One sunny afternoon in Kigali on April 7, a group of angry violent men rush into a house with ready-to-kill faces screaming the name “Murangwa Eric”. Everyone in the house lies down in terror.
One the men keeps calling the name Murangwa until he comes out, terrified, thinking his day of meeting his Maker had finally arrived. A few minutes later, everyone in the room was discussing football and how the previous match was incredibly played.
More than once during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Eric Eugene Murangwa, 45, was saved from near-death situations by football. He was a 19-year-old famous football player when the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi started.
Murangwa started following football early 1980s as a school boy. His passion to play was inherent and a lifelong dream. When he started playing, he says, football was so embedded in Rwandans’ lives that a simple local match would draw thousands of people. Ethnic divisions, before 1992, hardly applied to football.
“Whenever we had a football match, it would feel like a countrywide party. For a moment, people would forget what was going on and enjoy the victory,” Murangwa recounts.
Football was later infiltrated by politicians early 1992. Many of the football club leaders were high ranking officials of MRND, the ruling political party of Rwanda that prepared and perpetrated the genocide.
Murangwa and other Tutsi members of the club started getting assaulted and arrested under false accusations.
In May, 1994, when thousands of Rwandans had been already killed, Murangwa found a haven in the home of Jean-Marie Vianney Mudahinyuka who was the leader of Interahamwe in Nyamirambo, Murangwa’s hometown, during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Mudahinyuka aka Zuzu organised political rallies urging participants to kill Tutsis and also distributed weapons, including machetes and grenades. He conducted a house-to-house search in Nyamirambo, rounded up 62 people who were escorted to the stadium and massacred under his supervision.
Mudahinyuka, a perpetrator, provided a haven for Murangwa for weeks despite him being on Interahamwe’s blacklist, just because he was a fan of Rayon Sports, Murangwa’s football team.
Murangwa lost his younger brother who was only seven years old. Other members of his family survived mostly because of his popularity and fame.
Football did not only save Murangwa from getting killed, but also his playmates from contributing to the killings during the genocide. He says even though some of his Tutsi playmates did not survive, none of them who were Hutu contributed to the killing.
Football was almost distinct since 1990 until a local football match in November 1994. It was the first public event four months after the genocide was stopped in July. The match attracted an estimated of 50,000 people.
Murangwa’s life has been all about football. It saved his life and it was one of the reconciliation strategies after the genocide. Rwanda did not have a national team between 1987 and 1995.
The role of football in uniting Rwandans after a historic nightmare, inspired Murangwa to use football to help young people be better humans. He founded Football for Hope, Peace and Unity Initiative with operations in the United Kingdom and Rwanda in 2011.
Football today is more globalised and monetised, which makes local football lose the touch with communities, Murangwa says.
Not just a game
“Football has a far greater reach than just having fun and making money. It heals, reconciles and brings out the best in people. That is what we do. I want young people today to see football as more than just a game,” he noted.
Murangwa left Rwanda in 1997 when he found out that a former Interahamwe who almost killed him in 1994 made an attack on Rwanda from DR Congo targeting him. (Wikipedia lists it as a Hutu paramilitary organisation active in the DR Congo and Uganda. The Interahamwe was formed around 1990 as the youth wing of the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development [MRND French acronym], the then-ruling party of Rwanda, and enjoyed the backing of the Hutu power government).
“I survived but I was not safe here obviously. I got asylum in the UK and have been based there since,” he says. He is partly based in Kigali for his initiative’s operations.
Rwanda marked the 27th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi on April 7. As a survivor, Murangwa thinks it is high time everyone stood up against increasing cases of genocide denial that has found space in the digital pace.
Educating young people is one of the ways to fight genocide ideology, Murangwa does his part through football.