KIGALI - Rwanda on Tuesday began commemorations marking 20 years since its genocide, with a flame of remembrance due to make a nationwide tour ahead of the anniversary of the horrific events of 1994.
Government officials and survivors assembled at the main genocide memorial in Kigali where the flame was lit in the presence of Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, before embarking on a tour of towns and villages in the central African nation, ahead of a period of official mourning that begins on April 7.
"From today, activities of the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the genocide will formally commence," Mushikiwabo said.
Three ageing genocide survivors took several minutes to make a fire by rubbing a stick against a rock. They handed the blazing stick to a group of 20 children holding a metal torch and the children lit it.
"We are keenly aware of the hurdles and challenges as well as the length of the road ahead. Effective nation building is no easy task; a genocide legacy makes it much harder," the minister said.
Those assembled listened to survivors talking about how they have managed to get their lives back on track over the course of the past two decades.
Marcel Mutsindashyaka, now 24 and studying in North America, recounted how he was hidden by a Hutu neighbour and grew up in an orphanage. From a job in a cybercafe he went on to set up a news agency, Umuseke.
An estimated 800,000 people, essentially from the Tutsi minority, perished in the genocide, carried out by Hutu extremist militias and troops in the three months from April to June 1994.
Most of the masterminds of the genocide have been tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda set up in Arusha, Tanzania, with the backing of the United Nations.
A further two million ordinary Rwandans were tried in grassroots courts known as "gacaca" for their alleged role in the killings, with some two-thirds of the accused found guilty.
Beginning this month, memorial activities will start at both the grassroots and national levels, leading up to April 7 when the national mourning period will start, on the date the slaughter began two decades ago.
The next stop for the flame will be in Western Province at Nyange school, Freddy Mutanguha, country director for Aegis Trust, one of the organisations helping to prepare the lighting ceremony, told AFP.
The school was targeted by extremist Hutu militia in 1997, three years after the genocide. The militia wanted to separate the Tutsi pupils from the Hutus but the students refused and were all killed together.
As the flame arrives in each new district discussions will be organised at community level. They will focus on examining the traits in Rwandan society that meant the genocide was able to happen, where the international community went wrong in ignoring the warnings and how crises elsewhere in the world should be handled. Similar discussions will be held in several foreign capitals including London and New York.
The week starting April 7 is already a period of mourning each year. National television shows footage of the genocide, Rwandans wear purple, which is the colour of mourning, and survivors hold candlelight vigils and wash and re-bury bones that had been consigned to shallow graves.
Activities for the 20th anniversary will include discussions on Rwanda's national identity and on the progress the country has made since the genocide, which destroyed its social and economic fabric.
Rwanda has taken huge strides forward since the end of the genocide, which was stopped by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), then a rebel movement and now the ruling party. Its leadership has been championed for its economic reform agenda and clampdown on corruption.
The regime's detractors, however, accuse the RPF of President Paul Kagame of clamping down on dissent and committing numerous human rights abuses.