Patrice Dougan

Patrice Dougan is a NZME. News Service reporter based in Auckland.

Athlete feels sympathy for driver who hurt her

With her dreams of competing in the Commonwealth Games destroyed in a reckless car smash, promising young athlete Riandri De Bruyn has had to dig deep to forgive the driver.

Hurdler Riandri De Bruyn, 17, was injured in a car driven by Daniil Buzmakov in November last year. He's had a hard life, she says, and forgiving him has helped her recovery. Photo / Janna Dixon
Hurdler Riandri De Bruyn, 17, was injured in a car driven by Daniil Buzmakov in November last year. He's had a hard life, she says, and forgiving him has helped her recovery. Photo / Janna Dixon

Riandri De Bruyn will never forget the night of the crash. She and her friends were at a party in Auckland's Glen Innes, at the home of a friend of Riandri's older brother, Chris.

It was just after 2am on November 6 last year when the 17-year-old and five mates piled into a Nissan Maxima heading for a meal at McDonald's. Daniil Buzmakov, who had been drinking at the party, was at the wheel. He sped off into the dark, wet night with the car tyres spinning. Someone asked him to slow down but Buzmakov, 19, took no notice.

"We kept saying to him, 'Please just slow down', but it was too late," Riandri recalls.

Buzmakov skidded on the rain-soaked road and crashed into a tree, injuring all five passengers, four seriously.

Riandri, sitting in the front passenger side where the car hit the tree, was hurled forward.

"I just remember going forward, and hitting my head on the window, and my arm just being complete jelly."

In that moment, the champion hurdler's dreams of being selected for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games were over. In a panic, she leaned forward in the dark wreckage to touch her legs to make sure she could move them.

"I was so worried about my legs, I was just like, 'I can't be paralysed, no'."

But then she realised there was something wrong with her left arm, which was twisted backwards.

Nine months later her injuries are healing and, equally important to Riandri and her family, so is her spirit.

Now she sees it as "just another hurdle". She credits her dean at Glendowie College for pointing her in the right direction.

"My dean was telling me, 'Your passion was hurdles. You should see an obstacle [in life] as a hurdle. You've got to jump over it'."

It's a remarkable attitude for a young woman who bears the scars of someone else's actions, who almost lost her arm, and lost out on seeing if she could have reached the world athletics stage.

Even more remarkable is that she has forgiven the young man who could have killed her.

The road to forgiveness hasn't been easy and she admits to not wanting to see Buzmakov in the months since the crash, even avoiding looking at the tree where it happened, not far from where she lives.

It still bears the mark of the crash, she says, having finally plucked up the courage to keep her eyes on it as she passed in a car recently.

"The bark was missing from the bottom and I was staring at it for quite some time, just picturing it in my head, the crash, everyone going forward," she says.

"That's what mostly happens in my dreams. I just wake up when the crash happens, seeing everyone going forward, like in that ad. It's horrible."

Riandri suffered a dislocated elbow, an almost torn artery, and damage to her spine.

"The artery was stretched from the dislocation," she says. At one stage doctors thought she might lose her arm.

"There was no blood flow to my hand, my fingers were starting to peel because there was no blood coming to them, and I couldn't move them.

"[My hand] was really cold. I was really scared, I couldn't move it."

Surgeons removed a vein from Riandri's right thigh to replace the artery in her arm, leaving her with two large scars. She still cannot fully straighten her arm, which hasn't yet regained its former strength and has lost a lot of feeling.

Her doctors are considering more surgery to remove scar tissue around her elbow, which they believe is hindering her ability to straighten her arm.

Two other teenage girls in the car suffered pelvic injuries. One is facing long-term complications, which may affect a future pregnancy. Another teenage boy in the car hurt his shoulder and suffered a concussion.

Riandri spent two weeks in hospital coupled with a longer recovery at home. When she first got home, she "couldn't even walk to the bathroom", she says. But three months later she was back on the track.

"It was really upsetting because when I went back I thought that it would be fine, [but] nothing was the same. I couldn't really do much," she says.

"I used to be able to do 25 push-ups, and I could only do one, and it was really hard."

Now she smiles as she says she can do five push-ups. "And I can do pull-ups."

But it wasn't good enough, causing her to pull out of training when she realised she wasn't performing to her best.

She competed at national level earlier this year, but "I wasn't up there where I was [before the crash]".

Although she was "amazingly happy" that she was able to compete and reach the finals in two relay races and the 300m hurdles, Riandri admits to being "so depressed" that she wasn't at her previous competition level.

"I saw my race, and my time [before the crash] was better than the person who came first," she says.

After that she decided to take a break from competition, preferring to focus on her studies.

"When I left [my coaches] were upset because they saw potential in the Commonwealth Games and maybe even the Olympics," she says.

She left school six months early and started on a pre-university course, a level-four certificate in health care, which she can use to go into medicine. "I really want to go into the Navy and become a medic because you travel around helping people who really need it and you're there in critical situations."

She believes the crash may have inspired her to opt for a medical career, having previously "hated biology with all my heart".

Riandri credits her parents for her recovery and positive attitude. Her mother, Andri, who works in banking, slept at the hospital "holding my hand the whole time", and dad Michiel, an investment adviser, gave up a new job to be with his daughter after the crash. The close-knit family have encouraged her to forgive Buzmakov.

"It took me a while to forgive him, but I forgave him," she says. "I told him, 'no hard feelings as long as you know what you did'."

She believes that "even though he doesn't have a scar to look at, he still has that on his conscience - that he was responsible for changing each and everyone's lives in that car".

