Remembering Rwanda’s Good Man

While the World looked on and did nothing during the Rwandan genocide, one man, a UN peacekeeper from Senegal, at great personal risk, and armed with just his wit and smile, broke almost every code he knew just so he could save lives

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By KENYATTA OTIENO

A good man died in Kigali on 31 May 1994, two months into the Rwandan genocide as the world looked the other way. Two weeks before he was scheduled to go back home to Senegal, Captain Mbaye Diagne was killed at a road block in his UN truck. He was driving alone back to the U.N. base in Kigali from one of his many trips around Rwanda when a shell landed behind his truck. Shrapnel cut through the back window and hit him in the back of the head; he died instantly.

On April 6, 1994, the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down as it landed in Kigali Airport. All its occupants perished, and the Hutu-dominated government blamed the Rwanda Patriotic Front (mainly Tutsi) led by Paul Kagame for the assassination.

Within hours of the shooting down of the plane, Hutus were hunting down and killing Tutsi’s. The genocide began and took a life of its own in a hundred days that shocked the world. It is reported that Kagame’s RPF rebels discovered Habyarimana’s embalmed body in Kinshasa when he backed Laurent Kabila’s forces to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko. 

The same night of Habyarimana’s death, the Army went for Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a moderate Hutu who was pushing for a peaceful settlement to share power with the Tutsis. Her five children aged between three and fifteen years were smuggled into a UNDP compound next door as the soldiers entered the compound. Agathe, her husband and nine Belgian peace keepers guarding her were tortured and killed as her children hid a few metres away.

The next day UN peacekeepers went to evacuate UNDP employees and found the children hidden in the house. An argument ensued between the soldiers on whether they should take or leave the children. It is against UN regulations to carry unauthorised passengers but there was fear of being seen to be taking sides in the conflict, which was against their mandate. The UN- Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) Commander General Romeo Dellaire got the information and went to the UNDP compound and found Cpt. Diagne waiting for him. He advised that the children should wait to be taken away in a UN armoured personnel carrier.

Captain Mbaye Diagne did not waste any time. His boss watched as he loaded the children onto a truck with some luggage, covered them with a tarpaulin and drove like a mad man to the Hotel des Mille Collines. He advised the children to pretend they were not Rwandese as he negotiated his way through army roadblocks in the streets of Rwanda.

The charismatic, staunch Muslim Senegalese with a toothy smile and love for cigarette had crossed the Rubicon. That marked the first of many missions to save Tutsis and moderate Hutus from marauding Hutu intarahamwe gangs.

There was a Tanzania-led peace accord in place signed in August 1993. It was from such a meeting that Habyarimana was returning from – as part of negotiations in Arusha – the day he met his death. The UN peace keepers were meant to police this peace accord when it was obvious the reality on the ground was different from what the accord envisioned. There are rules governing peace keeping missions.

One of them is that peacekeepers are unarmed and are not allowed to take sides. General Dellaire said that three weeks into the genocide, UN was still not decided if UNAMIR soldiers should be allowed to save civilians. The main responsibility of UNAMIR was to monitor the adherence to Arusha Peace Accord, keep the peace by monitoring security and establishing demilitarized zones, support the transition government and observe the elections.

But all this was on paper. When things changed on the night of April 6, 1994, the UN bureaucracy could not catch up with the turn of events. The pragmatic Captain Mbaye Diagne decided to operate outside of his mandate to save civilians. Stories are told how he organised truckloads of refugees through the battle frontlines.

During one such escapade, he led a UN team to convince militias not to kill a truck load of Tutsis on its way to the airport.

He stood behind the truck and openly told the militias that they will have to kill him first before they killed the people in the truck.

Against his Islamic faith, Mbaye carried alcohol and cigarettes in his truck to appease the militia leaders and RPF rebels who had roadblocks all over Rwanda.

He ferried many Tutsis to the Ugandan border while armed only with his smile and wit, negotiating his way through the whole mess of the genocide. He brought people to safety in Kigali and then organised their evacuation from Rwanda. It is reported that even Gen. Dellaire did not know the full extent of his junior officer’s secret missions.

Upon his death, the UNAMIR did not even have a body bag to put his body in. He was laid in a UNICEF branded blue tarpaulin strapped up and sent to Senegal five days after he died. Meanwhile even the death of one of its own could not awaken the UN to the reality of what was happening. The international community continued to look the other way as about one million Tutsi and moderate Hutus were massacred.

Seven weeks into the genocide, President Bill Clinton had the nerve to stand in front of cameras and state US “will only intervene if it is in US interest to do so”. He apologized years later when he visited Rwanda.

Nothing epitomizes the ambivalence of the UN and international community than the lack of body bag to carry Mbaye Diagne’s remains back to Senegal. In May 2014, twenty years after his death, the UN Security Council set up Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage to recognize UN personnel who “demonstrate exceptional courage in the face of extreme danger”. Permanent Rwanda Representative to UN headquarters in New York Eugène-Richard Gasana described Mbaye Diagne’s exceptional acts of humanity but also said he hoped the medal would lead to a soul searching within the UN and Community of nations.

It should be noted that until 2014, no UN official had taken the time to call Mbaye Diagne’s family. In May 2016, the widow of Mbaye Diagne Ms. Yasin Mar Diop received the Mbaye Diagne medal for Exceptional Courage from Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. She was accompanied by their two children daughter Coumba Kane Diagne and son Serigne Cheikh Mbacke Diagne.

Mbaye’s story is a good example that revolutionary acts are never celebrated. The honour did not have to wait twenty years but it is good it happened while some of the people he saved are alive. This month, it will be twenty four years since his death. Thanks to the Internet, people have been pushing for the publication of his story to inspire many into exceptional courage in humanitarian crises.

Fare thee well, we will never forget. (

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