President Paul Kagame and dignitaries were present to commemorate the 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus who were slaughtered between April and July 1994.
“Behind the words ‘never again’ there is a story whose truth must be told in full. No matter who you are and how uncomfortable,” Kagame told the crowd to applause, a dig at the French.
"Les faits sont têtus," (“facts are stubborn”), said Kagame in French.
France pulled its high-level delegation out of the commemoration, after an interview with Kagame in the weekly magazine Jeune Afrique said the French needed to remember how they contributed to the execution of the 1994 genocide.
The French Ambassador to Rwanda, Michel Flesch, was originally scheduled to represent Paris at the stadium, but he told RFI that he received a telephone call late last night from the Rwandan Foreign Ministry and was told his accreditation was revoked. When asked if he could put a wreath at the Kigali National Genocide Memorial, he was sharply told ‘no’.
At Amahoro stadium, the pain of this anniversary was too much for some who recalled the trauma of the 100 days of terror that kicked off on this day 20 years ago. Emergency staff in neon vests dotted the crowd and comforted people or carried off the ones who were too distraught.
Genocide survivor Fidele Wamuhizi recounted his tale in Kinyarwanda, which upset many in the crowd as they remembered their own stories.
“Twenty seasons of mourning. This is a day that cannot be forgotten,” said Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo as she addressed the crowd. “In the aftermath of the genocide 20 years ago, Rwandans felt alone in their grief. Today friends around the world join us to commemorate the tragedy of our nation.”
Dignitaries from around the world sat front and centre in the shade of Amahoro Stadium in the capital, Kigali, while ordinary Rwandans packed the seats in the open sun under colourful umbrellas.
April 7 is a national holiday here in Rwanda, and people started making their way to the stadium in the morning mist.
African Union chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma spoke to the crowd, saying, “we owe it to our children and to our children’s children to remember the 300,000 children killed [in the Rwandan genocide]", as a woman began to wail loudly.
“We could have done much more, we should have done much more,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking of the UN’s failure to stop the genocide.
Dancers and singers performed a play “Shadows of Memory” that described the failure of the international community to stop the slaughter. Youths dressed in grey danced around before falling to the ground, eliciting more wails from the crowd.
The final song “Never Forget” provided a more upbeat tempo, but did not remove the heavy sadness that hung over the stadium.