BIZERTE, Tunisia -- As a child, Jean-Remy Bitana lived through the horrors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that left more than half a million people dead.
"I could see it, I could feel it," he said in a voice barely stronger than a whisper. "I saw so many murders, bodies."
Ten years later, he is playing on Rwanda's national soccer team, a symbol of reconciliation in this ravaged nation. The squad has defied the odds to reach the 16-team field of the African Cup of Nations.
The Wasps will play the biggest game in the country's history Saturday when they open the tournament against heavily favored Tunisia, the host nation.
"If our dreams come true and we beat Tunisia, a child born that day will bear the name 'Rwanda,"' Bitana predicted, a strong statement in a nation where children used to be named after the royalty of their colonizers and ID cards specifically mentioned if one was Hutu or Tutsi.
Now, regardless of ethnicity, fans from all over the lush, central African country back the Amavubi, as the team is known in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda's national language. It is a far cry from a decade ago when a 100-day killing spree spurred by an extremist Hutu government pillaged the nation.
It took two years to form a semblance of a national team. Early on, the team was riven with suspicion.
"It was terrible. Players were thinking of that. You could meet someone who killed your wife, your family. That's the way it went," said Bitana, a 20-year-old defender who was fortunate enough not to lose close family.
Assistant coach Jean-Marie Ntagwabira was a lieutenant in the army of Paul Kagame that swept to power in the wake of the slaughter and played during those early postwar years.
"Some of the players were really fearful to show up," he said.
Rwandans' love of soccer is so strong that even during Kagame's military campaign to take power every battalion found time to set up a team and play games.
"We had to start out from scratch again," said Ntagwabira, adding this explains why the average player's age is in the low 20s.
Bitana still remembers how reconciliation was taught in schools as of 1996.
"Brothers, sisters, fathers and grandfathers are dead. But when we start playing, we forget that and look at what has been achieved already," Bitana said. "It is as if we are shown the way ahead. The more obstacles we face, the more we scale."
He may be an ethnic Hutu, but he insists on being called "a Rwandan, neither a Hutu or a Tutsi."
Serb coach Ratomir Dujkovic has had to deal with poor facilities, lack of funds and players with only a rudimentary sense of tactics. He knows, however, he can always count on a unity of purpose.
"Today, no Rwandan player still mentions this terrible genocide," he said.
The team has the full support of President Kagame, who came out in the middle of the night to celebrate one of Rwanda's successes.
"We are not to be seen as a nation of genocide that is bent on self-destruction," Kagame has said.
Rwanda's rise is regarded as astounding. It has gone from one of the world's lowest-ranked countries to 109 in last year's rankings by soccer's governing body.
Most other teams have players in some of Europe's biggest leagues. Rwanda fields mostly amateur players, and its captain, Desire Mbonabucya, plays in the lowly Belgian league. Only eight play abroad, mostly in Belgium, Rwanda's former colonizer.
In qualifying for the African Cup, Rwanda first swept past regional rival Uganda, a huge achievement in itself, before taking on Ghana, which had won the African Cup no less than four times. The 1-0 victory made sure the soccer world took notice.
"If it were not for reconciliation, we would be eliminated each time," Bitana said. "It is our spirit which brought us to where we are now."
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