Image of a country 'tingling back to life'

Everyone in Rwanda has a story of the genocide five years ago, but some

People who come to Rwanda for the first time generally want to turn around and catch the next flight out. There are many walking reminders of the genocide that began five years ago this week.

But on the latest of several trips, I had an image - which I had never had before - of a country tingling back to life.

On the way from the airport to the hotel, less than 10 minutes after landing in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, I saw a woman with a limp trying to cross the street with her friend: The two were sharing a joke, and the last I saw of her she had her head thrown back and was laughing in the sun.

It was a strange, wonderful image.

A limp in Rwanda often means having had a close brush with death as a member of the Tutsi ethnic minority marked for genocide in 1994. Some escaped and managed to survive.

A great many people in Kigali wear their violent past publicly. Even without hearing it, you know their story. They come as a shock when you forget what happened here, when you lose sight of the fact that there was an attempt to exterminate a people and that only a third survived.

So it was odd to see a limping woman laughing with such abandon. Odd and exhilarating.

Foreigners are usually too removed from the small exchanges of Rwandan life to fully feel the pulse of it.

Many have tried to imagine what it must be like to be a Tutsi survivor, to have your entire family killed, your right to existence challenged - and yet to keep living in the same place, farming the same hill, with the same neighbors around, none of whom did much to stop the genocide.

Also, what it must feel like to be a Hutu, always surrounded by a faint suspicion, with a relative or two in jail, and the people you tried to wipe off the face of the earth firmly in power in Kigali.

If you are a Hutu living in Rwanda's northwestern region, there is always the possibility, although greatly reduced in recent times, of encountering some extremist from across the border - a Hutu who had a heavier hand in the genocide, fled to neighboring Congo, but is still a brother and anyway is armed.

He will ask for food and shelter, and you'll have no choice but to take him in, knowing full well that sooner or later the Army will show up and that someone - probably you - will get killed.

If you are a Tutsi survivor, you are either an orphan or a widow or one of the few remaining members of an extended family.

The Tutsi elite who run the country have little to do with you. They have grown up abroad and either joined a rebel army that had guns to fight off the killers or just picked up and moved to Kigali after everything was finished, after nearly a million people were killed in a hundred days.

If you are in the ruling elite, there is still the need to keep everyone together - from the Tutsi survivor whose idea of justice doesn't include plea-bargaining, to the Hutu extremist still devoted to the concept of a Tutsi-free world, to the foreign donors whose charity Rwanda desperately needs.

And there's still the whole intractable mess in Congo. Five African armies are fighting to protect Rwanda's No. 1 enemy, Laurent Kabila, president of Congo and self-declared champion of what he calls the Bantu race, though such a race does not exist, only many different people speaking many different Bantu languages.

Five years after the genocide, the scars are still fresh, and the problems of coexistence at close quarters seemingly insurmountable.

Yet so much has been accomplished.

Most of the 2 million Hutus who fled Rwanda after the genocide have been reintegrated into their communities. A judicial system is dealing with the more than 150,000 genocide suspects sitting in Rwanda's jails. A civil service has been put back in place. There is a system of tax collection.

And just last week, Rwanda held its first elections in five years, with Hutus and Tutsis lining up together to elect their representatives at the lowest administrative level.

Most impressive of all, Rwanda has, in effect, staked out a security zone in eastern Congo to keep the genocide's residual forces - armed Hutu extremists - at a safe distance from the border.

Time has helped, too.

Given the magnitude of the genocide, reconciliation will take decades. But Rwanda is coming back to life.

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