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Podcast / December 08 2022

Soccer opens path to reconciliation

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Eric Murangwa Eugene was a 19-year-old goalkeeper for Rwanda’s most beloved soccer (football) team in 1994, when the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda began. On the first day of the genocide, soldiers came to Eric’s house, looking for enemies of the state. But one of the soldiers saw Eric’s album filled with photos of his time with the team, and he was spared. Eric spent much of the genocide in hiding, helped by his teammates and supporters of his soccer club, many of them Hutus. Today, Eric is the founder of an organization called Football for Hope, Peace and Unity. It uses soccer as a tool to promote tolerance, unity and reconciliation among Rwandan youth in order to prevent tragedies like the 1994 genocide from ever happening again.

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I traveled to Rwanda with Kids Play International. When you land there, the first thing you do is you visit the memorial museum, and you have the opportunity to learn on the ground about the genocide. And I think that the effort in constantly talking about what happened is to make sure that it never happens again. We visited the country to do really humanitarian work around sport. And we had, you know, an Olympic Day where I taught kids how to fence. You had a few football players who did some, like, run drills or something with the kids in football. And it really, I think, helps put life in perspective. These are children whose—you know, they’re the generation after the genocide. And there’s a lot of—of pain, I think, that still exists there. But at the same time, there’s a lot of hope. 


From Doha Debates and Foreign Policy, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.



And I’m executive producer Karen Given. Today, we’re going to meet Eric Murangwa Eugène. He’s a survivor of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda. And he was on the football field as keeper for the first-ever public gathering after the genocide, a football game between Rayon Sport—that’s Eric’s team—and their main rivals. Eric is also the founder of the Ishami Foundation, an organization that uses sports and storytelling to tell people about the genocide.



Ishami is a Kinyarwanda word meaning “a tree branch.” A tree branch, it’s something that represent connection, it’s something that represent life. Having gone through what we went through 28 years ago, the branch that was Rwanda pretty much lost its—its life, lost its meaning. But thankfully it has recovered. We’ve lost everything during the genocide, but we have managed to learn how to live again.


KAREN: So, Eric, I want to take you back to before 1994, before the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis began. You were 18 years old playing football for Rayon Sport, one of the top teams in the country. As a Tutsi, what was that like for you?


ERIC: Well, the way to describe my life before the genocide, it’s a long story. It’s something that may require days to be able to explain properly. But let me begin with what my family was like before ’94. I was born in a family of six as the first born. Professional dad who was an accountant working for an important organization. Life was pretty good, at least in my first eight to 10 years old or so. But then my dad lost his job due to the government, of that time, policies. They had decided that they had to use what they used to call [SPEAKS IN KINYARWANDA], which is a quota system. Tutsi people are to be discriminated, you know, in the workplace. We had less chance of having access to those, you know, rights that every other citizens of the country should have.


KAREN: In search of jobs and a better life, Eric’s father moved the family to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city.


ERIC: And that’s when I started, you know, getting closer to the club that I had supported from the young age: Rayon Sport Football Club. From the moment I started joining the club—as just a young boy of 10, 11 years old—the club took me in.


KAREN: Eric started hanging out at the club, watching as the team trained. Sometimes the players would ask him to chase down balls or run and fetch cleats for someone who showed up late. But they didn’t know his name, so they called him “Toto.”


ERIC: “Toto.” It’s a Swahili word meaning, “the young one” or “the young boy.” I was the only young boy around, and that’s how I was given the name of Toto. And then the name grew and stuck. Even to this day, there are some people who still calls me Toto.


KAREN: When Eric got older, he joined his idols on the pitch as the goalkeeper for Rayon Sport.


ERIC: Football became a very important part of my life. I quickly realized that I had talent to be a football player. It also allowed me to develop a very strong relationship with its fans. I used to travel with the club way before we started—I started playing for it. During those trips, particularly in the north part of the country, we always come across issues of discrimination, sometimes serious incident where we’ll be beaten up by the local police and the local club’s fans. And that didn’t stop when I was—started playing for the club. I stopped traveling with my club to some parts of the country, particularly in the north, because I feared my life would be in danger. That was—that was how things were.


KAREN: The genocide against the Tutsis began on April 6th, 1994. What did you hear and what did you see?


