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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rwandans in First Post-Genocide Vote

KIGALI, Rwanda -- Thousands of Rwandans lined up before dawn Monday to vote in the country's first real presidential election after a campaign dominated by talk of healing the wounds from the 1994 genocide.

Reports of harassment of opposition supporters by security forces marred the otherwise peaceful campaign.

In the capital Kigali, shops were closed and the streets were largely empty, voters clutching identity cards and radios lined up to stamp thumbprints on paper ballots carrying the photos of candidates. They then deposited them in wooden ballot boxes.

For many, it was a day like none other. "There was no choice in previous elections," said 73-year-old Jean-Baptiste Gakwaya, referring to the two single-party Hutu regimes that had ruled Rwanda from independence in 1962 to the genocide.

Some 3.9 million voters were eligible to cast ballots in 11,350 polling stations across the tiny central African nation of rolling green hills and extinct volcanoes.

The first results are expected early Tuesday and the winner will be announced Wednesday, said Chrysologue Karangwa, head of the National Electoral Commission.

The election was billed as a showcase of how far the country has come in the nine years since a regime of extremists from the Hutu majority orchestrated the slaughter of more than half a million people, mostly minority Tutsis.

But as people lined up to vote, there was genuine concern about everyday issues like grinding poverty and persistent unemployment. The genocide not only shattered Rwanda's society, but it also wrecked the country's struggling economy.

Supporters of President Paul Kagame and leading opposition candidate Faustin Twagiramungu all agree that the winner needs to create more jobs, provide more access to education and raise the incomes of the more than 60 percent of Rwanda's 8.2 million people living on less than $1 a day.

"We now have peace and security," said Emmanuelle Bijogo, a 20-year-old in Kigali. Now "the government needs to create more jobs for people."

Bijogo said he plans to vote for Kagame because of the president's solid record and the sense that "if Kagame is removed, there will be trouble."

Kagame, a minority Tutsi, led the rebels who in 1994 toppled the regime of extremist Hutus.

As vice president and defense minister, he then led the fight against remnants of the genocidal regime who attacked the country from bases in neighboring Congo. At the same time, the government rebuilt schools and hospitals, nursed the economy back to health and started the process of reconciliation.

The national unity parliament elected him president in 2000 after the resignation of the previous president.

Kagame's record has made him popular among Rwandans. Backed by seven of the country's nine recognized political parties, he is expected to win the election. But unemployment remains high, and Rwanda is struggling to diversify an economy dependent on coffee and tea exports and foreign aid, which covers more than half of the country's budget.

A number of supporters of Twagiramungu, a successful businessman before the genocide, said the lack of economic opportunities would be a key factor in determining their vote.

But all refused to give their names for fear of retribution by the authorities -- a common refrain heard from Twagiramungu supporters throughout the campaign. Though officials deny harassing opposition supporters, European Union observers and Western diplomats say at least some of the claims are true.

Twagiramungu stopped actively campaigning in recent days after accusing authorities of harassment and seeking to discredit him with accusations that he attempted to stir up ethnic tensions to draw votes from Kagame.

But casting his ballot Monday, he sounded a conciliatory note. The election was "a very positive development and the basis for consolidating the democratic process in Rwanda," he said.