Rwanda mourns the dead, 25 years since genocide began

President of Rwanda Paul Kagame (2-L), the first lady of Rwanda Jeannette Kagame (2-R), President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker (R), and the chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki (R) light the flame of remembrance during a commemoration event at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in the capital Kigali, Rwanda, 7 April 2019. [Dai Kurokawa/EPA/EFE]

Rwanda on Sunday (7 April) began 100 days of mourning for more than 800,000 people slaughtered in a genocide that shocked the world, a quarter of a century on from the day it began.

President Paul Kagame started off a week of commemoration activities by lighting a remembrance flame at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where more than 250,000 victims are believed to be buried, mainly from the Tutsi people.

They are only some of those killed by the genocidal Hutu forces, members of the old army and militia forces called the “Interahamwe”, that began their bloody campaign of death on April 7, 1994, the day after the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu.

Some were shot; most were beaten or hacked by machetes.

The killings lasted until Kagame, then 36, led the mainly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) into Kigali on 4 July, ending the slaughter and taking control of the devastated country.

Kagame, now 61 and who has been in power ever since, is leading the memorial to the dead.

He laid a wreath at the Gisozi genocide memorial site, where over a quarter a million of people are buried, before an afternoon of speeches and song. Later, a candelit vigil was held in the packed national soccer stadium.

“There is no way to fully comprehend the loneliness and anger of survivors and yet over and over again we have asked them to make the sacrifices necessary to give our nation new life. Emotions had to be put in a box,” Kagame said, his tall, thin form projected onto television screens around the nation.

“We are far better Rwandans than we were. But we can be even better still. We are the last people in the world who should succumb to complacency.”

At Gisozi on Sunday, popular Rwandan artists sang songs like “Turabunamira twiyubaka,” meaning “honoring them as we rebuild”.

“Remembering is necessary because it’s only thanks to looking back at what happened (that we can) ensure that it never happens again,” said hairdresser Olive Muhorakeye, 26.

In the late afternoon, thousands of people marched from parliament to the national soccer stadium. After they had entered, the lights were extinguished and the dark stadium was lit only by a sea of flickering candles as survivors spoke.

“I named my children after all my siblings that died,” Samuel Dusengiyumva told the emotional crowd, before praising the actions of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi-led rebel movement led by Kagame that ended the genocide. “I thank the RPF army that rescued us as the rest of world did nothing.”

Deep trauma

In past years, ceremonies have triggered painful flashbacks for some in the audience, with crying, shaking, screaming and fainting amid otherwise quiet vigils.

For many survivors, forgiveness remains difficult when the bodies of their loved ones have not been found and many killers are still free.

A quarter of a century on, the east African nation has recovered economically, but the trauma still casts a dark shadow.

Kagame has kept an authoritarian hold as he steers the small, landlocked East African nation through economic recovery. Growth in 2018 was a heady 7.2%, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).

Some 10 leaders were present, mostly from nations across the continent. African Union chief Moussa Faki and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker are also attending.

Former colonial ruler Belgium has sent Prime Minister Charles Michel.

French President Emmanuel Macron is not attending, but expressed his “solidarity with the Rwandan people and his compassion to the victims and their families” in a statement Sunday.

The statement said Macron would like to make 7 April a “day of commemoration of the genocide” in France, without giving further details.

At the ceremony, France is represented by Hervé  Berville, a 29-year old Rwandan-born member of parliament in Paris.

Rwanda has accused France of being complicit in the genocide through its support for the Hutu-led government and of helping perpetrators escape.

Paris has consistently denied complicity in the bloodshed, though former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010 acknowledged France had made “serious errors of judgement”.

On Friday, Macron appointed an expert panel to investigate France’s actions at the time.

Macron is not the only notable absence; former ally Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is also not attending, amid accusations by Kigali that Uganda is supporting Rwandan rebels.

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