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Football saved me from death, but I also remember Longin Munyurangabo- Murangwa Eugene

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Eric Eugène Murangwa, a Tutsi and former national team captain, was spared being butchered in his home by Hutu soldiers when one of them recognised him in a team photograph. He details his path at The Guardian.

In his very long story, he ends by  “It is great if football can produce more Ronaldos and Messis. But what would help the world most is to have more Longins”, to mention Longin Munyurangabo who “refused to be normal and saved people”.

Eric Eugène Murangwa was face down on the floor of his home being shouted at. “I am a Rayon Sport fan, how can you say you play for them?” roared the soldier. “You’re lying to me and I’m not going to tolerate that. We were going to kill you later but now you have fast-tracked your death.” At that moment some of the other soldiers ransacking Murangwa’s flat happened to toss a photo album into the air. It landed open on a page full of pictures of Murangwa and his team-mates from Rayon Sport. The first soldier studied the surprising new evidence.

“Are you Toto?” he eventually asked Murangwa. Toto, meaning ‘Young One’ in Swahili, was the nickname by which Murangwa was known to fans of Rayon Sport, whom he had joined as a boy before making his first-team debut at 16. “Yes, it’s me,” replied the goalkeeper. “Why didn’t you say so earlier?” the soldier demanded. “But I’ve been saying it for the last half an hour,” spluttered Murangwa. “Wow,” the soldier said, shaking his head incredulously. “So, how are you?”

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Over the next three or four weeks – counting the days was not a priority – Munyurangabo led the effort to shelter Murangwa, and to parlay for mercy on the few occasions the cover was blown. “He decided he would be the negotiator between me and the militia. He bribed them with money and with football kits that he had bought when we had travelled outside Rwanda.”

As the weeks went by, protecting the goalkeeper grew increasingly difficult. On one occasion a band of Interahamwe fighters found him and insisted on taking him away, but his team-mates won his release thanks to more cajoling and bribery and the help of one of the player’s cousins, a deserting solider.

“He had run away from the battlefield to see his cousin because he was just fed up with the fighting,” explains Murangwa. “He helped rescue me just a few minutes after I was kidnapped. My team-mates paid money as part of the negotiations and the solider influenced the situation because he had a gun, although at the time a soldier didn’t have so much power in front of the militia because the militia were more connected to those who were the real brains behind the genocide. You could be a soldier but if you were not one of the inner circle you didn’t necessarily know what was going on. But most militias knew, because they had been through the training and the propaganda and they knew why they were doing what they were doing.”

Eric Eugène Murangwa instructs children at one of the Dream Team academies he runs in Rwanda. ‘We bring children together around football and teach them to celebrate their diversity,’ he says.

Murangwa knew his luck was unlikely to last. “I remember the soldier saying to me: ‘I may have saved you this time but I’m not going to stay here and guard you throughout – and from what those guys told me, they will come back. The best thing for you to do would be to get out of here.’”

But where could he go? “Longin came up with this idea of going to see one of our important football fans who lived not far away and happened to be one of the leaders of the militia at national level.” He was referring to Jean-Marie Vianney Mudahinyuka, aka Zuzu, an erstwhile official at Rayon Sport and a man who, having been arrested in Chicago in 2004, is serving a life sentence in a Rwandan prison for atrocities committed during the genocide, including the murder of 62 Tutsis in Nyamirambo stadium and the slaughter of 600 Tutsis during an attack on a school.

Murangwa did not know about those crimes back then, but he knew enough to be wary of seeking refuge with Zuzu.

“When Longin mentioned his idea, I said: ‘Are you mad?’” he says. “But he explained that he had met Zuzu a short time after the genocide started and the guy inquired about me, asking: ‘Have you heard about Toto, how is he?’ Longin didn’t give him much because he didn’t know why he was asking. But with our situation as it was, he thought: ‘Maybe this guy actually cares and that’s why he was asking?’

“All the same, we thought we can go and try somewhere else first. So we went to another team-mate, who was Congolese and lived not far away. We thought that maybe because he’s a foreigner, his house may not be a target. My team-mates accompanied me to his house but when we got there he explained he wasn’t going to take me in. Why? Because he had a Tutsi wife and they had been under incredible pressure from the landlord and neighbours who didn’t want her in the compound. We realised there was no other option but to go to Zuzu.

“Again Longin took the matter into his own hands,” continues Murangwa. “He went first to speak to Zuzu and few minutes later there Zuzu was, coming out of his house and smiling and greeting me, saying he was going to protect me ‘until we go and play in Kenya’.”

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Zuzu, it seems, was still thrilled by Rayon Sport’s victory over Al Hilal and thought the bloodletting might finish in time for his team to contest the second round, in which they were to face Kenyan Breweries. “So I spent a couple of days in Zuzu’s house and he eventually helped me to move to the International Red Cross [ICRC] headquarters in downtown Kigali, which is where he left me.”

Unable to get into the compound, Murangwa spent the next few days hiding among trees around its gate and in a nearby alley. He was not alone. “There was another guy there, a man called Jean-Paul who was a driver for the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme],” says Murangwa. “And then we were joined by a couple who had a two-week-old baby.” The ICRC director, a Swiss man called [Philippe] Gaillard, became aware of the baby’s presence and resolved to help. Murangwa, remembering a job that one of his team-mates had, claimed to work part-time for Unicef.

“Apparently the director helped contact the mayor of Kigali to tell him he had two UN officials in his compound and they needed his support to take them to a designated area for UN officials who had been in contact with peacekeepers or the Red Cross … So me and Jean-Paul were taken as two UN workers to the Hôtel des Milles Collines and the couple were taken to St Paul Cathedral.” The hotel would later be made famous by the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda. “The hotel was less than five minutes from where we had been, you could have walked there – except you couldn’t. I stayed in the hotel until the UN peacekeepers negotiated our transfer from there to the RPF-controlled zone at the outskirts of the Kigali. That was my journey of survival.”

Football against the enemy

It was only after the RPF took Kigali and the genocide ended that most people were able to assess the death toll. It turned out that Murangwa’s parents survived. But many other members of his family were less fortunate. All six of his mother’s brothers were killed, and so was his own seven-year-old brother, Jean-Paul Irankunda. The family do not know the precise circumstances of Jean-Paul’s death: it hurts that they do not even have a photograph of him; it also hurts that the last image they saw of him came after the genocide, when a documentary showed footage of Belgian troops evacuating European expatriates during the bloodshed and ignoring the pleas for assistance from a group of Rwandan men, women and children who had been hiding in a nearby church. Jean-Paul can be seen clearly, looking into the camera. Confused. Helpless.

As for Longin Munyurangabo, the team-mate whom Murangwa says did more than anyone to save his life, he too perished. “I was not the only person he was helping,” says Murangwa. “He had a Tutsi girlfriend who he could not take away to a safer house like he managed to do with me. He had to remain with her up until the night before Kigali fell. Then, apparently, the local authorities forced the entire population to leave. In that chaos when they were running away they came to a roadblock that had been put in place by the losing regime’s soldiers, somewhere near the town of Ruhengeri in the north.

“The soldiers were running but still trying to find the enemy so they were checking ID cards. Longin and his girlfriend arrived. The woman was identified as a Tutsi. She had fake ID but they didn’t want to believe it because of her appearance. The soldiers got very angry, not only with the woman but also with Longin, a Hutu man they accused of treachery. They insulted him for protecting the enemy. The woman was stabbed and thrown over the bridge into the river, which swept her away. Miraculously she survived. But Longin was never seen alive again.” By The Guardian.

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