my age. I had everything planned… it’s almost my dream that’s been crushed.”

Taking a selfie with the crowd after winning bronze in the the men’s long jump at the PC World ParaAthletics Championships.
Taking a selfie with the crowd after winning bronze in the the men’s long jump at the IPC World ParaAthletics Championships, 2017. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

With his Paralympic hopes on hold, Alaize has no idea what the future offers, but he has an innate optimism that something will turn up. He wants to write a book, make a film – a biopic was to be made, but failed to secure financial backing – become a personal trainer, and he’s been offered acting lessons to star in a one-man theatre show. Above all, he wants to stay in Miami.

“Tomorrow is a new day. That’s my philosophy. I just want to try to be the best I can as a person and in sport. I’ll seize any opportunity.”

Alaize says he has no hatred for those who killed his mother and no enduring resentment towards Hutus. “My brother [Julien] is a Hutu and he also suffered in a different way,” he says.

It was the love of his adoptive parents and his love of sport that saved him, he says again, a fact brought home when a friend who worked with young offenders persuaded him to speak to a group of prisoners at Carcassonne prison in the south of France.

“These were tough guys, people who had killed their wives or children. I know it’s difficult to change people for the better, but I tried, and they said I was an inspiration. I hate to say it, but after what happened to me, I could have detested the world, I could have been bad or violent, killed people, been a big gangster, but the love and guidance my family gave me allowed me to choose the path of freedom.”

In 2016 he became a “Champion for Peace”, one of a group of 100 elite athletes under the patronage of Prince Albert of Monaco, who encourage sport as a tool for dialogue and social cohesion.

It has been two hours since we met, and Alaize’s strong coffee has gone cold. He still shows no sign of jet lag, leaping up to greet other disabled athletes and former friends at Insep, where he trained for seven years. When not running and jumping, he loves just hanging out with friends and family.

“I run to escape the people who wanted to kill me. All my life I have the impression I am a target, but it doesn’t stop me. I never give up. When I fall, I get up; if I fall again, I get up again, and that is my strength,” he says. “That’s the message I wish for everyone to know; that if you really want something you can get it. Me, I run for my life. I run to survive. That is my destiny. My story is sad, but it has a happy ending.”

Rising Phoenix is on Netflix from 26 August


Kim Willsher

The GuardianTramp

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