President Paul Kagame said Sunday that Rwandans had become a family again, 25 years after more than 800,000 people were slaughtered in a genocide that shocked the world.
Kagame lit a remembrance flame at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where more than 250,000 victims are believed to be buried, mainly from the minority Tutsi people, as the country began its annual 100 days of mourning that coincide with the length of the slaughter.
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.
“In 1994, there was no hope, only darkness. Today, light radiates from this place … How did it happen? Rwanda became a family once again,” Kagame said.
“The arms of our people, intertwined, constitute the pillars of our nation. We hold each other up. Our bodies and minds bear amputations and scars, but none of us is alone. Together, we have woven the tattered threads of our unity into a new tapestry,” he said.
Kagame was speaking at the Kigali Convention Center, a dome-shaped auditorium in the center of the capital, a modern building emblematic of the regeneration of Rwanda.
“Our people have carried an immense weight with little or no complaint. This has made us better and more united than ever before,” Kagame said.
“The fighting spirit is alive in us. What happened here will never happen again.”
The killings lasted until Kagame, then 36, led the mainly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) into Kigali on July 4, 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.
Kagame will later preside over a vigil at the country’s main football ground. The Amahoro National Stadium — whose name means “peace” in Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda language — was used by the UN during the genocide to protect thousands of Tutsis from being massacred on the streets outside.
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 percent, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Some 10 leaders are expected to pay their respects, mostly from nations across the continent.
Former colonial ruler Belgium is sending 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 April 7 a “day of commemoration of the genocide” in France, without giving further details.
At the ceremony, France is represented by Herve 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 a diplomatic spat between the two nations.
During his speech, Kagame sent out a warning to those who cross him.
“For those from here or from outside who think our country has not seen enough of a mess and want to mess with us … I want to say, we will mess up with them big time.
“No adversary should underestimate what a formidable force Rwandans have become as a result of circumstances.”