KIGALI — As the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide approaches, a “flame of hope” is being carried across the entire country, a symbol of reconciliation and faith in a better future.

“I want to make sure that everything's in order,” says the president of the Tutsi genocide survivors group in northern Rwanda. “The flame of hope will arrive in our district tomorrow.”

The Kwibuka flame, as it is known, is meant to symbolize the courage of the Rwandese over the past two decades after an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people were slaughtered by the ruling Hutu majority, including up to 70% of the Tutsi minority, in a period of just over three months.

All the fires lit across the country for the 100-day-long commemoration come from this single flame, first lit Jan. 7.

It will return to the Rwandan capital of Kigali on April 7, 20 years after the genocide started, where President Paul Kagame will use it to light another and to mark the beginning of the annual mourning period.

All over the country, the arrival of the torch brings together survivors, former persecutors, and students, who welcome it with enthusiasm. “He who has darkness in his heart always has bad intentions. This flame is a symbol that our hearts are now pure,” explains Moussa Fazir Harelimana, minister of interior security.

This year, the commemoration theme is “Remember, Unite, Renew,” three words that “invite us to think, all together, about the past to better prepare the future,” says an official from survivor association Ibuka.

Protais Mitali, minister of sports and culture, says these ceremonies help prepare the commemoration by harmonizing the debate as well as targeting and carrying out actions that support the survivors. He says it’s also an opportunity for those who deny the genocide to engage in soul-searching and march with others for the development of the country.

In Ntarama, Rwanda — Photo: Remember United Renew

In the northern district of Rulindo, Eric Ngarambe, a 24-year-old militiaman at the time of the genocide, explains that he killed Tutsis at the pentecostal church using firearms, grenades, stones and machetes. “Honestly, I shouldn’t be among the living, given the extent of the suffering I have caused,” he says. “To build a nation is not only to receive the forgiveness of the survivors, but also to change and move on in a new direction.” 

Jean de Dieu Mucyo, executive secretary of the National Commission For The Fight Against Genocide, says young people should be more involved in the commemoration activities that cover the 100-day period during which the genocide lasted. “It’s up to them to seize its remembrance and preserve it,” he says.

For the Kwibuka 20 commemoration, days of reflection are being organized by the Rwanda embassies in Europe and Africa, and by its mission to the United Nations. “These activities are all aimed at preserving the memory of what happened and counter all forms of denial, revisionism or normalization of the genocide,” explained Jacques Kabale, Rwanda’s ambassador to France, as he launched the commemoration on Jan. 24 in Lyon. “Only justice and remembrance can keep us from seeing history repeat itself.”

The youth, commonly called Rwanda rw’ejo (the Rwanda of tomorrow) are urged to take their future into their own hands. Marcel Mutsindashyaka, who lost both of his parents when he was just five years old, has done just that. He focused his attention on his education, and wound up earning a university degree in technology. He is proud of his achievements, looking back to the darkness of his childhood: “I have come a long way.”