efe-epaBy Juan José Lahuerta London

Just as the genocide started to tear Rwanda apart, Eric Eugene Murangwa was saved by one simple question posed by an interrogating Hutu soldier — "are you Toto?"

Thanks to soccer, this former international goalkeeper survived the ethnic cleansing that killed some 800,000 people, mainly members of the Tutsi ethnic group but also moderate Hutus.

Sitting down with Efe in a square not far from King's Cross in London, where he went into exile in 1996, Murangwa speaks with care, trying to recall every detail of his story, one of a soccer player whose life was spared simply because of his affiliation to the sport. A fate not granted to 78 relatives he lost in the killings in 1994.

Many other Tutsis in the Rwandan soccer leagues were not so lucky. An estimated 42 were killed in the genocide, according to local news outlet the New Times back in 2012.

Estimates suggest that the campaign of mass slaughter led by government troops, Interahamwe militias and armed Hutus civilians destroyed around 75 percent of the Tutsi population.

Murangwa, nicknamed "Toto" ("young man," in Swahili) by his teammates, had an early fascination for soccer. Just before the genocide, he played with Rayon Sports, one of the top clubs in the African nation.

From the age of 11, he spent much of his time behind the goals at Rayon Sports' training pitch and sometimes, when the side was a player short, he'd slot into the first team. Little by little, he solidified his presence at the club.

He was not called up for the national team until after the genocide. Between 1990-94, it was inactive due to the civil war between the Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR), founded by exiled Tutsis, and Juvénal Habyarimana's government.

During the conflict, soccer became hyper-politicized, too. Tension reigned on the pitch as different factions tried to exert their influence on the teams.

Murangwa said he once had to run from the stadium after a fan jumped onto the pitch in response to a penalty call from the referee.

The genocide began following the assassination of Habyarimana on April 6, 1994.

Hours after the assassination, Murangwa was sleeping in his house with a friend. The following morning, half a dozen soldiers battered the door down and entered, accusing both the pair of being members of the FPR.

The miracle occurred as the Hutu soldiers turned the house upside down. A photo album fell to the floor and opened with a picture of Murangwa posing with members of Rayon Sports. The soldiers were fans of the team.

"Who are these?" the soldier interrogated, accusing them of being other members of the FPR.

"They are my friends, they are my football club fans, they are my teammates," Murangwa said.

The soldier then asked who he played for.

"'I play for Rayon Sports' and then he looked at the pictures again and turned towards me again and asked me 'are you Toto?' and I said 'yes, yes, I am'."

The soldier ordered his squad mates out of the house and then sat down on the sofa to talk soccer with Murangwa, specifically about a recent international game in which Rwanda faced Sudan.

It was the first day of the genocide, a time when neighbors killed neighbors, doctors killed patients, soccer players killed soccer players, but Murangwa and his friend were spared. They did not know it at the time, but they still had 99 days to survive.

After that first scare, he sought refuge with his Hutu teammates.

It worked for a while. He went into hiding when he learned his name featured on the kill lists being handed out by government officials.

But, one day, militia members turned up at the house unannounced. Murangwa was spared again by another stroke of luck when a soldier cousin of a friend managed to halt proceedings.

He later sought protection from Jean-Marie Mudahinyuka, an FPR leader, and from there got help from the Red Cross.

Murangwa ended up at Kigali's Hotel de Mille Collines, which sheltered over a thousand Tutsis, a story that garnered great fame as the topic of 2004 film "Hotel Rwanda."

He learned later that one of his Hutu friends and teammates who helped on the path to safety did not survive the genocide.

He was called Longin Munyuramgabo. The soldiers killed him because his girlfriend was Tutsi.

"The roadblocks that had been placed on one of the bridges on the way stopped my teammate and his girlfriend and as they were doing the checkings, looking at the identity card, they find out that the girl was a Tutsi and that angered the soldiers," Murangwa said.

"They looked at Longin as a traitor, you know someone who was doing something that they didn’t think was right to be done by a Hutu person, you know a Hutu trying to help a Tutsi woman. That was the last time the guy was seen alive," he added.

Murangwa returned to the pitch after the genocide. He found five of his teammates from Rayon Sports and they began to train.

"So I quickly tried to reorganize the club and the local authorities also. The new local authorities saw football as a tool to really help people gain a sense of hope and a sense of recovery and so they encouraged ourselves to keep playing," he said.

Murangwa set up the Ishami Foundation, which tries to eradicate hatred in society through soccer.

Soccer has become an important pastime in Rwanda in the 25 years that have elapsed since the genocide. It not only provides an escape for young people, but it helps create bonds in society and brings together Hutus and Tutsis under the came banner.

Young Hutus and Tutsis play in youth teams where no ethnic distinctions are made.

Murangwa said: "It’s all about my experience and the experience of fellow survivors where we always try to make sure that when younger people are playing football with our coaches.

"They are not just playing football to become the next Messis, Ronaldos of this world but more so to become the next Longin, my teammate who stood by me during the genocide, because you can learn more than just being a footballer by playing football." EFE-EPA

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