Capt. Mbaye Diagne: The Forgotten Hero during the Rwandan Genocide

In 1994, a plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, then the president of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the president of Burundi was shot down close to the airport in the Rwandan capital Kigali. The assassination and existing ethnic tensions set off a catastrophic chain reaction of events, in which the minority Tutsi people were systematically targeted and murdered by the majority Hutu peoples. In the span of 100 days, an estimated 500,000 – 1,000,000 Tutsi, and Hutu who resisted and opposed the perpetrators, were brutally murdered and a further two million people were displaced.

Rwanda had already been ravaged by a civil war between Habyarimana’s government, whose policies favored his own ethnic group- the Hutu and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a paramilitary force, comprised mostly of Tutsi refugees in neighboring Uganda. Negotiations, aimed to end the conflict mediated by the erstwhile Organization of African Unity and the United States led to the signing of a set of five accords in Arusha, Tanzania, on August 4, 1993, and came to be known as the Arusha Accords. The Arusha accords, which were never fully supported by President Habyarimana, had agreements which intended to repatriate refugees to Rwanda and merge the rebel army with the government forces.

In August the same year, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was established to assist in the implementation of the agreements. The original mandate of the mission focused “on monitoring the ceasefire agreement,” assisting in “ensuring the safety of the Capital city Kigali” and on the establishment of a “demilitarization zone.”

The UNAMIR’s vague and inadequate mandate, which was created with the intention of overseeing the implementation of the peace accords would later lead to it being “legally powerless” to intervene and thus save civilians during the genocide. When Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the Force Commander of the Mission learned that several shipments of weapons and ammunition were being made to the Rwandan Armed Forces and that they intended to use them to attack the Tutsis, he requested permission to seize the shipments. He was reportedly told that such an action was beyond his mandate. The Force Commander was informed that the mission’s mandate did not permit the use of force, except in circumstances where it was required for self-defense.

Captain Mbaye Diagne was a Senegalese soldier who joined the UNAMIR as a military observer in 1993. Born in the Senegalese Capital Dakar, Diagne, who was one of nine children, attended the University of Dakar before joining the country’s military as an officer. Even when the genocide was in its incipient stage, Diagne perplexed his colleagues with mysterious and unfathomable movements, often “rushing around from one military headquarters to another.” They would later learn that he was saving lives.

After President Habyarimana’s death, the UN sent ten Belgian soldiers to guard Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who was set to address the nation calling for calm. She was further guarded by the Rwandan Presidential Guard and five Ghanaian peacekeepers. They arrived only to witness the Prime Minister’s official residence was already under attack. Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana and her husband were then assassinated. A little while later, the Presidential Guard surrounded the UN Forces and ordered them to lay down their arms. When the Belgian soldiers complied, they were brutally murdered.

Diagne, who learned of Uwilingiyimana’s death, decided to investigate the circumstances further and discovered the Prime Minister’s children were being hidden in an adjacent UNDP compound. When UN Armored Personnel Carriers did not arrive as expected, Diagne personally took the children, put them in his car, covered them with blankets and drove them to safety. Diagne continued his one-man rescue missions as the horrors continued to unfold around him. Having discovered that 25 Tutsis were hiding in the basement of a Kigali house, he took them-five people at a time, navigating through many militia checkpoints and ensured their safety. At one point, an unarmed Diagne had to reportedly steer through 23 checkpoints guarded by armed militiamen to save his passengers.

So, how did Mbaye Diagne manage to accomplish these remarkable missions? According to former colleagues, Diagne’s natural charisma and ability to diffuse a delicate situation with his sarcastic sense of humor often saved his life, along with those of the “dozens upon dozens” he rescued. Diagne’s commanders including Gen. Dallaire soon came to know of his actions, which were both against his orders and in violation of the UNAMIR’s mandate. Gen. Dallaire never moved to reprimand or stop him. Romeo Dallaire himself used his extremely ill-equipped force with limited resources to create “safe zones” for the Tutsis, while strategically ordering his forces to protect areas, where he had information that people were hiding. His actions meant that thousands of Tutsis escaped slaughter.

Enrico Muratore is a former Italian UN peacekeeper, who personally knew and worked with Mbaye Diagne. He has now formed an association to “promote Diagne’s memory and support his family’s development.” Diagne’s widow is the President of the association. “The family has quite simply been forgotten all the time,” he said earlier in an interview with Global Voices. “It is not fair to abandon the families of those gave themselves for others,” he continues.

Muratore hopes that the association will help Diagne’s family to “make themselves better understood and to find their place,” while promoting the memory of their husband and father. Among the members of the association is Pierantonio Costa, the former Italian businessman, and diplomat, who was the Italian Consul in Kigali during the genocide. Costa used his own money and his network of contacts to rescue around 2,000 people by securing an exit visa for them to flee to neighboring Burundi.

On 31 May 1994, Captain Diagne lost his life when a mortar shell landed on the back of his jeep, while he was delivering a message to Gen. Dallaire. He was buried in Senegal with full military honors. It is impossible to know exactly how many lives Mbaye Diagne saved before he lost his own. Those who met him, however, knew that they were in the company of the “sort of man” that you met “only once in a lifetime.”

The UN Mission in Rwanda created the need for introspection in the organization. Future missions were more wary and aware of the tragic consequences that an inadequate and vague mandate, outnumbered, under-resourced forces and ill-informed leadership could cause. While massacres were being committed around them, the ‘peacekeepers’ were often helpless. Others like Mbaye Diagne did what they could and for some, that meant losing their lives.