World leaders have descended on Kigali to join the people of Rwanda in remembering and honouring the more than a million compatriots killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
At least seven Heads of State and several statesmen and women from around the world had arrived in the country by press time last evening ahead of today’s main commemoration event at Amahoro National Stadium in Remera, Kigali, to be held under the theme “Remember, Unite, Renew”.
Among the Presidents in town include Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali, Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of Somalia, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
Other dignitaries who arrived yesterday include the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Burundi First Vice President Prosper Bazombaza, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Tanzanian former president Benjamin Mkapa, and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission.
The US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, is leading the US delegation, which also includes Russell Feingold, the special representative for the African Great Lakes region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Hundreds of delegates, including foreign political leaders, celebrities, scholars and activists are expected to attend the national commemoration ceremony, expected to be widely covered by the global media, with many international media organisations having sent in crews.
Notable absentee is France which pulled out of the commemorations at the last minute in protest of what they termed as Rwanda’s renewed accusations of Paris’ well documented involvement in the 1994 Genocide.
Former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, who will be attending the event, criticised his country’s action describing it as “childish reaction”.
The British delegation is led by Foreign Secretary William Hague, and also includes the Minister for Africa Mark Simmonds.
Expected to lead the Belgian delegation was the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders, and Jean-Pascal Labille, the Minister of Development Cooperation.
They were to be accompanied by, among others, the families of the ten Belgian paratroopers killed in Kigali on April 7, 1994, just hours after the shooting down of the plane that was carrying then Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, which has since been blamed on extremists within his camp, to create the excuse for carrying out the genocide.
The Belgian UN peacekeepers were killed around the same time as then Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a moderate Hutu whom they were guarding, as genocide got underway in earnest.
Across Rwanda, citizens are expected to converge at venues in their respective villages (smallest administrative unit) to pay homage to Genocide victims.
At the stroke of noon today, the whole country will also observe a minute’s silence in remembrance of Genocide victims.
President Paul Kagame’s Genocide anniversary speech will also be broadcast on all TV and radio stations, and will be followed by citizens meeting in their villages.
The national flag and indeed flags of other countries represented in Rwanda will also be lowered to half-mast throughout the official mourning week.
A three-month nationwide tour of the Kwibuka (Remembrance) Flame is among the activities carried out in the build-up to the 20th Genocide anniversary.
The Flame, which was lit on January 7 and made its final stop on Saturday – at the Integrated Polytechnic Regional Centre Kigali (former ETO Kicukiro) in Kicukiro District –, officially marking completion of its tour of all the 30 districts, will be returned to the Kigali Memorial Centre this morning ahead of the start of today’s ceremonies.
Today’s commemoration events will start with the lighting of the National Flame of Mourning at the Kigali Memorial Centre by President Kagame and the First Lady, Jeannette Kagame. The flame will last for 100 days, equal to the number of days the Genocide lasted.
While officially the national mourning will last for a week, commemoration activities will go on for three months – through July 4, the day when the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), the armed wing of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) took Kigali and stopped the killings.
President Kagame and the First Lady will also lay wreaths at the memorial, home to the remains of at least 250,000 Genocide victims. Also to pay their respects at the memorial are the visiting Heads of State.
Besides President Kagame, others expected to speak at the main commemoration event at Amaharo stadium include Ban Ki-moon and President Museveni.
In 1994, the UN significantly downsized its peacekeeping mission, paving the way for widespread killings, especially around Kigali where Unamir soldiers were based.
A National ‘Walk to Remember’ is also scheduled to take place later this afternoon led by President Kagame.
The march, expected to attract many youths, will start from the Parliamentary Buildings in Kimihurura and end at Amahoro National Stadium, where a national vigil will subsequently begin.
Similar walks will take place in other countries around the world, with the involvement of Rwandans in the Diaspora, as a show of solidarity with Rwanda and in remembrance of Genocide victims.
The UN set aside April 7 as the day of the Remembrance of the victims of the Genocide against the Tutsi.