Buzmakov was convicted of reckless driving causing injury in Auckland District Court earlier this month, and now risks being deported to Russia, which has compulsory conscription. Buzmakov is worried he will be forced to served in Ukraine. The Russian national moved to New Zealand with his parents when he was 6 years old.

Now Riandri says she feels sorry for him.

"I was really upset because everyone was hating on Dan, they wanted him to have the worst possible outcome, but he's had a hard life.

"His parents left him here when he was 15, and he had to live by himself, his mum in Australia and his dad in Russia. He didn't really have anyone in New Zealand, so he had absolutely no support when the accident happened.

"I always have a family around me that cares about me and loves me. It was hard knowing he doesn't have anyone to support him, telling him, 'It's going to be all right. You made a mistake but these are going to be the consequences'."

The accident forced Riandri to become wise beyond her years. "Everyone makes mistakes, this was just a big mistake," she says. "You can't really hold something against someone forever or else you'll never be in peace with yourself and you'll never forgive yourself.

"I'm just thankful I'm alive, thankful that everyone else is alive, and we can learn from our mistakes. We're all better now and, hopefully, he won't do that again."

For her father, Michiel, seeing his daughter in hospital was the defining moment on the path to forgiveness. "I was really angry driving to the hospital. My anger went away the moment I realised how bad it could be. When we got into the hospital Riandri was still under sedation and the first couple of things she said were things that she used to say when she was 3 or 4 years old, and that has a way of taking you back to reality very quickly. She could have passed away, things could have turned out terribly."

That same day Buzmakov asked to see the De Bruyns. "He said he was sorry, and we made the conscious decision there already [to forgive]."

Holding on to anger and bitterness "doesn't help you", Michiel says, but "it has not been easy".

"It [forgiveness] is not a once-off thing, as I've learned. It's a thing that you have to practise every day because if you don't constantly work on that forgiveness it [anger] comes back.

"So I wouldn't say that we could ever be at a point where we will be completely healed, because you have to constantly work on it, but I think it's a good decision and it was good for her [Riandri]."

The De Bruyn family have had a string of near misses. In the nine months since her crash, Riandri has almost been in two more. She came across a fatal car crash on the way back from holiday, helping to rescue the injured children, and was left bruised after being scraped by a car during a police chase in Auckland city.

The more you talk to the family, the more stories emerge of narrow escapes - her brother impaled on a tree branch which just missed his heart, her father nearly drowning in a rip current.

The De Bruyns are a close-knit family. Riandri and her father hold hands every now and again as they tell their stories, and she speaks often of the support she has received from her family. She says she would "not be able to live without my Mum" - not a common admission among teenage girls. She's even comfortable with her scar.

"There's a story behind it. I can tell someone and that could change their life, change their decisions, make them think twice about things."

Surviving the crash has made Riandri "smarter and more prepared" for life, she says, as well as more self-confident.

"I'm just really happy I'm here. I'm really looking forward to the future. I can go anywhere right now."

It was all my fault, says teen

The five young people injured in the car crash that almost cost Riandri De Bruyn her arm have forgiven the driver. Russian teen Daniil Buzmakov was 18 at the time of the smash and describes it as "something that's always going to be on my heart".

In court, Judge Claire Ryan described one of the boys injured that night as "still extremely angry". However, Buzmakov says he made his peace with his friend after bumping into him on the street where he apologised and they hugged.

He regrets what happened "immensely", he says, wishing he could "turn back time and make it never happen".

"I feel I got off very lightly. The fact that so many people suffered injuries and I suffered none. I felt because it was my fault I should have gotten the biggest injury."

Buzmakov says he would never have forgiven himself if someone had died.

Buzmakov was convicted of reckless driving causing injury. His lawyer pushed for a discharge without conviction at his sentencing in Auckland District Court this month on the grounds that if convicted he could be deported back to Russia, which has compulsory military conscription.

Having moved to New Zealand when he was 6, he still does not know if he will be able to stay in the country once his sentence is complete.

Judge Ryan sentenced him to three months' community detention and 90 hours' community work, and disqualified him from driving for 12 months.

She described him as "a young man with great promise". However, his actions that night were "highly reckless, stupid and selfish".

Buzmakov agrees. "I believe the accident was more because of showmanship and inexperience of driving [instead of alcohol], especially on such a wet road and at such speeds. And I take full responsibility ... it was entirely my fault."

He is working with the Huia Park rangers in Waitakere Forest, and living under a curfew with an electronic ankle bracelet. He also completed an alcohol counselling course.

In her victim-impact statement Riandri said she believed that although Buzmakov did not have physical scars, he would bear emotional scars. "She was quite spot on," he says.

Blame's weight eases

Forgiving someone can help your mental and physical health, according to research into the power of forgiveness.

Forgiveness at a psychological level releases people from the anger, bitterness and resentment that is characteristic of unforgiveness, says Dr Myron Friesen, senior lecturer at the School of Educational Studies at the University of Canterbury, who has researched forgiveness.

Many people find making a decision to forgive gives them a sense of relief, like a "weight being lifted", he says.

However, others find it difficult to separate forgiveness from the idea of reconciliation with the perpetrator.

Forgiveness is not necessarily for the benefit of the perpetrator, he says, but for the victim. "So by forgiving someone, I'm not necessarily letting them off the hook. Justice will still have to carry its course."

Forgiveness "is very much a process", he says, and everybody's journey to get there is different.

"There are some common elements of most people's forgiveness journey, and number one is making that decision, another is being honest and addressing the pain," he says.

"Another one is recognising that we all need forgiveness, we all make mistakes, and that a sense of empathy, even with somebody who's done something horrific, is quite a powerful element in many people's journey."

- Herald on Sunday

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