Twenty-five years ago, Rwanda suffered one of the worst atrocities in modern history. The Rwandan genocide killed about 1.5 million people in around 100 days. The target was the Tutsi people, whereas moderate Hutu’s were also targeted mostly for defending the targets. As war zones often do, the football in the region was also affected.
The backstory to the genocide is harrowing and sad. The Hutus and the Tutsis were ethnic groups in the countries of 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 Tutsi’s were seen as the superior race by the Belgians.
After independence, this created problems for the country as both ethnic groups feared each other. In the 1990s, the problem in Rwanda exploded. A civil war began and the Hutu Power movement was rising at the time, with a radio station being created in an attempt to discriminate Tutsis. After many peace talks and moments of fighting, everything was burned down when the president’s plane was shot down before arriving in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda.
Juvénal Habyarimana, the President of the country, was killed in the plane crash. Who did it was unknown, but the radio blamed Tutsi rebels and told the rebel group, Interahamwe, and the Hutu militia to start slaughtering all Tutsis they could find.
For 100 days, they would go from house to house killing everyone. The radio also encouraged neighbours to join in, some of which did. Today the term “Hutu” and “Tutsi” is banned at least in Rwanda to unite the region and avoid a conflict between the two. Back then, they could be distinguished by ethnic appearance and their identity cards, which would say if they were Hutu or Tutsi.
As expected, this would have an effect on football in the region. The most famous story so far is how being a footballer saved goalkeeper Eric Murangwa’s life. He was a Tutsi goalkeeper playing for Rayon Sports. On 7 April 1994, he was about to be killed until the Hutu militia took out a photo album and recognized him as “Toto”, his nickname. He asked him if he played for Rayon Sports, in which the militia was a fan of, and spared his life.
Unfortunately for Eric, it was only early days of the genocide and perhaps with another member of the militia or the Interahamwe he wouldn’t be so lucky. He was forced to hide out with another Hutu fan of Rayon named Zuzu. He was helping to hide Toto 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 was a fan of Rayon Sports.
Backtracking just a month before, Rayon Sports got an important victory against Sudan’s biggest team, Al-Hilal Omdurman. They lost 1-0 in Sudan but won 4-1 on the return in Rwanda. Even though tensions were starting to spark by that time (Eric was already being called a Tutsi cockroach), the game between the two for the African Cup Winners Cup was regarded as unifying as many people had just felt celebrated togetherness and the win against the Sudanese outfit. The post-match celebrations included a pitch invasion.
Rayon Sports were drawn against Kenya Breweries, but of course, due to the genocide that started, Rayon was forced to withdraw and Breweries won by walkover, who eventually would reach the final before losing to Motemba Pembe of Zaire.
The sport in Rwanda was amateur until the late 1980s where the games would begin being broadcast on television in the country. The Amahoro stadium was finishing construction and officially opened in 1986. Plenty of new competitions were opening up in Rwanda and the sport was beginning to take flight.
Rwanda had their league suspended from 1990 to 1992 when the Rwandan Civil War broke out. With many peace talks taking place and the fighting taking place outside the capital of Kigali, the league was resumed in 1992 with Kiyovu Sports being crowned as champions that very year.
This would eventually become a mistake, as tensions would begin to rise where 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 genocide organization and tried to become president of Rayon Sports. Eventually, it fell out as 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 used up political sponsorships, especially the teams in other prefectures outside of Kigali. Rayon Sport was the exception. They got their money from the rich workers of Nyanza and with that, they were allowed to recruit players from other African countries.
In 1993 however, an Interahamwe militia stopped the team bus on the road to the airport. They were on their way to play Insurance FC of Ethiopia. The member of the militia 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 the fatherland according to these people as this is where Habyarimana was born during the Belgian rule, otherwise known as Ruanda-Urundi. The atmosphere was very hostile when these two teams played, to the point where some players like Eric Murangwa, refused to play just for being Tutsi and feared his life.
Rayon Sports was both hated and loved by the general public. The latter only when they won in continental competitions. However, as most clubs had political sponsorships, they were used as recruitment grounds for the Interahamwe. There was even one club called Loisir, founded in 1991 by the Interahamwe militia who had tried to win fans over in an attempt to join the Hutu power movement. Habyarimana’s son played for Loisirs and this helped the movement ever so more.
Rayon’s win over Al-Hilal was the biggest overall win for Rwandan football at the time. As mentioned, it united the nation so much to the point where the Radios Des Milles Colines, which would eventually be used to tell the militias where the Tutsi were hiding, congratulated the club and nation for the win. This all despite the fact the club was seen as an enemy. The players were promised cows, drinks and women. Unfortunately, this was only them foreshadowing what was to come, as cows were looted and women were raped.
6 April 1994 was when all hell broke loose. There were two main topics that night: Zambia beating Mali in the African Cup of Nations semi-final and a plane crash near Kigali. It turned out that the plane crash was holding Juvénal Habyarimana on board, and from there the genocide began.
The Interahamwe and Hutu militia were the two mainly responsible for allowing this genocide to occur, but the RTLM radio, as well as the football clubs, winning over fans to encourage Hutu power, helped in getting people to kill their neighbours, teammates killing each other. As mentioned earlier though, football did help in some allowing them to survive. The aforementioned Tutsi goalkeeper Eric Murangwa being the prime example of this.
After 100 days, the genocide would end when the RPF had chased the militia’s across the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, back then known as Zaire. Everyone was left traumatized. Rwanda saw about 40% of its population gone, either killed or left as refugees. The average age expectancy was 28 years, and the economy was ruined.
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 and with a stable economy. 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, they are just called Rwandans.
Since the genocide, there has been heavy investment in sports. Ten years after the genocide, the Rwandese national team would participate in their first major tournament: the 2004 African Cup of Nations held in the same country which saw Zambia beat Mali 4-0, just the same night Habyarimana was killed: Tunisia. Rwanda did not escape the group stage but got four points, beating DR Congo and getting a last-minute equalizer against Guinea.
Rwanda joined the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) in 1995 and has played many roles for them. The government has helped ensure that certain tournaments would take place including certain CECAFA senior challenge cups. In 2011, they hosted the U17 AFCON and also put in a bid to host the U17 World Cup in 2019, which they withdrew and lost to Peru.
Not only that, but football also helped Rwandan people get in touch with people from other countries thanks to sport and technology. With all this said, football is the most popular in Rwanda in the CECAFA region and this has helped the country improve its reputation on a worldwide scale.
The horrific events from 25 years ago will never be forgotten or denied, and Rwandans will keep building their country and trying their best to ensure that it never happens again.