ERIC: I was watching football—football game at a bar, and the football game ended around, I think, 10:30 p.m. Kigali time. When I left that place, I came across a group of people who were gathered in front of that hotel. Then when I approached, I heard someone describing what he had heard and what he had seen, and he was saying that he heard a big bang, and he also saw a ball of fire in the air. It didn’t bother me that much, because at the time it wasn’t unusual to hear, you know, blasts of grenades, or some—some gun shootings taking place here or there. So I left and went to bed. But then I was woken up a few hours later by big explosion sounds of bombs and continuous gunshots, which were different from what I used to hear before. A few minutes later, that’s when I discovered what had happened a few hours earlier.



On April 6th, 1994, the plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu, was shot down just before it was due to land in Kigali…



Everybody on board was killed. Rwandan Hutus blamed ethnic Tutsis for the attack and seeked immediate revenge.



Local officials and the Hutu-led government encouraged people to take up arms and kill their neighbors…



Triggering a 100-day killing spree, targeting mainly members of the Tutsi ethnic minority, but also moderate Hutus.


ERIC: There was a battalion of soldiers in a big group that was camping at the nearby mountain, and so they descended from that mountain and came to the neighborhood, apparently looking for enemies of state, which meant Tutsis and also people who were known to be Tutsi sympathizers. So, yeah, they came to our house, throwing things up and down, accusing us to be accomplices of those who they were accusing to had a hand in the killing of the president. But then something happened during, you know, that chaotic 20 or so minutes in the house. One of the things that they threw around, it happened to be a photo album that was full of my photos for the football club. When it landed down on the floor right in front of a soldier who was standing by me, it took his attention. So he then picked up the album, looked at the photos closely, and then he turned towards me and he asked me, “Are you Toto?” And I said, “Yes, yes, I am.” “Are you—are you seriously Toto?” I said, “Yes, I am.” I could see—I could see in his—in his face, that the face expression completely changed. He didn’t look as horrible, as an angry man, as he was a second before. And then he basically asked me to get up, because at the time I had been instructed to lie down on the floor. He sat me on the sofa. And for the next 10 or so minutes, we just talked about football.


KAREN: Did that make you any less scared, or were you still afraid?


ERIC: Well, you know what? When you’re—when you’re in a situation like that, sometimes you’re no longer capable of understanding your, your feelings. I can’t even remember exactly what my feelings were at the time.


KAREN: Eric and his housemate were safe, thanks to those photos, but not everyone in the house was so lucky.


ERIC: Young man, who was around 16 or 17 years old, who was working for myself and my housemate—they asked him to present his identity card. I think back then you needed to be 16 years old to have an ID card. And by the time he came to Kigali looking for work, he didn’t have one. We could not really say more about the young man. They asked us, how do we know the young man? We told him, you know, he came looking for a job. So they said, you know—they don’t believe what he’s saying is true. They believe he might be an infiltrator from the RPF, which obviously was—was nonsense. So they asked us to go back inside, and a minute later, we heard a bang. Yeah. And then, later on, when we went out of the house, we realized the young man had been shot dead.


KAREN: After the soldiers left your house, at some point you decided you needed to leave too and find somewhere safer to be, right? So you went to your teammates’ house?


ERIC: Yes. Yes. That’s when I went and—and stayed with my teammates. Now, we’re living as four boys; three Hutus and one Tutsi. The decision of going to their house turned out to be the best-ever decision I had and would have made in my life, because the support that they gave me for the next three or so weeks was the reason why I managed to survive.


KAREN: Wow. And you say three of them were Hutu. I mean, they were putting their lives at risk to help you, right?


ERIC: Big time. Big time. Yes. Because at the time, the authorities, the government had, you know, broadcasted instructions of treating every Tutsi as an enemy of the state, asking Hutus to—not to associate themselves with Tutsis in any way. So for me to go to their house, yeah, it was—it was a serious danger to them. But they did what most people couldn’t do at that time, both inside Rwanda and outside Rwanda.


KAREN: Now, so, for—as I understand it, for a time, you also stayed at the home of a Rayon Sport supporter, a man named Zuzu. Could you tell me about that?


ERIC: So yeah, as I said, I stayed with my teammates for a period of about three weeks. To be honest, after a few days, we could no longer tell if it was Monday or Friday. You could no longer count the hours of the day. So at one point during my stay with them, a morning sometime in April, I had woken up early in the morning and decided to go see my local authority. It wasn’t far—I think it was two doors, three doors away from my teammates’ house.


