Former Amavubi captain, Olivier Fils Karekezi, says football has healed the wounds of many Rwandans, who were affected by the 1994 Genocide against Tutsis in which over a million innocent people lost their lives.
In an exclusive interview with Sunday Sport, Karekezi, himself a genocide survivor, said that, “Football is key to help surpass obstacles. It’s the language everyone understands regardless of their tribe or race.”
“It is the spirit of unity, love and peace. Football can unite even the worst of enemies and has been used as reconciliation in broken societies. In fact, if people had the spirit of fair play, the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi wouldn’t have happened,” he added.
On Friday, Rwanda started the 23rd commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis. Sports continue to be one of the key avenues for nurturing peace, unity and reconciliation among Rwandans.
The former Amavubi forward said, “Personally, I have been healed by football; it has given the chance to travel around the world and met people of different backgrounds.”
“Sports has helped the country move from its sad and difficult past. I'm not sure what I was expecting in future after 1994 but through playing football, I have been able to move on and I am no longer living in the past.”
The emotional wounds are still fresh for Karekezi, who says he still gets in his head, pictures of his mother (Adele Kayirangwa) and two elder brothers (Aimable Ryamugema and Eric Gatera) being killed by the interahamwe.
He said, “I will never forget that but I had to move on. It was hard for me, seeing my mother and brothers killed in front of me. Part of what football has taught me is the spirit of fair play and forgiving.”
He added that 23 years after the Genocide, Rwanda has made significant progress in rebuilding herself, but many scars still remain.
“I survived because of playing football because after my family was killed, I was rescued by one coach, who took me to his house. It has clearly not been easy. There have been many problems in my life.”
“Education was a real issue for me and even when I got back in school at APE Rugunga and later Groupe Scolaire de Butare, life was still hard but I am thankful to the RPF senior commanders, who helped me to get back to normal life.”
Karekezi noted that football has made a huge difference into his life, “I've been able to buy what I wanted in life like house, car, going to play abroad, and I can also support families.”
“The legacy of Genocide touches almost every aspect of life for the survivors. In addition to recurring trauma, survivors face multiple difficulties. Many are impoverished and face complex health problems,” the 33-year old explained.
Karekezi, who scored 25 goals from 53 appearances for Rwanda, announced retirement from international football about three years ago.
He was part of the Amavubi team that featured in 2004 Africa Nations Cup finals in Tunisia – the country’s most successful football team to date, and the only time Rwanda has participated in the continental showpiece.
Although he is still deeply affected, Karekezi, who currently lives in Sweden, says he has used football to drag himself through his nightmare.
Rwanda has hosted big football events including the African Nations Championship (CHAN) 2016 – the second biggest continental football tournament, came to Kigali five years after the CAF Under-17 Championships in 2011, which followed in the success of the 2009 Africa Youth Championships.
Karekezi’s career that started in APR junior team in 199-2001, saw him play for Helsingborgs IF in Sweden where he scored five goals in 18 matches during the 2005 season.
In 2006, he scored 11 goals for Helsingborg and thereby became their top scorer in Allsvenskan. In January 2008 he transferred to Hamarkameratene in Norway.
In March 2010, he joined Swedish second division club Östers IF on a two-year deal and he played for Tunisian Ligue Professionnelle 1 club CA Bizertin and Swedish side Trelleborgs.
Karekezi made his international debut for Rwanda in 2000 and After 13 years with the national team; he announced his retirement from international football in August 2013.