Rwandans have held a solemn commemoration of the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu who tried to protect them were killed.
President Paul Kagame on Thursday laid a wreath at a memorial site where more than 250,000 people are buried in the capital, Kigali. The ceremony marked the beginning of a week of somber events.
Kagame said he opposes any attempts to rewrite the history of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. The killings were perpetrated by extremist Hutu over a period of 100 days.
Some rights groups have accused Kagame’s soldiers of carrying out some killings during and after the genocide in apparent revenge, but Rwandan authorities strongly deny this allegation.
Kagame said that his group had shown restraint in the face of genocide.
“Imagine people being hunted down day and night for who they are. Also imagine if those of us who were carrying arms, if we had allowed ourselves to pursue those who were killing our people indiscriminately,” he said.
“First of all, we would be right to do so. But we didn’t. We spared them. Some of them are still living today, in their homes, villages. Others are in government and business.”
Kagame, who is widely credited with stopping the genocide, has become a polarising figure over the years as his critics accuse him of leading an authoritarian government that crushes all dissent.
But he is also praised by many for presiding over the relative political stability allowing Rwanda’s economy to grow.
Kagame aimed his speech at those criticising his justice system on the back of hundreds of genocide fugitives still at large.
“You can even imagine people who doubt our justice system, yet Rwanda abolished the death penalty in its laws not because anybody influenced or put pressure on us at a time when it had so many people to be justifiably hanged. And you turn and say that we do not have justice,” he said.
“Rwanda is a small country but big in justice. We believe in the rule of law.”
“What happened in Rwanda was the result of a failure of political systems … and seclusion,” Moussa Faki Mahamat, head of the African Union Commission, said at an event at the AU headquarters in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.
He hailed Rwanda for its “spectacular” reconstruction and reconciliation efforts over the past almost three decades.
“As Africans, we should come together as one to commemorate one of our continent’s darkest days,” said Hope Tumukunde Gasatura, Rwanda’s permanent envoy to the AU.
“The phrase ‘Never Again’ is an enduring phrase which has echoed around the world in response to genocide – from the Holocaust to Bosnia, to Cambodia, to Rwanda.”
The mass killing of the Tutsi was ignited on April 6 when a plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down and crashed in Kigali, killing the leader who, like most Rwandans, was an ethnic Hutu.
The Tutsi were blamed for downing the plane, and although they denied it, bands of Hutu extremists began killing them, including children, with support from the army, police and militias.
The AU Commission and Rwanda’s mission to the AU have jointly organised a 100-day commemoration under the theme of “Remember, Unite, Renew,” with events scheduled to be held from April 7 to July 3.