Rwandans mark genocide anniversary under nationwide lockdown

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FILE- In this April 5, 2019 file photo, flowers are laid on top of a glass case containing the skulls of some of those who were slaughtered as they sought refuge in the church, kept as a memorial to the thousands who were killed in and around the Catholic church during the 1994 genocide, inside the church in Ntarama, Rwanda. A valley dam that authorities in Rwanda say could contain about 30,000 bodies has been discovered more than a quarter-century after the country’s genocide in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and Hutus who tried to protect them were killed. Rwanda on Tuesday marks the 26th anniversary of the genocide. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

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KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — For Augustine Ngabonziza, a survivor of Rwanda’s genocide, it’s difficult not to wonder whether God has become more distant these days. How else can one explain why a country that always comes together for the anniversary of the killings is now confined at home?

Every year on April 7, the 49-year-old Ngabonziza and friends visit a memorial site in the capital, Kigali, where they lay a wreath for the more than 800,000 genocide victims, including his family members, and pray for the dead.

But on Tuesday, 26 years after the genocide, they could not go. The East African nation is under a national lockdown because of the coronavirus and has deployed police and military to make sure people stay indoors.

“It’s terrible not to be able to honor the dead,” Ngabonziza told The Associated Press. “We have gone through difficulties, but this is horrifying.”

The government banned the annual Walk to Remember and a night vigil at the national stadium, among the most significant events to mark the genocide. The national commission for the fight against genocide said even group visits to genocide memorials have been suspended.

Instead, Rwandans followed commemoration events on television or social media as President Paul Kagame lit the flame of remembrance and addressed the nation.

“These unusual circumstances will not prevent us from fulfilling our obligation to commemorate those we lost and console survivors,” he said. “The only change is the way we commemorate.”

More than 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and Hutus who tried to protect them were killed during 100 days in 1994. The mass killing of the Tutsi was ignited on April 6 when a plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down and crashed in Kigali, killing the leader who, like most Rwandans, was an ethnic Hutu.

The Tutsi were blamed for downing the plane, which they denied, and bands of Hutu extremists began killing them, including children, with support from the army, police and militias.

Now Kigali remembers the dead in silence. Streets are deserted. Ngabonziza called them reminiscent of the days of the genocide.

“The only difference is that we don’t see dead bodies and hear gunshots,” he said.

Rwanda has 105 confirmed coronavirus cases. Last week the government extended the lockdown by two weeks.

The government has been distributing food to the poor to help them stay home.

This week the Cabinet announced that some senior officials would forgo their April salary to help fund support for vulnerable Rwandans. And the country last week secured $109 million in emergency support from the International Monetary Fund.

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