“This guy who they had sweated almost blood with during football training sessions, he wasn’t going to be their enemy”
Rwandan goalie Eric Murangwa survived the Rwandan genocide and made it to Britain. He tells Lambeth Life about his narrow escape, post-Brexit fears, and his upcoming US TV project
by Flora Bradley-Watson
Next spring is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, when more than one million people were killed in just a hundred days. Lambeth has its own high-profile survivor: former goalkeeping international Eric Eugène Murangwa. It was his gifts as a player that saved him from being slaughtered by Hutu militias. He’s now in talks to appear in a new documentary series for the Discovery Channel, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.
The ethnic tensions between the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority in Rwanda stemmed from the colonial period when Belgian overlords favoured the Tutsi. Rwanda gained independence in 1959 and, with a sudden commitment to the principles of democracy and majority rule, Hutus came to power. They often brought heavy-handed recriminations against their previous oppressors. In April 1994, when a plane carrying the Rwandan president and his Burundian counterpart was shot down, killing everyone on board, tensions boiled over. Hutu extremists blamed a Tutsi rebel group, before starting a campaign of slaughter.
On 7 April, the first day of the genocide, “my life was spared because one of the people who came to my house to kill me realised who I was,” Murangwa tells me over coffee in Brixton. A sticker book showing Murangwa in his goalie strip fell to the floor. “When he found out I was a player for the club he supported, everything changed.”
Murangwa’s Rayon Sports FC teammates risked their lives to save his. They hid him and his family in their homes before helping them reach safety, first at the ICRC headquarters and then at the Hotel des Milles Collines, made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda. “They completely defied the logic of the time, that every Hutu had to chase the Tutsi,” Murangwa says. He puts their loyalty down to the bonds of football: “This guy they had spent time with, sweating almost blood during training, he wasn’t going to be their enemy.”
The killing ended in July 1994, when the Tutsi rebels drove the Hutu army and the Interhamwe militia over the border into what was then Zaire (now the DRC). They left behind more than a million corpses. Thirty-five of Murangwa’s family members were dead, including his seven-year-old brother. He resumed playing professional football and was happy to help with rebuilding efforts. It was only two years later that an incident led him to be unable to see a future for himself in Rwanda.
“The losing regime had started to launch some attacks from refugee camps in Congo,” he explains. “A group of insurgents almost reached Kigali… One had been part of a militia that almost killed me during the genocide. When they were caught and interrogated, they said one of their motives had been to go after survivors. They mentioned me by name.”
Murangwa did not want to live in fear. In June 1996, during a stopover in Paris on the way back from a World Cup qualifier, he fled: first to Belgium and then Britain where, after a long wait, he was granted asylum.
The delay to his asylum application meant he was unable to continue his football career. “By the time I got it, I was no longer the player I was.” He shrugs. “I wasn’t allowed to do anything without the right papers… You can’t work. You are living off handouts. You are just in an open prison.”
He describes the ordeal: “It was hard to go through the process without any idea of how long it will take to receive the final decision. It creates a state of destabilisation in your mind.” Murangwa had to use an interpreter, which he found frustrating: “you are never sure if what you are saying is what exactly is being said.” He was granted indefinite leave to remain in 1999.
Murangwa concedes that managing asylum policy is hard for the authorities too: “there are so many cases that have not been genuine.” He thinks the public’s attitude has taken a worrying turn for the worse, however. “I was able to settle very easily because of the usual British way of welcoming… Unfortunately, that seems to have changed. For the last ten years, the main topic during elections has been immigration… Politicians are using language I never thought I would hear.” He adds, “The main reason Brexit happened was that people felt that they were no longer who they were because of people like myself… When it moves into the public zone, that’s when you realise something is getting very serious.”
For Murangwa, Windrush is an indication of how bad things have become. “It is an absolute disgrace” he says. “These are people who are just as British as anyone; spending fifty years in a country and yet you are seen as an outsider? There is something fundamentally wrong with that.”
Murangwa founded two charities: in 2010 Football For Hope and Unity and then Survivors Tribune, now brought together as the Ishami Foundation to use the power of sport and storytelling to build equality, tolerance and lasting peace. Every April, to coincide with the anniversary of the genocide, is the London leg of Play to Remember, a five-a-side tournament . This year’s event included Grenfell Tower survivors as well as refugees from Syria, Sudan and Rwanda. “We thought it would be fitting to invite people who have suffered as much as we have,” Murangwa notes.
It may have taken Murangwa two years to gain British citizenship, but in January he was quick out of the blocks, as the first Rwandan to receive an MBE since the country joined the Commonwealth in 2008. “It was a great honour” he says. “I hope it will send a message about how people who come to this country the way I did can achieve great things.”
Murangwa has been living in Clapham since he split up with his long-term partner two and half years ago. They have a thirteen-year-old son called Irankunda, which means “God loves me” in Kinyarwanda. “He’s a very big fan of football,” he says. “He dreams of playing for Chelsea.” An Arsenal supporter, Murangwa pays tribute to Arsène Wenger for nurturing African players and the influence this has had in Europe, but also wishes he had quit long ago: “It’s great that he’s finally realised that his time was up.”
Murangwa still hopes one day he will be able to go back to Rwanda forever. “I have loved my twenty years in London,” he says. “I am still loving it, but my true home is Rwanda. I hope, I wish I will be able to go back and stay.”
This month Murangwa will return to organise Play to Remember. He’s also in talks to take part in a documentary series produced by Steven Spielberg called Why We Hate. During our interview, he politely fields calls from producers. The series will investigate the human capacity for hatred and how we can overcome it. Murangwa has seen humanity at its worst and he’s determined to educate others.
“I don’t want my children to experience what I went through,” he says. “The mistakes that the international community made in Rwanda, they are making in other conflicts – in Myanmar, in Syria. That’s why I go into schools to raise awareness. To see if the younger generation can learn from what happened in my country, in Sudan, in Bosnia, and use that to prevent future conflict.”