KIGALI – France and Rwanda are hoping to reset ties scarred by a quarter-century of recriminations over the 1994 genocide when French President Emmanuel Macron visits the central African country on Thursday.
Macron's trip builds on a series of French efforts since his election in 2017 to mend ties between the two countries.
He will start by visiting a memorial to the frenzied 1994 slaughter that left an estimated 800,000 people dead, mainly ethnic Tutsis and the moderate Hutus who tried to protect them. Groups of extremist Hutus carried out the killings.
The previous visit, by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010, was the first by a French leader after the 1994 massacre sent relations into a tailspin.
Rwanda's government and genocide survivor organizations often accused France of training and arming militias and former government troops who led the genocide.
The new inquiries — one French, the other Rwandan — that wrapped up this year both pointed fingers of blame at France, but diverged on its degree of culpability.
The March report, commissioned by Macron in 2019, cleared France of complicity in the slaughter but said France bears “heavy and overwhelming responsibilities” in the drift that led to the killings.
The April report, commissioned by the Rwandan government, said France “did nothing to stop” the horror and bore “significant” responsibility for “enabling a foreseeable genocide."
A speech that Macron will deliver Thursday at the genocide memorial will be particularly closely scrutinized. He will also hold talks with Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
On a visit this month to Paris, Kagame signaled a desire for reset relations. He said in an interview with newspaper Le Monde that “I hope we reach a sort of epilogue and that a new situation emerges."
Memory of the massacres remains strong among many in this country of about 13 million people. Once each year the nation comes together to reflect on the killings that shocked the world.
Kagame asserted during a commemoration event in April that Rwandans “were just pawns in geopolitical games" as the genocide unfolded.
Some ordinary Rwandans who spoke to The Associated Press on the eve of Macron's visit said France's alleged role in the genocide remains a painful affair. But others said his visit is a sign of the country's good intentions now.
“I even doubt that French military has sincere regrets about what happened here," said Beatrice Mukeshimana, a genocide survivor who at the time lived in Karongi, a district in the western province where French troops deployed under Operation Turquoise were based.
The sentiment was echoed by Paul Nshogoza, a genocide survivor in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, who said there was “no excitement about these developments and the visit” of Macron, referring to efforts by France and Rwanda to improve ties.
“I haven’t heard them (French officials) talking about apology or something like reparations," he said. "The remains of our loved ones have not even permanent graves.”
But some insisted the sense of détente between France and Rwanda that led to Macron's scheduled visit is a milestone in efforts to move on for both countries.
“At least, there is recognition and then justice will come later," said Yolande Mukagasana, a genocide survivor and writer. “We cannot blame all French citizens and I think President Macron means good for Rwandans.”
Moves in Paris and Kigali toward rapprochement are driven by political considerations more than a sense of justice, according to Rwandan academic Christopher Kayumba.
“Accepting that France had a big role in financing, training and giving diplomatic cover and an escape route to genocidaires but that it wasn’t complicit in the genocide is problematic and not based on interpreting the truth,” Kayumba said. “It’s not based on consensus in France and Rwanda. So, it is based on political will and cooperation between President Paul Kagame and Macron.”
Kagame, who has been Rwanda’s de facto leader since 1994 and its president since 2000, has won praise abroad for restoring order and making advances in economic development and health care. But rights watchdogs, dissidents, and others accuse Kagame of harsh rule.
___ Leicester reported from Le Pecq, France. AP journalist Rodney Muhumuza contributed from Kampala, Uganda.