The skulls of Rwandan victims rest on shelves at a genocide memorial inside the church at Ntarama. Photo / Reuters

Rwanda begins sombre commemorations for the 30th anniversary of the 1994 genocide, a mass slaughter orchestrated by Hutu extremists against Tutsi minority over 100 bloody days.

More than 800,000 men, women and children, mainly ethnic Tutsis but also moderate Hutus, were killed in the murderous onslaught that saw families and friends turn against each other in one of the darkest episodes of the late 20th century.

Three decades on, the nation has rebuilt under the rule of President Paul Kagame, but the traumatic legacy of the genocide lingers, reverberating across the region.

In keeping with tradition, April 7 - the day Hutu extremists and militias unleashed their horrific killing spree in 1994 - will be marked by Kagame lighting a remembrance flame at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where more than 250,000 victims are believed to be buried.

Rwandan refugees who fled the ethnic bloodbath in their country at the Benaco refugee camp in Tanzania. Photo / File / Reuters

Kagame, whose Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel army helped to stop the massacres, will deliver a speech and place wreaths on the mass graves, with some foreign dignitaries in attendance for what has been dubbed "Kwibuka (Remembrance) 30".

Sunday's events marked the start of a week of national mourning, with Rwanda effectively coming to a standstill and national flags flown at half-mast.

During those days, music will not be allowed in public places or on the radio, while sports events and movies are banned from TV broadcasts, unless connected to the commemorations.

The United Nations and the African Union, among others, will also hold remembrance ceremonies.

'Never again'

"This year, we remind ourselves of genocide's rancid root: hate," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a message marking the anniversary.

"To those who would seek to divide us, we must deliver a clear, unequivocal and urgent message: never again."

The international community was heavily criticised for failing to protect civilians, with the UN sharply reducing its peacekeeping force shortly after the outbreak of the violence.

The assassination of Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana on the night of April 6 when his plane was shot down over Kigali triggered the rampage by Hutu extremists and the "Interahamwe" militia.

Their victims were shot, beaten or hacked to death in killings fuelled by vicious anti-Tutsi propaganda broadcast on TV and radio. An estimated 100,000 to 250,000 women were raped, according to UN figures.

Hundreds of thousands of people, mainly ethnic Hutu fearing reprisal attacks, fled in the aftermath of the genocide to neighbouring countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Villagers and volunteers dig looking for human remains of victims of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide hidden under the foundations of a house in Ngoma, Rwanda.

Mass graves are still being found in Rwanda to this day.

In 2002, Rwanda set up community tribunals where victims could hear "confessions" from those who had persecuted them.

A staggering 1.2 million cases were heard over a 10-year period, although rights watchdogs said the system also resulted in miscarriages of justice, with some complainants using it to settle scores.

Today, Rwandan ID cards make no mention of whether a person is Hutu or Tutsi.

Secondary school students learn about the genocide as part of a tightly controlled curriculum.

Rewrite history

Around two-thirds of Rwanda's population was born after the genocide. Many are eager to help rewrite their nation's painful history and craft a new narrative.

"Ever since I was little, Rwanda's story has been one of rebuilding," project manager Roxanne Mudenge, 27, told AFP.

"The scars of the past are still there, but there's a different energy now, a sense of possibility."

According to the Rwandan authorities, hundreds of genocide suspects remain at large.

So far, only 28 have been extradited to Rwanda globally.

France, one of the top destinations for Rwandans fleeing justice at home, has tried and convicted half a dozen people for their involvement in the killings.

Tensions with France

At the time, the French government had been a long-standing backer of Habyarimana's regime, leading to decades of tensions between the two countries.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during his visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial on May 27, 2021.

In 2021 President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged France's role in the genocide and its refusal to heed warnings of looming massacres.

Although Macron stopped short of an apology and denied complicity in the bloodshed, Kagame said the rapprochement could pave the way for "a better" relationship between the two nations.

Click here to follow our WhatsApp channel for more stories.