Twenty-six years ago, Rwanda suffered one of the worst atrocities in modern history through a genocide that killed around one and a half million people in just one hundred days. The target was the Tutsi people, whilst moderate Hutus who defended their compatriots were also targeted. War zones bring chaos to all aspects of life and football in the region was also significantly affected.
The backstory of the genocide is harrowing and sad. The Hutus and the Tutsis were ethnic groups in Rwanda and southern neighbours Burundi. They were identified by the Germans and then used by the Belgians; both had moments of power, but in colonial times the Tutsis were seen as the superior race by the Belgians. After independence, this created problems for the country with both ethnic groups fearing and mistrusting the other. In the 1990s the problem in Rwanda finally exploded. A civil war began with the rise of the Hutu Power movement and the creation of a radio station for propaganda purposes in an attempt to discriminate Tutsis. After numerous peace talks and brief outbreaks of fighting, chaos broke out when the president’s plane was shot down before landing in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda.
Juvénal Habyarimana, the President of the country, was killed in the plane crash. Who bore responsibility was unknown, but the radio station blamed Tutsi rebels and instructed the rebel group, Interahamwe, and the Hutu militia to start slaughtering all Tutsis they could find. For a hundred days the militia would go from house to house killing everyone they encountered. The radio also encouraged neighbours to join in, and some sadly did. Today the terms ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ are banned in Rwanda to unite the region and avoid any further conflict between the two. Back then, the tribes could be distinguished by ethnic appearance and identity cards, which would state if they were one group or the other.
The most famous football story around the genocide is about Eric Murangwa and how being a footballer saved his life. Murangwa was a Tutsi goalkeeper playing for the Rayon Sports club. On the first full day of the massacre he was on the verge of being murdered when the Hutu militia took out a photo album and recognized him as “Toto”, his nickname. He was asked if he played for Rayon Sports and, when he confirmed this, his life was spared as the militia member was a fan of the club.
These were only the early days of the genocide however, and perhaps with another member of the militia or the Interahamwe he wouldn’t be so lucky. Eric was forced to hide out with another Hutu fan of Rayon named Zuzu who sheltered the keeper for much of the duration of the genocide. The downside was that Zuzu was also a war criminal and only made an exception with Murangwa because he too was a fan of Rayon Sports.
Backtracking to a month before the massacre got underway, Rayon Sports earned an important victory against Sudan’s biggest team of Al-Hilal Omdurman. The Rwandans lost 1-0 in Sudan but won the return match 4-1 on home soil. Even though tensions were starting to spark by that time (Eric was already being called a Tutsi cockroach), this African Cup Winners Cup game was regarded as a unifying event and many people, Hutu and Tutsi alike, celebrated the win against the Sudanese team together. Rayon Sports drew Kenya Breweries in the next round, but when the genocide got underway Rayon was forced to withdraw and Breweries won by walkover.
Football in Rwanda was amateur until the late 1980s when the games started to be broadcasted on national television. The modern Amahoro Stadium finished construction and officially opened in 1986 and with plenty of new competitions opening up in Rwanda, the sport was beginning to take flight. Then the league was suspended from 1990 to 1992 when the Rwandan Civil War broke out. With peace talks underway and fighting taking place outside the capital of Kigali, the league was resumed in 1992 with Kiyovu Sports being crowned as champions that year.
This decision would prove to be a mistake as tensions would begin to rise when many of the people involved with politics joined football clubs to gain popularity. Some of these rebel groups would use football to try and win the fans over in support of Hutu power, including Interahamwe leader Georges Rutaganda. He was one of the men responsible for the organisation of the genocide and tried to become president of Rayon Sports. Eventually, he was caught trying to fix the club elections and lost the role. Some journalists even claimed that it was better to die than be led by this “monster.”
There were plenty more issues arising though, as the league mostly survived on political sponsorships, especially the teams in other prefectures outside of Kigali. Rayon Sport was the exception: their money came from the rich workers of Nyanza and with that, they were allowed to recruit players from other African countries. In 1993 on the road to the airport to fly to Ethiopia for a match against Insurance FC, the Rayon team bus was stopped by an Interahamwe militia. The militia members told them to not play with these people because they were being investigated under the law. Rayon had become an enemy club of Hutu extremists because they were accused of being supported by Tutsi rebels, or the Rwanda Patriotic Fund (RPF).
Etincelle FC of Gisenyi was the team of the Hutu extremists, and this made them a temporary rival of Rayon Sports. Gisenyi was considered the fatherland to those Hutus as this is where Habyarimana – the President killed in the air crash – was born during Belgian rule, otherwise known as Ruanda-Urundi. The atmosphere was very hostile when these two teams played, to the point where some Tutsi players like Eric Murangwa were in fear of their lives and refused to play.
Rayon Sports were both loved and hated and loved by the general public; the latter only when they won in continental competitions. However as most clubs had political sponsorships, they too were used as a recruitment tool for the Interahamwe. There was even one club called Loisirs, founded in 1991 by the Interahamwe militia, who tried to win fans over in an attempt to join the Hutu power movement. Habyarimana’s son played for Loisirs and this gave the movement greater credence.
Rayon’s win over Al-Hilal was the most important for Rwandan football at the time. The temporary unity it brought even caused the Radios Des Milles Colines station, which would eventually be used to tell the militias where the Tutsi were hiding, to congratulate the club and the nation for the victory, this despite the club being seen as an enemy. The players were promised cows, drink and women and in an unfortunate portent of what was to come, cows were looted and women indiscriminately raped.
The 6th of April 1994 was the day when all hell broke loose. There were two main topics in the news: Zambia beating Mali in the African Cup of Nations semi-final and a plane crash near Kigali. It turned out that the plane had President Juvénal Habyarimana on board, and that was the catalyst for the genocide to begin in earnest. The Interahamwe and Hutu militia were the two main factions responsible for perpetrating this genocide, but RTLM radio and the football clubs in winning over fans to encourage Hutu power helped in the exhortation to people to kill their neighbours and for players to kill teammates.
After 100 days the bloody genocide ended when the RPF had chased the militias across the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, back then known as Zaire. The nation was traumatized. Rwanda lost around 40% of its population, either killed or forced abroad as refugees. The average age expectancy had dropped to 28 years and the economy was ruined.
Fortunately Rwanda today looks a totally different place than it did at the end of 1994. It is now regarded as the safest country in Africa with a stable economy to match. It is said that sport was a big part of the rebuild. To begin with, many memorial tournaments have been played to not forget the genocide or deny it. These tournaments have helped unite the country and today, there are no Hutus and Tutsis but rather, there are just Rwandans.
Ten years after the genocide – and following heavy investment in sports – the Rwandese national team would participate in their first major tournament: the 2004 African Cup of Nations held in Tunisia, the same country hosting it in the night Zambia beat Mali 4-0 and Habyarimana was killed a decade earlier. Rwanda beat DR Congo and grabbed a last-minute equaliser against Guinea, though these results were not quite enough to see them qualify from the group stages.
Rwanda joined the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) in 1995 and has performed many roles for the organisation. The government has helped ensure that certain tournaments would take place including CECAFA senior challenge cups. In 2011, Rwanda hosted the U17 AFCON and also put in a bid to host the U17 World Cup in 2019, eventually losing out to Peru.
Football has become the most popular sport in the CECAFA region and the potent combination of sport and technology has helped Rwandans to get in touch with people from other countries and the country improve its reputation on a worldwide scale. The horrific events of a quarter of a century ago will never be forgotten or denied, and Rwandans will keep building their country and trying their best to ensure that such a thing can never happen again.