Sorrowful screams and wails filled the air of Kigali’s Amahoro National Stadium on Monday morning, as genocide tributes and performances incited hysterics in the crowd gathered to mark the beginning of 100 days of systematic slaughter that left 800,000 Rwandans dead 20 years ago.
Small processions of formally dressed mourners made their way through the capital city’s shuttered streets, past banners reading “Kwibuka 20: Remember, Unite, Renew” draped over many of the buildings, and towards the stadium, which had once held more than 10,000 Tutsi refugees during the war.
Across the street, crowds lined the sidewalk to hear the broadcasted speeches from the likes of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Standing outside with a group of friends, 21-year-old Mizelo Aboloul recounted a personal story of reconciliation that has also become a nation-wide narrative. He was just a baby when the genocide broke out, but could remember when, at age 10, genocidaires came to his house to apologize to his family for their acts. It felt good, he said of their visit, and he forgave them.
“At this time it is not Hutu and Tutsi,” he said. “Today, we are teaching the young of Rwandan development, and what is the meaning of ‘Ndi Umunyarwanda,’ [I am Rwandan]. Kids growing up a long time ago didn’t know ‘Ndi Umunyarwanda,’ they knew Hutu and Tutsi.” Now, he says, “we are together.”
“We should have done much more,” said Ban Ki-moon. “The shame still clings.”
Inside the stadium, the sun beat down on tens of thousands of people who had arrived to mark the milestone in a modern country unrecognizable from the ruined state it was left in 20 years ago.
“We are no longer crying,” said Hubert Kiteretse, a Kigali resident, who has attended the ceremonies every year. But testimony and speeches were punctured by blood-curdling cries from members of the audience, who were removed from their seats and carried outside to a special area by squads of yellow-vested event staff. Seven assigned to this task filled each stadium section and also handed out flats of tissue packets.
Kiteretse said he believes that this year, his country has finally completed the reconciliation process. “We are happy that we have normal identity cards. Twenty years before they were ethnic IDs, but now we are all Rwandans—without segregation or nepotism.”
The ceremony kicked off with Kagame, First Lady Janet Kagame, and Ki-moon jointly lighting a ceremonial torch that has traveled to Rwanda’s 30 districts over the past three months. Current heads of state from eight African nations, along with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and, representing the United States, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, took seats on the main stage.
“You have taken responsibility and you have forgiven,” Kagame said to the Rwandans gathered. “Thank you for allowing your humanity to prevail over grief.”
Sandwiched between speeches, a dance routine with nearly 900 performers reenacted the events of 1994. Actors in silver robes fell after United Nations peacekeepers in blue berets poignantly drove away, but were resurrected by marching RPF soldiers who lifted them from the ground. The dramatic performance prompted an escalation in the emotion in the stands, with the staff carrying out multiple people in every section. (One of the choreographers later said he spent a week talking to survivors to create the dance.) “In such countries, genocide is not too important,” an actor said, quoting former French President François Mitterand.
The interference and later abandonment of Rwanda by the international community is still fresh 20 years after the genocide, and served as a common thread through the speeches. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni spoke about the colonial forces that divided a nation into two ethnic groups, and African Union Commission Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma asserted that “the Rwandan genocide could have been prevented by the international community.” Kagame himself spoke of colonization that turned 2,000 years of Rwanda’s cultural history into warring caricatures.
“The whole country and world are understanding what genocide is,” said 29-year-old Manasseh Nkiranuye, who was observing the ceremony. He noted that a 20-year milestone means the global community has comprehended the events of 1994, and now rebuilding Rwanda can take top priority. “During previous years they didn’t know [what the genocide meant]—to explain it is very difficult.”
The Rwandan president didn’t shy away from his recently revived accusation that France and Belgium played a direct role in the genocide. The French delegation pulled out from the events this weekend after his comments were made public.
"People cannot be bribed or forced into changing their history, and no country is powerful enough, even when they think they are, to change the facts," Kagame said, then pointedly switched to French to make his jab clear: "Les faits sont tetus" (facts are stubborn).
“We don’t need to experience genocide to become a better people,” Kagame said. “It simply should have never happened.”
Ban Ki-moon was similarly blunt, calling out the international community for abandoning Rwanda in its moment of need. The United Nations has been widely criticized for not heeding warnings of the genocide and then looking the other way as hundreds of thousands died. “We could have done much more, we should have done much more,” he said. “The shame still clings.” He also seemed to make a pointed remark toward Kagame, who has garnered dissent for his hold on power and mistreatment of human rights groups, saying the government must “encourage democracy and human rights for Rwanda’s future.”
A nighttime vigil at the stadium drew many Rwandans back to watch more performances and light candles for the genocide’s victims. Meanwhile across town, the popular Mille Collines—made famous by the depiction in Hotel Rwanda—had a sparse crowd dining near the pool that, 20 years ago, was used as drinking water for those seeking refuge. A few blocks away, dignitaries, including Tony Blair, held court in the upscale Serena Hotel.
There may have been no shortage of members of the international community in Rwanda on Monday, but in his speech, Kagame stressed the independence of a nation that fought its own way out of a genocide. “Africans are no longer resigned to being hostage to the world's low expectations,” he said. “We listen to and respect the views of others. But ultimately, we have got to be responsible for ourselves.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Nina Strochlic’s reporting from Rwanda.