The role of sport in unity and reconciliation after Genocide

Audifax Byiringiro, the vice president of Rwanda Cricket Association, lost his father and two brothers during the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. Courtesy.

Sport has the power to foster peace, unity and national cohesion, and such has been the case for Rwanda in her unity and reconciliation efforts after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

Over one million people were killed in a spell of only 100 days.

Sport did not only help in unity and reconciliation after the Genocide, but it also saved many during the atrocities.

Speaking to this publication in a recent interview, former Rayon Sports goalkeeper Eugene Murangwa, currently based in the United Kingdom, recalled how he and his friends fled to a teammate’s house and survived from there.

“My teammate, Longin Munyurangabo, made sure that I and a number of other people were all looked after by providing protection, food supplies and hope.”

Cricket is one of the sports that were introduced in the country after 1994, and have helped in healing wounds of the Genocide. Courtesy.

He says that his friend went the extra mile to negotiate with Interahamwemilitia when they wanted to attack him and his former teammates. He even paid his own money to save his friends, he said.

As the country commemorates for the 25th time, Saturday Sport looks at how sport has contributed in restoring trust, a key to unity and reconciliation.

“It has not been an easy journey, but unity and reconciliation has worked, and results are there for everyone to see,” says Felix Uwitonze, the Secretary General of Rwanda Rugby Federation.

He says that for rugby, as a highly competitive and contact sport, success is impossible without unity.

This is why every year, the local rugby body organizes the Genocide Memorial Tournament (GMT) to remind not only the local players, but also other invited teams from the region, of what happened in 1994 in Rwanda and exhibit how the country managed to overcome its dark past.

First introduced in Rwanda in 2002, Rugby is one of the several post-genocide sports in the country, and according to Uwitonze, the sport has helped in providing young Rwandans with fresh memories and experiences beyond sorrows and mourning for their lost ones.

“Since 2002, we have promoted – and continue to promote – unity and reconciliation among Rwandans through the sport of rugby. It starts with building trust, friendship and fostering shared experiences on and off the pitch,” said Uwitonze.

The rugby federation official further noted that the sport has also helped survivors to heal trauma and wounds of the genocide, and among those is Tharicisse Kamanda, the federation’s president and former national team player.

Audifax Byiringiro, former Rwanda international cricketer and current vice president of the local cricket governing body, witnessed and survived the Genocide, but his father and two brothers did not. He says that cricket played a major role in his healing.

He joined the sport in 2007, and remembers playing his first match at Kicukiro grounds after years of loneliness and hopelessness.

“I joined cricket under the influence of my friends at school, but I have to admit giving in to that influence changed my life. Before that, I was always and hopeless about the future,” Byiringiro said.

“The magic about sport is; it has a unique ability to unite and inspire inclusivity. With cricket, I was able to feel part of the society, and since then I had never been happier, and my future had never looked brighter.”

The veteran cricketer emphasizes that anyone can now live to their full potential courtesy of the good leadership and the enabling environment and opportunities it has come with.

In any sporting discipline, let it be a football game between Rayon Sports and SC Kiyovu, you easily feel the breeze of peace and unity from fans of both sides.

Rayon has the biggest fan base, while Kiyovu is one of the oldest football clubs in Rwanda. Both teams were greatly devastated by the Genocide, losing tens of players and administrators and, hundreds of thousands of fans across the country.

But today, the sheer celebration when the ball is put behind the net tells it all. Fans from all walks of life come together as one, from the sorrowful past, to support their respective teams.

Claude Habyarimana is a Rayon Sports diehard fan. He says that, “Sport is usually about rivalry and entertainment, but it is also a bridge to peace and unity.”

“Football has succeeded in whipping and reigniting unity and the sense of social cohesion after what befell the country 25 years ago. It would be ideal if more sports programmes were initiated and directed in the area of unity and reconciliation promotion.”

SC Kiyovu fan Jeanette Ngabire noted in a separate interview that that they might be rivals with Rayon on the pitch, but the passion for football – they share – makes them one people.

She says that she wished that spirit transcended not only in Rwanda, but within the whole global community to ensure that peace thrives in societies across the world so that “what happened in Rwanda never happen anywhere again.”

Felicite Rwemalika, the vice president of Rwanda National Olympic and Sports Committee (RNOSC) and executive member of the International Olympic Committee, sees sport as a powerful tool to strengthen social ties and networks, as well as promote the ideals of unity, peace and solidarity, for which, she says, she is an ‘avid advocate’.

Rwemalika says that when youth play together, they unwittingly learn the universal values of respect and fair play.

While he visited Murambi Memorial Center earlier this month, the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA) Zone 5 president, William Blick, was touched by what happened in Rwanda.

“By coming to Rwanda, and visiting memorials, you learn about the Genocide. But most importantly, you learn from the resilience of the Rwandan people.”