Emmanuel Ndayisaba (left) and Alice Mukarurinda, who lost her hand during the genocide, recount their experiences of the violence 20 years ago in Nyamata, Rwanda. Picture: Ben Curtis

Washington -

United States President Barack Obama paid tribute to the victims of Rwanda's genocide, urging the international community to choose compassion over hatred on Sunday, on the eve of commemorations marking the 20th anniversary of the killings.

Speaking of the incredibly bloody violence that “shook the conscience of the world”, Obama stressed that the genocide was “neither an accident nor unavoidable”.

Government soldiers and Hutu militia killed 800 000 ethnic Tutsis during a three-month period in 1994.

“It was a deliberate and systematic effort by human beings to destroy other human beings,” Obama said in a statement.

“The horrific events of those 100 days - when friend turned against friend, and neighbour against neighbour - compel us to resist our worst instincts, just as the courage of those who risked their lives to save others reminds us of our obligations to our fellow man.”

The United Nations and the international community at large were heavily criticised at the time of the killings for at first failing to acknowledge a genocide was taking place and then failing to stop it.

“The genocide we remember today - and the world's failure to respond more quickly - reminds us that we always have a choice,” Obama said.

“In the face of hatred, we must remember the humanity we share. In the face of cruelty, we must choose compassion. In the face of intolerance and suffering, we must never be indifferent.”

“Embracing this spirit, as nations and as individuals, is how we can honour all those who were lost two decades ago and build a future worthy of their lives.”

Obama also hailed survivors' “determination” in healing old wounds and the country's progress in building economic growth to reduce poverty and in contributing to peacekeeping missions worldwide.

“We stand in awe of their families, who have summoned the courage to carry on, and the survivors, who have worked through their wounds to rebuild their lives,” the US president said.

Official mourning, which began three months ago with a flame of remembrance touring the small nation from village to village, culminate Monday when the torch arrives at the national genocide memorial.

President Paul Kagame will light a flame that will burn for 100 days.

Wreaths will also be laid at the national genocide memorial, before ceremonies in Kigali's football stadium, where UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon is due to attend. - Sapa-AFP