The Rwandan genocide began 25 years ago this month. Over just 100 days, about 800,000 people — many of them Tutsis — were killed by Hutu extremists. But just a month before the genocide began, Tutsi Eric Murangwa wasn’t afraid — even though people on the street were calling him names like “cockroach.”
Eric was an invincible 19 year old — a star athlete at the peak of his career as the goalkeeper for Rwanda’s most beloved football team, Rayon Sports F.C. And he says he was more concerned about the game than what was going on beyond the football field.
More Than A Game
It was spring of 1994, about a month before the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis. Eric Murangwa was training for the game of a lifetime, a qualifying match for the 1994 African Winners’ Cup against a skilled team from Sudan called Al Hilal. Rayon had the chance to put Rwanda on the international football map.
As he and his teammates made their way into Kigali by bus, Eric put on his headphones — country music helped calm his nerves before big games — and gazed out of the window.
What he saw was frightening.
“Tires being burned up, trees been brought in the middle of the road,” he says.
And as the team approached the city, men in military clothing stopped the bus and asked Eric and his teammates to step outside. Eric was one of only three Tutsis on his football team — one of three Tutsis on the bus.
“You could easily tell who was Hutu and who was a Tutsi,” Eric says.
But there was something else the soldiers could recognize.
“Most goalkeepers in this country wore long black pants,” Eric says. “But I came up with a different style by wearing shorts, colorful tops. And I’ve always also put on my hat.”
The soldiers immediately recognized Eric, in his cap and colorful outfit, not as a Tutsi — but as the Rayon Sports goalkeeper who they called “Toto.” They were huge football fans. They shook Eric’s sweaty hand and wished him luck in the game against Al Hilal. And they waved the bus on its way.
When they finally got to the stadium for the big game, it seemed like everyone in the entire country was there.
Guys in jeans and t-shirts sat next to men in military uniforms. Everyone in the crowd was cheering and singing together.
“When we scored the fourth goal, I knew that it was almost impossible for the other team to come back,” Eric says. “And I could see how that meant to the 30-plus thousand people in the stadium. It was really huge.”
Huge because of the win. And huge because at that moment, Rayon fans weren’t celebrating as Tutsi or Hutu — they were celebrating together.
After the game, Eric remembers that every pub was packed. Strangers handed him big money and bought him beers. Guys at checkpoints wrapped blue and white plastic trash bags — Rayon Sports’ colors — around the barrels of their AK-47s and waved them in the air.
“People walking on the street, some of them militias who would usually be throwing insults and bad words, they were just cheering on,” Eric says. “The win of Rayon Sport became a moment of uniting Rwandans once again.”
That feeling was fleeting, though. Just one month later, the genocide against the Tutsis began.
Machetes And Guns
“April 6,” Eric says. “It was a normal day. I had a very busy afternoon.”
Eric got home late that night, took a shower and went straight to bed.
“By 3, 4 a.m., I was woken up by incredible sounds of machine guns: babababababa, bump bump. And it went on. And on and on and on.”
Eric and his roommate crawled on the floor to get to the windows. They saw smoke in the air and flashes of gunfire as organized gangs of Hutu militias swept through their neighborhood with machetes and guns.
“Within a minute, our home was swamped by a group of soldiers, about five, six of them,” Eric remembers. “They came in, kicked the compound gate in. And then they came and banged on our door. We opened. As soon as we opened, they slapped us, asked us to lie on the floor.”
The group of men said they were there to look for hidden weapons. Eric tried to convince them he and his roommate were just football players.
“But they were not listening,” Eric says. “They were clearly ready to kill us.”
The men pulled food from the cabinets and threw it on the floor. They broke dishes, kicked chairs over.
“One of the things that they threw up and down happened to be a photo album,” Eric says. “It just landed on the floor wide open. And it caught the attention of one of the soldiers.”
The photo album had landed open to a page of Eric and his teammates at the Rwandan president’s house. One of the men turned to Eric and said, “Who are these people?”
“And I said, ‘They are my teammates,’ ” Eric recalls. ” ‘What do you mean they are your teammates?’ I said, ‘I play for Rayon Sport.’ And he just turned and say, ‘Why are you trying to lie to me?’ And then he picked the album and looked at the photos. And then he turned to me where I was lying down on the floor. He said, ‘Are you Toto?’ And I said, ‘Yes I am.’ ”
The guy asked Eric to get up off the floor and ordered the other men to leave the room. He told Eric to sit on the couch. And for five long minutes, he sat next to Eric, talking about the game between Al Hilal and Rayon Sports.
“He just wanted to talk about the game,” Eric says. “So proud that we won. To be honest, my mind was no longer working in a normal way. You just don’t know how to conduct yourself. How to look. How to behave. You’re just there. You’re in a state of mind that you can’t be able to control.”
The guy went on to give Eric tips — to open the curtains wide and leave the gate open to make the house look empty.
“And it seemed to work, because no one else came into our house for next two, three hours,” Eric says.
That night, when the sounds of gunfire faded, Eric was overcome with a desire to be with his teammates. So early the next morning, he walked a few blocks over to a big house where most of his teammates lived.
Most people there were Hutu, so they had to show solidarity with the Hutu militia taking over the neighborhood. They’d leave in shifts to monitor checkpoints nearby, each time coming home with news about what was happening outside.
“In some cases, they even saw some individuals being executed right in front of their eyes,” Eric says. “They saw bodies of the people they knew lying on the street.”
