Rwandans have gathered to begin a solemn commemoration of a genocide which killed some 800,000 Tutsis 25 years ago, amid new questions about France’s role in the extermination.
The ceremony, expected to be attended by at least 10 heads of state in Kigali Sunday, marks the beginning of a week of events to honor those who were lynched by ethnic Hutus in a span of 100 days.
The slaughter in 1994 began after President Juvenal Habyarimana and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi – both Hutus – were killed when their plane was shot down over the Rwandan capital.
Rwanda’s Tutsi minority was blamed for the crash, igniting a spree of revenge attacks across the country of 12 million that obliterated 75% of the country’s Tutsis.
Shrill broadcasts in the government media incited the killings, portraying Tutsis as dangerous. During the genocide, political and military leaders also encouraged rape to further destroy the Tutsi ethnic group.
In villages across the densely populated country, neighbor turned on neighbor as men, women and children were hacked to death, burned alive, clubbed and shot. As many as 10,000 people were killed daily.
The fighting ended in July 1994 when a Tutsi-led rebel movement led by incumbent President Paul Kagame swept in from Uganda and seized control of the country.
The attackers of the plane, which sparked the genocide, have never been identified but Rwanda has long accused France of complicity in the massacre, allegations repeatedly denied by Paris.
Belgium — a former colonial ruler of Rwanda — has sent Prime Minister Charles Michel to the commemoration ceremony, but French President Emmanuel Macron has turned down an invitation.
Instead, Macron has sent French lawmaker Hervé Berville, who lost his family during the genocide and was adopted by a French family, to attend the commemoration.
Macron’s office said in a statement on Friday that the president had appointed a commission to investigate the country’s alleged role in the genocide.
Macron explained that experts would have access to state archives, including diplomatic and military documents, and produce a public report.
The statement said eight historians and researchers will “contribute to a better understanding and knowledge” of what happened.
France was a close ally of the Hutu-led government of President Habyarimana prior to the massacre.
Back in 2010, former president Nicolas Sarkozy admitted that France had made “serious errors of judgment” about Rwanda. The sober admission was the first by a French leader as the country’s colonial past in Africa is coming back to haunt it.
However, Paris is adamant about maintaining its foothold in the African continent, even in countries which gained independence almost six decades ago.
Last month, Macron paid a visit to the Horn of Africa nations, where China’s influence has recently been growing.
He visited Djibouti that was formerly under France’s colonial rule and now hosts foreign military bases for both Paris and Beijing. Macron also traveled to Ethiopia and Kenya – two countries that were never a French colony.
In Djibouti, the French leader warned of alleged risks to the sovereignty of African countries from China’s increasing economic presence.
“I wouldn’t want a new generation of international investments to encroach on our historical partners’ sovereignty or weaken their economies,” he said.
In a reminder of Beijing’s growing presence, Macron was received at Djibouti’s new Chinese-built presidential palace but no commercial deals were signed during his visit.
“Business is business. The Chinese invest here, while the French aren’t competitive,” a Djibouti government official said then. “The French are late, very late. And they have no money.”
In September last year, the Chinese government pledged $60 billion to African nations and rejected criticism it was loading the continent with an unsustainable burden.
Djibouti’s president accused France in 2015 of abandoning his country and investing very little there.