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The laughter of children carries Rwanda's hope

By Elizabeth Yuan
CNN

Editor's Note: Elizabeth Yuan is a writer for CNN.com. She wrote this essay after visiting Rwanda in May to run in the 2nd Annual International Peace Marathon of Kigali.

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A view of Lake Kivu en route south from Gisenyi to Kibuye, Rwanda, recalls the South Pacific.

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KIBUYE, Rwanda (CNN) -- Vast Lake Kivu sparkles, with its waves and lush islands. It conjures up visions of a tropical paradise, perhaps somewhere in the South Pacific.

But the lake is in Africa's landlocked Rwanda, where the beauty of the landscape has been overshadowed for more than a decade by the hellish memory of genocide. In 1994, more than 800,000 people were killed during a systematic campaign by Hutu extremists to wipe out minority Tutsis. Hutus who stood in the way also were slaughtered.

Shortly after arriving by a short boat ride in Kibuye, Rwanda, I decided to see the town whose reputation and history belie its beauty. Reminders of what happened are plentiful here, where a mass grave holds the remains of more than 10,000 people. The town is just up the road from the Presbyterian-run mission where I stayed during a recent trip to the east African country to run in the International Peace Marathon of Kigali.

The marathon is one small part of the effort to reintroduce to the world a country that has slowly begun to recover. But that is no small task. Even the maps tell the story. The one in my guidebook laid out a 200-meter stretch of Kibuye, north to south, like this: church, school, mass grave, stadium.

Atop a hill on the other side of town from the mass grave is the Catholic church where thousands sought refuge in April 1994 and were massacred within the sanctuary.

As I walked there, many faces looked overcast and suspicious. Stares followed me as I walked down the street. I said "bonjour" and waved to every person whose path I crossed. That helped break the spell, and I'd get a "bonjour" in return.

I wondered about some of those stares. What had they seen 12 years ago? Were they the eyes of survivors? Of those who had killed?

The local United Nations Refugee Agency office sat along the road, and I went in to say hello. The chief of the U.N. mission sat in the garden, with a stack of papers in his hands. Just nine miles away was Kiziba refugee camp, home to 17,000 people, many of whom have been there for 10 years, he said.

As I continued down the road, a man passed by, and he smiled. A little later, from a distance, he turned around and asked me where I was from. I raised my voice a bit, so he could hear me: "The United States," I said. The man, who spoke in English, asked me how long I was staying. About two-and-a-half weeks in Rwanda, I said, a day in Kibuye.

We finally walked toward each other to talk without having to raise our voices. He told me he had friends in California and in Canada, and if he wrote them letters, would I be able to mail them for him? I said yes. He was pleased. He was a teacher and a preacher, but for him, even stamps are too costly.

On the way to the sad church on the hilltop, one of many in this country nicknamed "The Land of a Thousand Hills," I passed a cornfield and a school and heard the laughs and shouts of children.

About a quarter mile up the hill, a girl and a little boy saw me changing film in my camera and began to follow me. They were walking home from school, carrying plastic bags -- the kind given out at grocery stores in richer countries -- and these improvised schoolbags contained their papers, pens and books.

Their smiles tore my heart apart.

"Bonjour!" I greeted them. "Bonjour!" they said back, enthusiastically. I asked what their names were, but they didn't understand my French. So, I flipped to the back of my guidebook, where I found the translation to "What's your name" in Kinyarwanda, the language they spoke. "Witwande?"

"Dian!" said the girl. The boy, a bit shy, straggled behind a bit. Both had close-cropped hair, and she was almost a head taller than he was.

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Dian and her friend were walking from school, when they met a stranger heading up a hill to a church.

She noticed my sunglasses and gently lifted them from my shirt. She also noticed my guidebook, a mountain gorilla on its cover. She put on the sunglasses and leafed through the pages as we continued to walk on the quiet road leading up to the church. The English words didn't seem to pose a barrier; to her they belonged to a mysterious language.

Dian paused over photographs of baby mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park and fellow Rwandans in Ruhengeri and Cyangugu. She looked at the maps and the words on the pages.

She was so intent in reading the book, wearing the purple sunglasses that seemed out of place on her innocent face. I couldn't help thinking that these children and the rest of their generation are Rwanda's future.

The church -- where people were killed with guns, grenades, machetes, clubs and spears -- today lays quiet, a place of refuge for those who wish to be alone with their thoughts.

When I stepped inside, the benches were empty, the place still in the late afternoon, save for the creaking of the door when two people entered a few minutes apart. They prayed with their heads in their hands, and the only movement I saw was that of the shadows cast through the rose windows onto the bare floor.

Early the next morning, I took a walk on the 200-meter stretch laid out in the guidebook: the chapel, school, mass grave, and stadium.

The elementary school sits next to the chapel. A wall separates the school from the mass grave and memorial. The stadium, where a few young men were going through their morning workout, didn't escape the horror in 1994. Here too, thousands of men, women and children were massacred that April.

Before the start of the school day, the children played in the yard. Some went inside the church to listen as an older child played on an electric keyboard. Outside the church window, a dozen prisoners in pink garb -- the uniform of genocide convicts -- filed past, part of a work crew.

As they walked by, the music and the gleeful shouts of playing children filled the morning air.

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