How football saved my life

We spoke to Eric Murangwa Eugene on his experiences during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

As a football manager the great Bill Shankly didn’t get many things wrong. However, most agree that when he said “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that”, he was wrong. Nothing in football is more serious than death. Yet for a few, football does end up being a matter of life or death.

The moment that football saved Eric’s life

One such man is Eric Murangwa Eugene, a former captain of the Rwandan national team and goalkeeper for Rayon Sports, one of the top Rwandan football teams. The moment football saved his life was in the midst of the genocide in Rwanda, in which over a million Tutsis were killed by the majority ethnic group, the Hutus on the orders of the government. In April 1994, after the assassination of the Rwandan President, Juvenal Habyarimana, extreme Hutus aided by national propaganda, began a merciless campaign, aimed at exterminating the Tutsi population.

A day into this campaign Eric, a Tutsi, found himself face down in his own flat, as several soldiers searched the room. While Eric tried to tell the soldiers he played for Rayon Sports, one soldier shouted at him “You’re lying to me… We were going to kill you later but now you have fast-tracked your death.” Luckily, one of the other soldiers randomly threw up a photo album as he searched.

The book fell open on a page of photos of him and his Rayon Sports team- mates.

The soldier studied the photos for several moments before asking Eric, “Are you Toto?”, which was his nickname. When Eric said yes, the soldier was shocked and disbelievingly said “Wow. How are you?” While Eric could use his football connection to save his roommate and the neighbours, he was unable to save his domestic helper, who was shot within earshot of Eric. The fact he has now forgotten his name still saddens Eric.

Eric’s teammate saved him but was unfortunately killed

The following months were not any easier for Eric, as he first went to his parents house before continuing to a house, four of his teammates shared. He credits one of these teammates, Longin, as his saviour. Longin acted as negotiator on the multiple occasions when members of the militia came to the house and threatened to kill Eric.

Eventually it was decided Eric would have to flee. After pretending to be a UN part-time worker, the UN eventually negotiated his escape to parts of Rwanda under RPF control. Only after, the Tutsi dominated rebel army had taken control of the capital, and whole country, could the death toll be counted. Longin, the man who had done so much to help Eric, was killed trying to save his Tutsi girlfriend, while Eric’s seven-year-old brother Irankunda Jean Paul and 35 other extended family members were was also killed during the 100 days of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

Eric uses sport to prevent genocide and has received an MBE for his work.

Today Eric use the power of sport and storytelling to build tolerance, equality and lasting peace

Today Eric lives in the UK, having been granted asylum in 1997. Since then he has worked to prevent another genocide ever happening. Through his organisation, the Ishami Foundation he use the power of sport and storytelling to build tolerance, equality and lasting peace in Rwanda and the UK. Some of Ishami’s activities are to organise for genocide survivors to give talks in local school and communities to talk about what they experienced. It was at one of these talks in my school that I met Eric and learned about his remarkable story.

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