Rwandans mark 20th anniversary of genocide amid reminders that justice has yet to be done.

By Drum Digital
09 April 2014

Rwanda has launched a week of official mourning to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the massacres.

Soldiers use bayonets to kill the wounded in a hospital. Machete-carrying militiamen rampage in the streets. Children are mutilated.

Horrific scenes like these are what AFP journalist Annie Thomas witnessed when she covered the genocide in Rwanda 20 years ago.

Writing on the agency's Correspondent blog, Thomas looks back at 100 days of hell in Rwanda, when some 800,000 people were massacred.

Based in AFP's Nairobi bureau from 1993 to 1998, Thomas became friends with Jean Helene, a Radio France Internationale journalist who was killed 10 years later in Ivory Coast. After the genocide, both journalists were attacked, sometimes virulently for their coverage of events.

"Nothing, I fear, except, perhaps, to assuage the guilt that I still feel now for not walking up to the murderous troops at the hospital and shouting at them to stop; for not allowing young people running from the militia to climb in our car; for having been given a hearty welcome because I'm French by killers whose machetes were still dripping with blood; for failing to write from the start that we were witnessing a genocide."

File photo of a Rwandan boy covering his face from the stench of dead bodies

On Monday, Rwanda launched a week of official mourning to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the massacres in which more than 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus, died at the hands of Hutu extremists.

The events, marked by displays of intense grief, began with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center.

Later, at Kigali’s main stadium, a flame was lighted that will burn for 100 days — the period covered by the killing sprees.

A French representative was noticeably absent after Rwandan President Paul Kagame accused France of involvement in the genocide in an interview with Jeune Afrique, a French-language magazine, last week.

France, which was a close ally of the Hutu-led government that was in place before the genocide, in turn accused Kagame of distorting history.

Feeling insulted by renewed allegations from Rwandan President Paul Kagame of French complicity, France's Justice Minister Christiane Taubira cancelled her trip to Kigali for a memorial ceremony.

As France digs in its heels and maintains it has nothing to apologise for when it comes to the genocide, ordinary victims and survivors are unimpressed: the French authorities, they say, should say sorry.

Rwanda in turn decided that a downgraded French presence at the commemorations was not on, and told France's ambassador to Kigali to stay at home.

But aside from the official tussle, the issue is also one that resonates among many ordinary Rwandans.

"It is 20 years, and still this goes on. When will they simply say sorry?" said Peter, a young man in his twenties who declined to give his last name.

The dispute centres on France's role prior to the genocide as a close ally of the Hutu nationalist regime of Juvenal Habyarimana.

The shooting down of his plane over Kigali late on April 6, 1994 was the event that triggered 100 days of meticulously-planned slaughter.

France is accused of missing or ignoring the warning signs, and of training soldiers and militia who carried out the killings. When the genocide was in full swing, France was accused of using its diplomatic clout to stall effective action.

Eugene Mussolini, a survivor of the genocide in his thirties, signalled that Kagame's criticisms reflected the view held by many in the general public.

France "was among the countries that were supporting militia and the former government... they had all the power and all the capacity to stop the militia and they didn't do anything," he said.

Francoise Karangwa, a 25-year-old who has just finished studying accountancy, also backed the Rwandan government line that French authorities needed to swallow their pride and apologise. "Rwandans forgive even if you cannot forget," Karangwa said, who lost several family members in 1994. "We cannot force them to apologise, but it would be a courageous act." In an address to visiting dignitaries and thousands of Rwandans, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reiterated the United Nations’ remorse that its peacekeepers had failed to stop the genocide. “In Rwanda, troops were withdrawn when they were most needed,” Ban said. President Uhuru Kenyatta has formally apologized to Rwanda over failure by Kenya to step in and save the country from the horrendous 1994 genocide.

Kenyatta said although the rest of the world had maintained a studious silence as Rwandan Hutus killed members of the Tutsi ethnic community, it was not justified for the East African region to also stand aside without taking action   “Our region also stood aside, and for that we owe the most profound apology to the people of Rwanda. We have learned that no one from far away can be relied on to come to our aid; we must build an independent capability and will to protect the lives of our children and their futures,” said Kenyatta. Former Washington Post reporter Keith Richburg covered the conflict and in this video below he vividly looks back on the crisis two decades later. (Jason Aldag / The Washington Post)

By S’thembiso Hlongwane

Sources: The Washington Post, rwandinfo.com, www.standardmedia.co.ke, SAPA and BBC.

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