AFTER surviving the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, former Rayon Sports goalkeeper Eric Eugene Murangwa established Football for Hope, Peace and Unity, an organisation that promotes tolerance, unity and reconciliation among the youth.
“Football saved my life. It transcended ethnic differences and ultimately gave me hope for the future,” Murangwa reveals the motivation behind the venture.
The organisation is based in England with a branch in Kigali. He says the organisation uses football as a
tool to promote tolerance, unity and reconciliation among Rwandan youth in order to prevent tragedies like the 1994 Genocide from reoccurring.
“We believe that Football moves the world. That is why we are determined to make it the cornerstone of peace-building among the youth,” said Murangwa.
Football for Hope, Peace and Unity works in collaboration with former and current Rwandan footballers.
“We want them to have an important role in our programmes in order to encourage and motivate the youth. Not only will they impart their knowledge of football, they will also pass on their life experiences to the children.”
He says these “champions” will have the opportunity to be positive role models for the new generation struggling to find their way in the aftermath of the tragedy of 1994.
Murangwa was born in Rwamagana in 1975. He is the eldest in a family of six children.
His family operated a bar and restaurant in a town. For decades the ruling Hutu led government encouraged persecution and discrimination of the Tutsi.
Saved by photos
According to Murangwa, by 1982, the police harassment had become too much and his family was forced to close shop and move to Kigali. It was in Kigali, during Murangwa’s formative years that he developed a passion for football.
His talent was quickly noticed and Toto, as he became to be known, grew to become one of Rayon Sports’ best loved players.
On April 6, 1994 when the Genocide against the Tutsi began following the shooting of the plane carrying former president Juvenal Habyarimana, Murangwa was watching a football match at a bar.
That day would be the last time he would see many of his friends, colleagues and family members, including his seven-year-old younger brother Jean Paul Irankunda.
The 100-day genocide left over a million people dead.
Murangwa was woken in the early hours of April 7 to the din of a city embroiled in fighting. Radio broadcasts demanded people stay in their homes while soldiers broke into houses to find those they deemed ‘responsible’.
His home was soon swamped by five armed men searching for weapons supposedly hidden on the premises.
Refusing to believe his explanation that he was a player for Rayon Sports, they threatened to take his life unless he could prove it.
Murangwa pulled out an old photo album which contained photos of him in Rayon colours. That saved him and those he was with.
Deciding he was no longer safe at home, he fled to his Hutu teammate’s house. While players at many other football clubs throughout Rwanda, according to Murangwa, were killing each other, those at Rayon Sports remained united throughout the genocide.
After hiding at the friend’s place for a week or so, Murangwa had to move on after being told by his teammate that the killers were coming for him. He needed a new place to hide and, after discussions with his colleagues, it was decided they would try one of the board members of the club.
The move was risky and audacious, for the board member was Jean-Marie Vianney Mudahinyuka, otherwise known as Zuzu, a notorious leader of the Interahamwe militia – a man subsequently imprisoned for his role in the genocide.
Zuzu, a person who tortured, raped and murdered many Tutsis, became Murangwa’s saviour not once, but twice. Why? Because of Zuzu’s love for Rayon Sports.
Zuzu took Murangwa in but his neighbours were uncomfortable with the presence of a Tutsi in their midst. He was forced to return to his old teammates’ house after just a few days. He was unable to rest long. A trio of militia tracked him down, demanding he comes with them.
His refusal was met by violence, with one of the militia hitting him on the head with a sharp object.
“After stealing all my money, the men were ready to take me with them but my teammate’s cousin, who was a government soldier, intervened,” said Murangwa, now based in the UK.
Feeling his luck was about to expire and with a dwindling number of people ready to shield him, Murangwa knew he had to find somewhere more secure.
He returned to Zuzu who promised to take him to the Red Cross offices across town.
Escorted in Zuzu’s vehicle, with two armed guards brandishing their rifles out of the open windows, Murangwa was safely taken through the road blocks and left outside the gates of the compound to fend for himself.
The facility’s director claimed that he could not admit Murangwa for the sake of the safety and security of those already inside.
Murangwa spent the next few nights sleeping outdoors.
The arrival of a young couple and their baby at the gates of the Red Cross HQ increased the pressure on the facility’s director and, while he would not grant them admission, he helped organise transportation for the family, as well as Murangwa to the confines of Hotel des Mille Collines where more than 1,200 took refuge during the genocide.
He remained there for over a month, reunited with close friends and a board member from Rayon Sports, before being evacuated to an internally displaced people’s camp outside the city.
Murangwa discovered that, although he lost 35 relatives in total, most of his immediate family had survived. After carrying out two months of humanitarian work in the south of Rwanda, Murangwa returned to Kigali.
Lurking across the country were bands of Hutu militia unwavering in their desire to complete their mission to wipe out the Tutsi population.
He discovered his name was on a list of targets of one of these groups. An opportunity to escape presented itself when the Rwanda football team played in Tunisia. Instead of returning on the flight home, Murangwa stayed behind. Later he migrated to Belgium and then finally to the UK in 1997.
The move meant he had to sacrifice his greatest love – his football career. Yet, his passion and gratitude for the sport has remained steadfast.