“No two commemoration ceremonies are alike, but this one will be particularly different.” With some disappointment, Jean-Damascène Bizimana, the executive secretary of the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (NCFG), wrapped up the preparations for the 26th commemoration of the genocide of the Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda.
On 22 March, the Rwandan authorities issued a lockdown order to try to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Rwanda had reported 105 cases as of 6 April, and stay-at-home measures have been extended to 19 April.
A re-worked format
In this context, authorities had to re-work the entire organisation of the commemoration ceremonies, both in Rwanda and in the diaspora.
As for the official events, a short opening ceremony “no more than 30 minutes long”, according to the NCFG, will be held at the Gisozi Genocide Memorial site in Kigali and feature a speech by President Paul Kagame.
However, the traditional “Walk to Remember” procession and vigil at Amahoro Stadium, a key moment of the opening day that typically includes survivor testimonies, will not take place. These two central events will be replaced by talk shows and discussions, respectively. “This is the programme we’re planning because it was unthinkable to not organise anything at the national level,” Bizimana said.
READ MORE: Genocide in Rwanda: The mechanisms of denial
Personal and public rituals
In addition to the official ceremony, the coronavirus outbreak has particularly upended an event that is personal for Rwandans.
“At the local level, talks are being organised in which participants discuss memories, but the topic of history is also broached. The commemorations are an important time, and not just for survivors,” said Gervais Dusabemungu, a genocide survivor and former burgomaster and sub-prefect of Nyarugenge, a district in Kigali.
“Under normal circumstances, this is a difficult time for Rwandans. But this year, the situation is making the commemorations even more complicated than usual,” said Jean-Pierre Sagahutu, a genocide survivor who now works as a fixer in the film and tourism industries, he will have to abandon – at least during the lockdown period – his personal ritual.
These past 25 years, he had made a habit of driving to visit the various sites where his family members were killed between April and July 1994.
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On 7 April, after the procession and vigil, the 56-year-old usually starts off at the pharmacy near Kigali market. That’s where his brother Joseph, killed in Butare during the genocide, worked. His name is engraved on a commemorative plaque.
Next, he drives to Kibuye, in western Rwanda. That’s where, in a hospital located in this town nestled on the shores of Lake Kivu, his father worked. Murdered at the end of May 1994, he is buried behind St. Jean Catholic Church, where several hundred Tutsis took refuge during the genocide before ultimately being massacred by Interahamwe (Hutu) militiamen.
Then, “depending on the year”, his pilgrimage can also extend to other places, such as Rubengera, in the west, where he goes to mourn at his family’s home.
“Of course, we don’t want to catch the coronavirus, but it’s painful to think that we won’t be able to mourn at the places which preserve the memory of our loved ones,” Sagahutu said.
Outside of Rwanda, the organisation of commemoration ceremonies is proving to be just as difficult.
Given that annual events organised by Rwanda’s embassies and Ibuka, an umbrella organisation of survivors, the diaspora community is also forced to adapt.
“We had already booked a venue for the ceremony but in the end, we had to cancel everything,” said Jean-Pierre Karabaranga, the ambassador of Rwanda to the Netherlands.
“This is a time where the diaspora community needs, even more than usual, to come together, so we have to get creative and use the technologies available to us,” the diplomat added.
At the embassy, everything will take place on YouTube. Like some of its European counterparts, the diplomatic mission in The Hague has already planned to broadcast several videos featuring survivor testimonies as well as speeches given by the ambassador, representatives of the Dutch foreign affairs ministry and members of Ibuka.
“Our tradition on 7 April is to light candles in remembrance of the victims. So, this year, we’ve asked people to take a photo of themselves with a candle and we’ve compiled the photos in a slide show,” Karabaranga said.
The surprise guest of the 26th commemoration ceremony in the Netherlands, Judge Carmel Agius, president of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, the structure that replaced the UN tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, is also expected to give a speech.
His participation is unprecedented in light of the fact that his predecessor, the controversial Judge Theodor Meron, never responded to the invitation.
Sagahutu explained: “This is a tough situation. But people know that they have to make this effort and stay at home. Unlike what occurred during the genocide, it’s an effective way to combat the evil lurking outside.”
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