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Rwanda begins its commemoration of the 1994 genocide

Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP | Rwanda's President Paul Kagame gives a speech during the 25th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, on April 7, 2019.

Rwandans are gathering on Sunday to begin a solemn commemoration of the lives of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus murdered during the Rwandan genocide, which began 25 years ago.

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President Paul Kagame and first lady Jeannette Kagame laid wreaths and lit a flame at the mass burial ground of 250,000 victims at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in the capital, Kigali.

"In 1994, there was no hope, only darkness. Today, light radiates from this place ... How did it happen? Rwanda became a family once again," Kagame said.

"The arms of our people, intertwined, constitute the pillars of our nation. We hold each other up. Our bodies and minds bear amputations and scars, but none of us is alone. Together, we have woven the tattered threads of our unity into a new tapestry," he said.

Kagame was speaking at the Kigali Convention Centre, a dome-shaped auditorium in the centre of the capital, a modern building emblematic of the regeneration of Rwanda.

"Our people have carried an immense weight with little or no complaint. This has made us better and more united than ever before," Kagame said. "The fighting spirit is alive in us. What happened here will never happen again."

Those attending the ceremonies included the leaders of Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Djibouti, Niger, Belgium, Canada, Ethiopia, as well as the African Union and the European Union.

"I am moved beyond words at this memorial to tragedy," said Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission.

There will be a procession through the capital to Kigali's National Stadium where are many as 30,000 are expected to participate in an evening candlelit ceremony.

A country of hope, a nation elevated

"Twenty-five years ago, Rwanda fell into a deep ditch due to bad leadership, today, we are a country of hope and a nation elevated," Agnes Mutamba, 25, a teacher who was born during the genocide told the Associated Press in Kigali.

"Today, the government has united all Rwandans as one people with the same culture and history, and is speeding up economic transformation," said Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwanda's state foreign affairs minister.

The mass killing of Rwanda's Tutsi minority was ignited on April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down and crashed in Kigali, killing the leader who, like the majority of Rwandans, was an ethnic Hutu.

The Tutsi minority was blamed for downing the plane and the bands of Hutu extremists began slaughtering the Tutsi, with support from the army, police and militias.

REPORTERS: Rwanda, story of a genocide foretold

Kagame's government has previously accused the Hutu-led government of 1994 of being responsible for shooting down the plane and has blamed the French government for turning a blind eye to the genocide.

On Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron ordered a government study into the country's role in Rwanda before and during its 1994 genocide. Macron appointed a commission of researchers and historians to investigate the "role and involvement of France" in Rwanda from 1990-1994. It is to make conclusions within two years.

Kagame has won praise ending that violence and making advances in economic development and health care. Ethnic reconciliation is a cornerstone of the rule of Kagame, Rwanda's de facto leader since the genocide ended and the country's president since 2000.

Rwanda's reconciliation villages: artificial constructs to blend identities

However, Kagame's critics charge that he is intolerant of criticism and his government is repressive, jailing opposition leaders. Some opponents say that Rwanda's reconciliation is forced.

A quarter-century after the genocide, bodies of victims are still being found. Last year, authorities in Rwanda discovered mass graves they say contain 5,400 bodies of genocide victims.

Rwandan genocide: 25 years on, mass graves still being discovered

"Twenty-five years on, the victims and survivors should remain the centre of everyone's thoughts, but we should also take stock of progress and the need to ensure accountability for all those who directed these horrific acts," Human Rights Watch said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)

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