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Kigali (AFP) - President Paul Kagame said Sunday that Rwandans had become a family again, 25 years after more than 800,000 people were slaughtered in a genocide that shocked the world.
Kagame lit a remembrance flame at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where more than 250,000 mainly Tutsi victims are believed to be buried, as the country began its annual 100 days of mourning that coincides with the length of the slaughter.
"In 1994, there was no hope, only darkness," said Kagame, at the Kigali Convention Centre, a dome-shaped auditorium in the centre of the capital, a modern building emblematic of the regeneration of Rwanda.
"Today, light radiates from this place ... How did it happen? Rwanda became a family once again," he added.
"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."
The genocidal Hutu forces, members of the old army and militia forces called the "Interahamwe", began their campaign of killing on April 7, 1994, the day after the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu.
Some were shot, but most were beaten or hacked to death with machetes.
"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."
The killings lasted until Kagame, then 36, led the mainly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) into Kigali on July 4, ending the slaughter and taking control of the devastated country.
Kagame, now 61, and in power ever since, is leading the memorial to the dead.
After his speech, Kagame led hundreds of people on a walk to the country's main football ground. The Amahoro National Stadium -- whose name means "peace" in Rwanda's Kinyarwanda language -- was used by the UN during the genocide to protect thousands of Tutsis from being massacred on the streets outside.
Dignitaries lit a candle which they used to light candles held by the youth, a symbolic passing of the baton to the younger generation, before the stadium turned into a sea of flickering lights.
Two thirds of Rwanda's population was born after the genocide.
"Our children enjoy the innocence of peace. They know trauma and violence only from stories. Our aspirations rest in this new generation," Kagame said.
- Deep trauma -
For many survivors, forgiveness remains difficult when the bodies of their loved ones have not been found and many killers are still free.
A quarter of a century on, the east African nation has recovered economically, but the trauma still casts a dark shadow.
Kagame has kept an authoritarian hold as he steers the small, landlocked East African nation through economic recovery. Growth in 2018 was a heady 7.2 percent, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Some 10 leaders were expected to pay their respects, mostly from nations across the continent.
Former colonial ruler Belgium sent Prime Minister Charles Michel.
French President Emmanuel Macron did not attend, but expressed his "solidarity with the Rwandan people and his compassion to the victims and their families" in a statement Sunday.
The statement said Macron would like to make April 7 a "day of commemoration of the genocide" in France, without giving further details.
France was represented by Herve Berville, a 29-year old Rwandan-born member of parliament in Paris.
Rwanda has accused France of being complicit in the genocide through its support for the Hutu-led government and of helping perpetrators escape.
Paris has consistently denied complicity in the bloodshed, though former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010 acknowledged France had made "serious errors of judgement".
On Friday, Macron appointed an expert panel to investigate France's actions at the time.
Macron was not the only notable absence; former ally Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was also absent, amid a diplomatic spat between the two nations.
During his speech, Kagame sent out a warning to those who interfered in Rwandan affairs.
"For those from here or from outside who think our country has not seen enough of a mess and want to mess with us ... I want to say, we will mess up with them big time.
"No adversary should underestimate what a formidable force Rwandans have become as a result of circumstances."