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Dublin: 9 °C Saturday 1 November, 2014

Column: ‘Memories of the genocide drew screams and wails that echoed around the stadium’

The atmosphere in Rwanda as it remembers its horrific genocide of 20 years ago has been equal parts sombre and hopeful, writes Karen Power.

Karen Power

ARRIVING INTO KIGALI airport late last Wednesday night I was greeted by the sight of thousands of twinkling lights, almost like stars across the hills of the city.

I learned the next day that these lights are commonly used on the outside of houses. Nonetheless, this view gave me an initial sense of the beautiful city in which I was about to arrive.

I’m currently in Rwanda as the country marks the anniversary of the genocide of 1994. It began 20 years ago after a plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana of the majority Hutus was shot down on 6 April. Almost immediately, roadblocks sprang up. The killing of minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus by soldiers and Hutu extremists lasted 100 days, during which almost one million people were killed – amounting to 20 per cent of the population – before the genocide came to an end.

Humanitarian agency Concern has been in Rwanda since it responded in the immediate aftermath of the genocide. Initially, as whole communities were forced to flee their homes, Concern joined other agencies to assist the one million displaced people within the country and the two million refugees in neighbouring countries. Over the years, as the security and humanitarian situation improved, the programmes evolved from an emergency response to a more sustainable rehabilitation and development phase. The organisation now focuses on the areas of primary education; livelihoods, health and nutrition.

Poverty remains a crippling problem

Twenty years on from the genocide – despite all the advances made by Rwanda since these bleak days – huge challenges exist. Poverty is still a problem, with nearly half the population living in poverty and a quarter in extreme poverty. As a result malnutrition is a significant issue and 44 per cent of children are affected by stunting. In the region affected by extreme poverty, this figure is as high as 65 per cent.

While such problems are still evident, Rwanda is continuing to move forward with its government’s Vision 2020 strategy to reduce further such poverty levels . The anniversary of the genocide is the country’s chance to show the world that, as a people, they have moved on from that dark period in their history. A chance to show the world that what comes first is being ‘Rwandan’. While it is impossible to forget, I can see that Rwandans are using this time as a period of reflection and a chance to heal.

The theme for the anniversary is ‘Kwibuka’ or ‘Remembrance’ and throughout the year events are being held nationwide to commemorate the genocide. While events have been running since 7 January, when the countrywide tour of the Flame of Remembrance began, it was 7 April when the eyes of the world turned to Rwanda.

Traumatic flashbacks

Following a minute’s silence at noon on Monday in Amahoro Stadium, a survivor of the genocide took to the stage in front of 30,000 people to tell his story.

As his words rang out around the stadium in Kigali, so began the official day of remembrance. Guests at the official event included dignitaries from around the world and addresses were made by President Kagame and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, among others.

While public outbursts of grief are not part of Rwandan culture, they are common at this time of year as people are overcome with emotion and many experience traumatic flashbacks. The memories of the genocide drew heavily on emotions with screams and wails echoed around the stadium during the ceremony, which included a powerful performance featuring khaki-clad soldiers acting out the saving of ‘slain’ Rwandans. Some distressed attendees had to be carried from their seats as they were overcome with emotion.

Following the official ceremony in Amahoro Stadium, thousands gathered at the Rwandan parliament buildings for an event organised by the Rwandan Youth: Walk to Remember. The walk was organised as a way for young people to remember each life lost during the genocide as well as to make the commitment: “Step-by-step, never again in Rwanda”.
To see so many young people wanting to mark the lives of those lost was extremely moving.

And as I joined the other walkers, I listened to their stories and witnessed their passion to ensure Rwanda never enters such a dark period again. We were led on the walk from the Parliament Buildings by President Kagame, who was joined by dignitaries including Tony Blair and William Hague. President Kagame hugged some of the young walkers as they headed back towards Amahoro Stadium where they began a candle-lit vigil. Visually, to me this was the most powerful event of the day. It was amazing to see the darkness of the stadium lit up by thousands of tiny flickering lights. It was such an appropriate and beautiful way to bring such a momentous day to a close.

The home of a thousand hills, Rwanda is a beautiful country with a violent past. To be here with Concern during the 20th anniversary has been a revelation. The atmosphere has been equal parts sombre and hopeful. Above all, it is very apparent this is a nation that is acknowledging its past while pressing forward with its future.

Karen Power, Communications Officer with Concern Worldwide.

Follow Opinion & Insight on Twitter: @TJ_Opinions

Read: 20 Years On: What have we learned from Rwanda?

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