KAREN: Eric was hoping this man, the local authority, would give him a travel pass that would allow him to leave Kigali and maybe find somewhere safer. So he left his teammates’ house and traveled just a few doors down.


ERIC: But as soon as I arrived there, that’s when a group of three militiamen appeared and took me away. They threatened me. They even shot at me. But luckily, I don’t know if they missed me purposely or if the person who shot at me wasn’t an experienced shooter. They also hit me with something that looked like a hammer, you know, on top of my head. So, yeah, and then they, you know, ordered me to march with them for about half a mile. But then this, I think, neighbor saw us, and as he was going about his business, he came across my teammate, one of my teammate, who was with a soldier, a Rwandan government soldier at the time. This soldier was apparently his cousin. So this neighbor said, “I just seen Murangwa”—as they called me, you know, in the neighborhood—”I just seen Murangwa being escorted by a group of militia.” And then my teammate and his cousin soldier came and found us and basically rescued me from them. 


Then after that incident, my teammates said, “Look, we don’t think we’ll be able to look after you anymore. These people might come back to get you. If they come back, it might be very hard for us to do anything.” So that’s how I was advised to go and seek refuge at Zuzu’s house. Zuzu, who is also known—his official name is Jean-Marie Vianney Mudahinyuka—was a huge football fan of my—of our club, but was a leader of militia groups. When I arrived there, Zuzu was happy to take me in. He took me in; I stayed with him for a couple of weeks.


KAREN: Zuzu would leave every morning and come back late every night. Eric didn’t know exactly what he was doing when he was gone, but it wasn’t good. One day Zuzu came back and told Eric he was planning to leave the city. He wanted to take Eric somewhere safe before he left. Luckily, Eric had heard about a place run by the International Red Cross.


ERIC: So one morning we left in his car, guided by, I think, two militia who were armed, and we drove through the heavily guarded roadblocks. Had no issue on the way at all, because everyone—all the militia knew who he was. Nobody stopped us. Nobody bothered us. Yeah. He left me there, wished me well, and off he drove.


IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game, from Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. 




IBTIHAJ: And now, back to our interview.


KAREN: I want to take you back just a minute to Zuzu, because he was a member of the militia. He was undoubtedly involved in killing Tutsis, yet he protected you. Was that unusual? Did that seem strange?


ERIC: It was, yes. It was a bit, a bit strange, because to be honest, when it was first suggested, I even thought—you know, I tried to resist or to refuse to do so, because I thought it was a crazy idea. We all knew who he was. For my teammates to suggest that I could ask this man, who was already involved in the killings of many of my fellow Tutsi people then—it was a bit crazy. But again, the situation had gone beyond anything you could imagine. And sometimes nothing, you know, seemed logic anymore. You could just try anything, and hope and see what might happen. My case is not a unique case. There have been quite a number of other similar cases where people had been looked after by, actually, people who were directly involved in the mass killing. Such a situation was—was not unique.


KAREN: Hmm. Yeah. So after the end of the genocide, football returned quite quickly to the country, right? How did that happen?


ERIC: I remember—myself, I returned to Kigali, I think, a month after the genocide had ended, and quickly got involved in putting together Rayon Sport Club. The players had fled. A few had been killed. I remember when I started looking around to reorganize ourselves, I only found, I think, four or five players of the existing squad. From there, we gathered and we encouraged some of the young people, mainly from the returnees—you know, the Rwandan refugees who had lived outside the country for over 30 years, those who came back with young boys. These were the people we used to basically reform or reconstruct Rayon Sport Football Club. And I think it was in November or October that we had the first-ever public event beyond a political event, and that event was a football match between my club, Rayon Sport, and our biggest rival, called Kiyovu Sport.


KAREN: Well, describe that game for me. What did it feel like and what did it sound like to be in that stadium playing football again?


ERIC: It was incredible. It was incredible, first and foremost, to see how many people turned up. The game attracted, I think, more than 15,000 people. It was full to the roof, and more people couldn’t get into the stadium. The whole country was still littered by bodies. There were still, you know, mines trapped, you know, in every corner of the country. So a sense of war was still alive in every way. But the moment, that 90 minutes we spent inside the stadium, completely made us forget. People who attend the game, people who listened to the game broadcasted on the radio, actually made them believe we’re still alive. We’re still alive, and we can live again.


