KIGALI (AFP) ― Rwanda holds solemn commemorations Monday for the 20th anniversary of the genocide in which 800,000 died, a time of intense national grief, but overshadowed by renewed claims France was complicit in the killings.
Official mourning, which began three months ago with a flame of remembrance touring the small nation from village to village, culminates Monday when the torch arrives at the national genocide memorial.
President Paul Kagame will light a flame that will burn for 100 days, the length of time it took government soldiers and Hutu militia to kill hundreds of thousands of people, largely Tutsis.
Custodians of the memorial say it contains the bones of a quarter of a million people killed in massacres of brutal intensity, now carefully stored in vast concrete tombs.
|Rwandan children listen and pray during a Sunday morning service at the Saint-Famille Catholic church, the scene of many killings during the 1994 genocide, in the capital Kigali, Rwanda, Sunday. AP-Yonhap|
Rwandan children listen and pray during a Sunday morning service at the Saint-Famille Catholic church, the scene of many killings during the 1994 genocide, in the capital Kigali, Rwanda, Sunday. (AP-Yonhap)
Wreathes will also be laid, before ceremonies in Kigali’s football stadium, where U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and several African leaders are due to attend.
But the commemorations have been overshadowed by a furious diplomatic row with France, which has downgraded a top level delegation to send its ambassador in Kigali.
The French government initially announced that it was pulling out of the events after Kagame again accused France, an ally of the Hutu nationalist government prior to the 1994 killings, of aiding the murder of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis.
Speaking to the weekly Jeune Afrique, Kagame denounced the “direct role of Belgium and France in the political preparation for the genocide,” and said French soldiers ― who helped train the army, as well as being accused of aiding the killers to escape ― were both accomplices and “actors” in the bloodbath.
Paris has repeatedly denied the accusations and insisted that French forces had striven to protect civilians.
Former colonial power Belgium, which unlike France has apologised to Rwanda for failing to prevent the genocide, has sent a senior delegation for the commemorations.
Ban has said the commemorations were a chance to remind the world to do all it can to ensure such crimes never happen again. The U.N. was heavily criticized in 1994 for not doing more to stop the killings.
“The scale of the brutality in Rwanda still shocks: an average of 10,000 deaths per day, day after day, for three months,” Ban said in a statement ahead of commemorations.
He said the impact of the massacres are still being felt across an “arc of uncertainty in Africa’s Great Lakes region ― and in the collective conscience of the international community.”
“The international community cannot claim to care about atrocity crimes and then shrink from the commitment of resources and will be required to actually prevent them,” Ban said.
“People everywhere should place themselves in the shoes of the vulnerable, from Syria to the Central African Republic, and ask themselves what more they can do to build a world of human rights and dignity for all,” Ban added.
U.S. President Barack Obama paid tribute to the victims, urging the international community to choose compassion over hatred.
Speaking of the incredibly bloody violence that “shook the conscience of the world,” Obama stressed that the genocide was “neither an accident nor unavoidable.”
“It was a deliberate and systematic effort by human beings to destroy other human beings,” Obama said in a statement.
“The horrific events of those 100 days ― when friend turned against friend, and neighbor against neighbor ― compel us to resist our worst instincts, just as the courage of those who risked their lives to save others reminds us of our obligations to our fellow man.”
“The genocide we remember today ― and the world’s failure to respond more quickly ― reminds us that we always have a choice,” Obama said.
“In the face of hatred, we must remember the humanity we share. In the face of cruelty, we must choose compassion. In the face of intolerance and suffering, we must never be indifferent.”
Many in Rwanda are remembering in their own deeply personal and reflective way.
“It is the day when the faces of all those I loved and died come back,” said Marie Muresyankwano, a mother in her thirties, adding that she would watch events on television, but would otherwise spend time “with my own thoughts.”
Rwanda’s Red Cross has boosted its support staff for those hit hard by the memory of trauma, as the media floods with stories recalling the horrific stories of those who survived.
The official “Kwibuka” mourning ― meaning “remember” in Kinyarwanda ― ends on July 4, Rwanda’s liberation day.