Ceremonies Commemorate 20 Years Since Rwanda Genocide

The ethnic slaughter killed nearly a million people. The massacre was born of years of tension between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi.

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Twenty years after Rwanda's genocide, it is simply part of normal life in that country. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. They were mostly ethnic Tutsis targeted by leaders of the majority Hutu faction, and many were cut down by machetes. It was one of the greatest horrors of the century, and the memory of it is part of daily life.

NPR's Gregory Warner is in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to report on today's public remembrance.

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GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The birds are chirping and the sun is shining over Amahoro Stadium, which is rapidly filling to capacity here, as people prepare for today's Genocide Remembrance Day. It's important to remember that in the basement of this stadium, where the remembrance does takes place every year, there are about 10 rooms that are lined with mattresses. And they're there for people for whom today's remembrance becomes a traumatic trigger.

EDOUARD BAMPORIKI: So I used to go to that room when we were in the stadium.

WARNER: Edouard Bamporiki says you lie down on the mattress, and a nurse injects you with sedatives.

BAMPORIKI: But sometimes they don't give you anything, they just let you - shouting, crying.

WARNER: Public tears can be seen as a sign of weakness in Rwanda, discouraged other times of the year. But today is different. Emotions have free reign.

BAMPORIKI: If I don't cry, to me it's tough. But if I get chance to cry, to me, it's good.

WARNER: Edouard Bamporiki is a Hutu. He was just a child during the genocide, but his uncle killed people. So did his neighbors. But Bamporiki was just elected to the Rwandan parliament, and he sees himself as a symbol of the Rwanda that will be on official display today in the stadium; an inclusive, post-ethnic society making rapid strides in economic development, women's rights and health care.

And then you have critics like Rene Mugenzi.

RENE MUGENZI: The Rwandan regime is a totally authoritarian regime.

WARNER: He's a human rights activist in exile in London. He says despite the economic gains, today's Rwanda lacks free media, and its political critics have been jailed or even assassinated.

MUGENZI: It doesn't tolerate opposition, and the justice system is under control by the government.

WARNER: But debates about Rwanda's future are often clouded by disputes on the past. Critics like Mugenzi lose credibility with many Rwandans when he equivocates on the genocide. He frames it as another chapter of mutual ethnic conflict rather than an organized effort by Hutus extremists who exterminated almost a million Tutsis.

Ambassador Samantha Power, here at the stadium to represent the United States, is the author of "A Problem from Hell," now a modern textbook on genocide. She says the U.S. both applauds Rwanda's progress but is pressing for more political freedom.

AMBASSADOR SAMANTHA POWER: Our view is that the crackdown on human rights is far more destabilizing than stabilizing. And there's no question that the president of Rwanda, and that the Rwandan people, filter the present through the prism of what has happened to them very recently.

WARNER: That room with the mattresses is always just below.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Kigali.

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