KAREN: You joined the national team, so you were representing Rwanda in international play. I’m wondering, was there any part of you that felt like, “I’m representing a country that didn’t protect me?”


ERIC: Well, contrary to that, I actually felt more sense of responsibility to represent my country. Because, yes, the country somehow had abandoned me during those 100 days of genocide. But then, what happened after that, it felt like I had also a role to keep that country alive, because that country almost lost its own self, as well. Having a million people killed in just 100 days, having over three million fleeing the country in just a period of a few weeks—to be honest, Rwanda had almost ceased to exist as a nation. So, after that, I had the most sense of responsibility of being a citizen of Rwanda. I felt it more than ever.


KAREN: Mm. At what point did you say, “Football saved me; maybe I can use football to heal some of the divides in my country”?


ERIC: Well, to be honest, it took me some time to feel that. I didn’t feel that until I immigrated to England in ’97. But once I arrived in the UK, I quickly connected with people who were working in a sector of genocide and Holocaust education or awareness-raising. And it was through that connection that I developed the understanding of how important sport was in my survival, and how it could be in the process of reconciliation and reconstruction.


KAREN: Eric still lives in London, but he visits Rwanda often. Over the years, the Ishami Foundation has helped train more than 600 community-impact football coaches in Rwanda. They also stage an international football tournament. It’s called Play to Remember, and its goal is to help promote reconciliation and togetherness through sport. 


KAREN: And how does it work? How do you use football to bring people together?


ERIC: [CHUCKLES] Well, the values of sport are all about togetherness, teamwork. Sport can be used as a tool to enhance people’s friendship, enhance people’s understanding of tolerance and acceptance. Using my story of survival, it helps to capture the interest and the imagination to the wider audience, because of how my story is linked with sport and the game of football in particular. For example, the role of my teammates in my survival, that can help younger people understand why, you know, teamwork, camaraderie, sportsmanship is important in everyday life, particularly in dealing and solving issues based on identity-based prejudice and discrimination of any sort. We have developed programs that allow us to play a game of football, but passing on those kind of messages as we play football.


KAREN: And these programs where kids or young people get together to play a football game—it’s boys and girls, and Hutus and Tutsis all playing together, right?


ERIC: Absolutely. So if you call messages about teamwork, about togetherness, then the first thing you’re going to do is to make sure that whatever you do is inclusive. So we use football to promote the message of gender equality. We use football to challenge perceptions that are centered around traditional and cultural beliefs. So, yeah, it’s a way of breaking down all those discrimination barriers that we tend to have because of how the society have shaped us.


KAREN: We’ve been really careful to describe this as a genocide against the Tutsis, because while others died, this really was an action against one group of people. But on the other hand, today, Hutus and Tutsis need to work together to build a better Rwanda. So how do you balance that need to remember the terrible things that happened with the need to reconcile your country?


ERIC: Well I think it’s not that difficult, particularly with the younger generation. We also have to remember, this idea of Hutus and Tutsis being two different people, it’s nonsense. These are fabricated, sort of, identities. These are people who have shared pretty much everything for centuries. They’ve lived in the same places, in the same villages. They speak same language. They share same tradition and culture. They believe in one god. So actually, sometimes you find it hard. How did we end up here? How did we believe that we are different to the extent of wanting to exterminate one another when we have so much in common? So to talk to the younger people today, to teach about the message of reconciliation and togetherness and unity and so on, it’s important to highlight the wrong of the past. How we ended up being divided along the lines that were not real and then found us in such horrible, terrible past. So it’s important to talk about the genocide against the Tutsis for the younger generation of Rwandans today to understand why they have to see and value their oneness above anything else.


KAREN: When you think of the Rwanda that you want to see in the future, what does it look like? What do you hope for, for your country?


ERIC: Ah, well, I hope for a country that is as beautiful in its mindset as it is in its landscape. Rwanda is such a beautiful country. I want to see a Rwanda that sees itself as a special place with special people. And then if you see yourself that way, I don’t think you can accept to go back to what we experienced 28 years ago.


IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. Our executive producer is Karen Given.


KAREN: We had help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app. And please leave us a review.


IBTIHAJ: To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas. Or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast…


KAREN: Aliya Soomro lives in Lyari. It’s an urban slum in Karachi, Pakistan. And for a long time, it was known for its athletes—its male athletes. That was, until Aliya decided that she wanted to learn how to box.


IBTIHAJ: That’s next week on The Long Game.