Prisoners listen during a genocide commemoration ceremony at Nyarugenge Prison in Kigali, Rwanda, April 7 2019. Picture: ANDREW RENNEISEN/GETTY IMAGES/AFP
Prisoners listen during a genocide commemoration ceremony at Nyarugenge Prison in Kigali, Rwanda, April 7 2019. Picture: ANDREW RENNEISEN/GETTY IMAGES/AFP

Kigali — Rwanda began 100 days of mourning on Sunday for more than 800,000 people slaughtered in a genocide that shocked the world, a quarter-of-a-century on from the day it began.

President Paul Kagame started off a week of commemoration activities by lighting a remembrance flame at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where more than 250,000 victims are believed to be buried, mainly Tutsis.

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.

The killings lasted until Kagame, then 36, led the mainly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front 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.

After lighting the flame — accompanied by his wife, Jeanette, AU chief Moussa Faki and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker — Kagame is expected to make a speech.

He will speak at the Kigali Convention Centre, a dome-shaped auditorium in the centre of the capital, a modern building emblematic of the regeneration of Rwanda since the dark days of 1994.

Kagame will then preside over a vigil at the country’s main football ground. The Amahoro National Stadium, the name of which means “peace” in Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda language, was used by the UN during the genocide to protect thousands of people of the Tutsi minority 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 nation through economic recovery. Growth in 2018 was a heady 7.2%, according to the African Development Bank.

About 10 leaders, mostly from nations across the continent, are expected to pay their respects. 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” on Sunday. Macron would like to make April 7 a “day of commemoration of the genocide” in France.

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 judgment”.

Macron is not the only notable absentee; former ally Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is also not attending, amid accusations by Kigali that Uganda is supporting Rwandan rebels.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that Macron has established a group of researchers to investigate what role France may have played in the genocide. Macron made the announcement in Paris after meeting an association of survivors of the mass killings. The nine-person team of academics will conduct their research over two years, he said.

The French military advised Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated government in the early 1990s as it fought a war against mainly Tutsi rebels based in neighbouring Uganda. The French military has faced accusations that it knew about the massacres, which began in April 1994 after an aircraft carrying the country’s president was shot down in mysterious circumstances.

France’s parliament interviewed French political and military leaders in 1998, but the resulting report drew no conclusions beyond saying members of the military had made “errors of judgment”.

In December 2017, a report commissioned by the Rwandan government recommended a full investigation into the French role in the genocide.

Macron’s commission will have full access to the archives of deceased former president Francois Mitterrand, the foreign ministry and the military, including its intelligence services.

While Rwanda had been ruled by Belgium, successive French governments maintained close links because its Hutu leadership was mostly Francophone, while Tutsi leaders in exile in Uganda mostly spoke English.