Solemn commemorations marking the 20th anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide yesterday bore reminders of a festering anger as a major diplomatic row broke out over allegations of France’s complicity in the 1994 massacres.
French ambassador to Rwanda Michel Flesch said he had been barred from the commemorations after Paris decided to cancel a ministerial visit in response to the renewed accusations by Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo also told France that it had to face up to the “difficult truth” over its involvement in the murder of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis two decades ago.
Official mourning, which began three months ago with a flame of remembrance touring towns and villages across the small central African nation, culminated yesterday when the torch arrived at the national genocide memorial.
Kagame lighted a flame that is to 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 denigrate and designate the minority Tutsis.
The well-planned and viciously executed genocide began 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.
Custodians of the memorial say it contains the bones of a quarter of a million people now carefully stored in vast concrete tombs.
Wreathes were also laid, before ceremonies in Kigali’s soccer stadium where UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and several African leaders were due to attend along with several top diplomats from the US and European nations.
However, French officials were absent.
“Yesterday night the Rwandan foreign ministry telephoned to inform me that I was no longer accredited for the ceremonies,” Flesch said.
French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira had already pulled out of the events after Kagame repeated his accusation of French “participation” in the killings.
He said French soldiers — who helped train the Hutu nationalist-controlled Rwandan army prior to 1994, as well as being accused of aiding the killers to escape — were both accomplices and “actors” in the bloodbath.
“For our two countries to really start getting along, we will have to face the truth. The truth is difficult, the truth of being close to anybody who is associated with genocide understandably is a very difficult truth to accept,” Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said on Sunday.
France has repeatedly denied any direct involvement in the genocide and unlike former colonial power Belgium has refused to apologize.
Ban has said the commemorations were a chance to remind the world to do all it can to ensure such crimes never happen again. The UN was also heavily criticized in 1994 for not doing more to stop the killings.
“The scale of the brutality in Rwanda still shocks: an average of 10,000 deaths per day, day after day, for three months,” Ban said.