Thousands of Rwandans and world leaders gathered at Amahoro Stadium in the capital, Kigali, on Monday to remember the victims of the 1994 massacre.
“As we pay tribute to the victims, both the living and those who have passed, we also salute the unbreakable Rwandan spirit in which we owe the survival and renewal of our country,” said Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president.
Kagame and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, lit a flame at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre to remember an estimated million Rwandans died in three months of machete and gunfire attacks that mostly targeted the country’s minority Tutsi population.
Actors also reenacted scenes from the genocide, forcing some severely traumatised people to be carried out of the stadium.
“It is so hard for the people, because it opens mental wounds, hearing the testimonies of those who survived, they are reminded of what happened to them,” a Rwandan health ministry official told the AFP news agency.
In the years following the end of the violence in Rwanda, the global community has had to acknowledge that it did nothing to stop the killing.
Kagame has won praise for pulling his country out of violence and his government has advanced women’s rights, economic development and health care.
But critics say that progress has been marred by an authoritarian approach that has seen government critics and opposition members killed.
“We are now 20 years after the genocide, so we cannot continue to do the same things we did in 1995 or in 2000,” said Frank Habineza, the leader of the country’s only opposition political party. “We ask the government to open up more space, allow more opinion, allow more political parties, but also enforce the rule of law.”
Kagame blamed outside forces for the violence in his country and on Monday accused France of directly “participating” in the 1994 mass killings.