Rwanda has begun a solemn commemoration of 800,000 people killed with knives, clubs and other weapons during three months of genocide of 1994.
The president, Paul Kagame, laid a wreath at a memorial site where more than 250,000 people are buried in the capital, Kigali. Songs were sung and poems recited at the beginning of a week of events.
Speaking after the ceremony, Kagame pledged that history would never repeat itself. “That is our firm commitment. 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 Rwandans had granted themselves a new beginning and were “wounded and heartbroken … but unvanquished”.
Officials and foreign dignitaries joined around 2,000 people in a “walk to remember” from Rwanda’s parliament to the national football stadium, where candles were to be lit in a night vigil.
The vast majority of the victims of the genocide were from Rwanda’s Tutsi minority, though some Hutu moderates also died.
The 100 days of killing began on 6 April 1994 after the then president, Juvénal Habyarimana, and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, both Hutus, died when their plane was shot down over the Rwandan capital. Those responsible have never been identified.
Hutu government soldiers and allied extremist militias orchestrated a campaign to exterminate the Tutsi minority. In villages across the densely populated country, neighbour turned on neighbour as men, women and children were burned alive, hacked to death, clubbed and shot. Up to 250,000 women and girls were raped, often repeatedly.
Seventy per cent of the minority Tutsi population was wiped out, and more than 10% of the total Rwandan population.
Preliminary results of a 2018 national survey found 35% of survivors aged between 25 and 65 years reported symptoms linked to mental health problems.
The killing ended in July 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi-led rebel movement led by Kagame, invaded from Uganda and seized control of the country. Kagame has in effect been the leader of the country – first as vice-president and then as president – ever since.
One of Africa’s most divisive figures, Kagame is seen by supporters as an incorruptible and visionary leader who brought security and development to a shattered nation. Critics say he is a ruthless authoritarian propped up by a gullible and guilty international community which failed to intervene to stop the genocide 25 years ago.