Kagame lights flame of remembrance


Kigali -

Flames from flickering candles passed from person to person, as Rwandans mourned the massacre of nearly a million people 20 years ago in the country's genocide.

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United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (fifth left), Rwandan President Paul Kagame (second left), his wife Jeannette Kagame and the African Union Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma (sixth left) light the flame, as they participate in the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Kigali on April 7, 2014. Picture: Noor KhamisRwandan girls hold candles during a night vigil for the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide, in Kigali, on April 7, 2014. Picture: Noor Khamis

With soft music and in light rain, thousands crowded the national stadium late on Monday, as President Paul Kagame lit the first candle, before the flame passed around the crowded terraces.

In the stands, many sat hunched staring deep at the flame, amid the official commemorations remembering the atrocities in their own deeply personal, quiet and reflective way.

“It is good to be with other people, to have my own thoughts but with the support of being together,” said Grace Kaligirwa, an elderly woman, who lost several family members in the genocide.

Earlier in the day, during a more formal ceremony with speeches from heads of state, survivors recounted their memories of the killings and of survival.

Several people were overcome with trauma, screaming and crying uncontrollably with medical staff helping to carry them out and to provide counselling.

But the evening of music and prayers allowed for softer, quieter emotions and reflection, as some sat with their heads in their hands.

“It is so important to remember what happened, but it is not an easy thing to do, there is too much memory of those times that comes back,” said Jean, a man in his thirties.

The well-planned and viciously executed genocide began late on April 6, 1994, shortly after Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali.

Roadblocks were set up, with Tutsi men, women and children of all ages butchered with machetes, guns and grenades.

At least 800 000 people, mostly Tutsis and some moderate Hutus, died.

Official mourning began three months ago with a flame of remembrance touring towns and villages across the small Central African nation, and culminated on Monday when the torch arrived at the national genocide memorial - where the remains of a quarter of a million people are stored in vast concrete tombs.

Kagame lit a flame that will burn for 100 days, the length of time it took government soldiers and “Hutu power” militiamen to carry out their plan to wipe out the “Inyenzi” - a term meaning “cockroaches” that was used by Hutu extremists to designate minority Tutsis.

Rwanda's Red Cross has boosted its support staff for those hit hard by trauma, as the media floods with stories recalling the horrific stories of those who survived.

“Sometimes it is too much,” said Francois, sitting on steps just outside the main commemorations, getting fresh air. “It overwhelms, it makes it hard to breathe.”

But away from the stadium, the people of Rwanda remembered the dead too, with the streets of the capital Kigali quiet, and almost all businesses closed.

Down narrow back streets laid with cobble stones, residents wandered slowly, some hand and in hand with each other, wearing grey ribbons to remember the dead.

“There is not a day I don't think about what happened back then,” said elderly man Jean-Pierre. “Tonight though, and the coming days, are the hardest times.” - Sapa-AFP

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