Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia arrived in Rwanda on Saturday evening. He was welcomed by President Paul Kagame at the airport – as one the world leaders for the 25th anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
On Sunday, April 7, the start of the week-long commemoration period, PM Abiy, as he is commonly known, addressed a high-level audience.
It was the first time he is returning to Rwanda after 24 years. Back in 1995, many months after the genocide had completely been stopped across Rwanda in July the previous year, Abiy arrived as part of the Ethiopian contingent of peacekeepers.
“In 1995 I came to Rwanda as a young man part of Ethiopia delegations of Peacekeepers…I experienced the aftermath of the tragic Genocide,” he told the audience including President Kagame, more than ten leaders such as Belgian PM Charles Michel and Canada’s Governor General Julie Payette.
He added: “My short deployment in #
Rwanda… made me become a witness of the genocide against the Tutsi.”
“Rwanda has made great strides by learning from its history, keeping difficult times as a reminder of its past but also looking to the future by harnessing a citizenry that values growth and progress,” said Abiy Ahmed.
Other leaders who spoke were EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, whose speech repeated “over 800,000 victims” contested number of the victims of the genocide.
Belgium’s PM Charles Michel said the genocide in Rwanda was a failure of the international community.
“The duty of history is a sacred requirement and one we must face with honesty. Genocide against Tutsi was a failure of the international community. I stand before you on behalf of a Country that also wishes to assume its responsibility,” said Michel.
He added that he and Belgians are moved with “admiration for the courage, resilience, empathy” of the Rwandan people.
Other leaders present were Congo Brazzaville President Denis Sassou N’gueso and Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou – but both did not speak. Another was Djibouti’s President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, who gave brief speech.
President of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat announced that he would lead an effort bringing together all regional blocs to design a continental strategy against genocide ideology and hate.
The highlight of the day was the much anticipated speech of host President Kagame. And he did not disappoint, leading to a long standing ovation at the end of the address.
The speech told of stories of survivors. It narrated the young girl who posed what remains a challenging question up to today: where was God in 1994?
President Kagame began with: “On a day like this, when language fails, the first words that come, are words of gratitude. To you, the friends by our side on this heavy day, including the different leaders present, we say thank you.”
“In 1994, there was no hope, only darkness. Today, light radiates from this place.”
On the survivors, he said: “There is no way to fully comprehend the loneliness and anger of survivors. And yet, over and over again, we have asked them to make the sacrifices necessary to give our nation new life. Emotions had to be put in a box.”
“Someone once asked me why we keep burdening survivors with the responsibility for our healing. It was a painful question, but I realised the answer was obvious. Survivors are the only ones with something left to give: their forgiveness.”
President Kagame noted: “To survivors, I can only say thank you. Your resilience and bravery represent the triumph of the Rwandan character in its purest form.”
Kagame said Rwandans have “carried an immense weight with little or no complaint.”
President Kagame narrated: “At a memorial event some years ago, a young girl brought us to tears with a poem. She said, ‘There is a saying that God spends the day elsewhere, but returns to sleep in Rwanda’…Then she asked: ‘Where was God on those dark nights of genocide?’….. Looking at Rwanda today, it is clear that God has come back home to stay.”
It would have been unusual if Kagame had not addressed the current regional challenges. Without naming any names, he made it clear: no one should try to dare Rwanda.
“And my brother, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, knows where Rwanda is coming from, having served in an Ethiopian peacekeeping contingent after the Genocide, together with troops from elsewhere in Africa and beyond,” said Kagame.
“For those from here or from outside who think our country has not seen enough of a mess and want to mess with us, in defense of those children you saw and our nation, I want to say, we will mess up with them big time, big time.”
Kagame also addressed the serious problem facing Rwanda of genocide denial and negation that is prevalent both in and outside Rwanda.
“Revisionism is not merely demeaning, but profoundly dangerous. The genocide did not begin on one specific day. It has a history,” he said.
Adding: “Why were bodies dumped into rivers, to send them back up the Nile, where they supposedly came from? Why did some parents even kill their own children, who looked a certain way? None of that started with a plane crash. So where did it come from?”
Kagame also paid tribute to the students killed after they refused to separate themselves into Hutus and Tutsis. He said: “The Nyange students who refused to be separated into Hutu on one side, Tutsi on the other. They never betrayed each other. Six were killed. Forty were wounded. All are heroes. These are examples of the Rwandans who kept us from losing everything.”
Kagame said Rwandans exist in “permanent commemoration”, adding:, “every day, in all that we do, in order to remain faithful to that choice.”
In ending his address, Kagame said: “I thank you and wish you strength and peace,” which was followed by about two minutes of standing ovation across the Kigali International Convention Center.
Before the speeches, all the leaders were at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center where more than 250,000 victims are laid to rest. Here each leader lay a wreath.
It was followed by lighting of the commemoration flame which by Kagame assisted by some of the leaders. It will remain lit for the next 100 days, period during which the genocide lasted in 1994.
For the afternoon, Kagame will lead other leaders for the annual ‘Walk to Remember’ in a procession which will head to the national stadium for a night vigil. Candles will be lit coupled with survivors’ testimonies.