Even though people were being slaughtered by the hundreds outside, Eric says that inside the house, it felt sort of like old times. The teammates played cards and watched TV to pass time.
“My teammates house became my place,” he says. “It was a big risk. It was a big risk. They could easily have been killed. But it didn’t seem to be a big issue to them. Especially one of them, a guy called Longin. He basically did everything.”
Longin was a Hutu teammate. One night, at the neighborhood checkpoint, Longin heard a guy spreading rumors that Eric was an agent — that he was hiding a secret gun. So when Longin got home the next morning, he told Eric that they’d need to find a new place for him to stay. It was too risky at the team house.
Longin and Eric left immediately and started walking aimlessly until Longin came up with an idea: to go to Zuzu’s house. Zuzu was one of Rayon Sports’ biggest fans.
“We knew each other very well,” Eric says. “We had a relationship. He as a fan and I as a player for the club.”
Zuzu was also a top guy in the Hutu militia. Eric thought Longin was out of his mind.
“How could I go and seek refuge with someone who we all know that he’s actually a part of the killing machine?” Eric asks.
But he didn’t have much choice. So Eric and Longin went to Zuzu’s house. Eric knocked on the door.
“He came out smiling and joking, saying that he was happy to see me alive,” Eric says.
Eric remembers Zuzu’s reasoning for wanting to save him: so that when the genocide was over, Eric would still be around to save goals for Rayon Sports.
“He just said, ‘Feel free to stay,’ ” Eric remembers. “He told his people there to look after me.”
For the next few days, Zuzu left home early and came home late.
“As if he was going to a normal, daily life,” Eric says. “What kind of business was he up to at that particular time, when nothing else other than killing and fighting and looting was happening? You can make your own judgment on that.”
Longin visited regularly to give Eric updates. When Zuzu came back at night, he and Eric would eat dinner, play cards and talk football.
“It was just a very weird and uncomfortable situation to be in,” Eric says.
‘I Thought That Was The Moment — That Was It’
Eric sort of lost track of time, but he thinks he was at Zuzu’s for about a week — until Zuzu’s neighbors got suspicious. They knew Eric was hiding in the house. So once again, early in the morning, Eric made his way on foot back to his teammates’ house. After he got there, he thought he’d be safer if he could get a travel permit. So he went to a local leader — an old friend. But when he got there, he once again found himself face to face with soldiers.
“The one who had the gun just stepped back and charged his gun and shot,” Eric says.
The bullet grazed the sleeve of his shirt, leaving a hole in it. Another soldier hit Eric over the head with what he thinks might have been a hammer.
“All the sudden, I saw blood dripping down, down my shoulder,” Eric says. “And, yeah, I thought that was the moment — that was it. I was going to be killed.”
But, again Eric was saved by football. A group of older men — football fans — recognized the Rayon Sports goalkeeper, and they shouted: “Run.”
“So we started running,” Eric says.
When he got back to his teammates’ house, Longin was there and suggested the next move.
“That I had to go back to Zuzu’s place,” Eric says. “He knew what side Zuzu was on. But I didn’t have any other choice.”
By now, the situation had become much more extreme. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis had been killed.
But despite rising tensions, Zuzu opened the door for Eric for a second time. Eric stayed there for a few days. He heard on the radio that the International Red Cross building had become sort of a safe haven. So he asked Zuzu if he would take him there.
Zuzu drove Eric in his car with an armed guard in front and another in the back.
“He asked me to get out of the car. He wished me well,” Eric says. “I was left just standing there.”
Eric was safe. Zuzu had saved him. But Eric says Zuzu is not a hero.
“Every person who killed people,” Eric says, “you will also find that they saved one or two other people. … This is not unique to Zuzu. You’ll find thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda who, on one hand, killed, heavily involved in the killings, but also saved some individuals.”
As soon as the genocide ended, Eric looked for his teammates who had survived. He found enough to form a small team. And even though they were in mourning, within weeks Rayon was back together again.
“Unfortunately, the two teammates who really did everything for me did not make it,” Eric says. “Did not survive. Longin, they saw him as a traitor, and they killed him.”
Looking Back — And Forward
As people dug trenches for mass graves and sorted through piles of bodies, Eric and his teammates dribbled and ran and passed footballs to one another. When I visited in 2018, Eric walked me to the stadium where they played for the first few weeks. People were kicking balls to one another on the red dirt.
“We call it tapis rouge, which means the red carpet,” Eric says.
Just two months after the genocide, Rayon Sports was ready for another game. This time, against a local rival, Kiyovu Sports.
Eric says the match against Kiyovu Sports was the first sort of happy public event in country after the genocide. The only other gathering that had taken place was communal cleaning to deal with the rotting bodies.
“To see 10-, 15,000 people gathered, it gave you the life back,” Eric says. “People were singing, were cheering, were enjoying it.”
“And you won the game?” I ask.
“Did we win the game? I can’t even remember,” he says. “It didn’t matter that we won or lost. All that mattered was just to have that game played.”
After the genocide, Zuzu changed his name, filed for asylum and landed in Chicago, where he worked as a clerk at a grocery store until 2004, when someone from Kigali recognized him as one of the men behind the killing regime. He was then arrested for lying on his asylum claim papers, extradited back to Rwanda and put in prison for life for war crimes.
Eric Murangwa went on to play for Rwanda’s national team and then applied for asylum and moved to the United Kingdom, where he started a nonprofit football club that teaches kids about dialogue and conflict resolution.
By Shaina Shealy