Thirteen years ago today, a plane carrying Juvénal Habyarimana, the President of Rwanda, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu president of Burundi, was shot down. This event started the Rwandan genocide, which lasted for about three months. During that time, about eight hundred thousand people were killed, many hacked to death with machetes. To commemorate this, I want to repost something I wrote two years ago.
Instead of writing about the genocide, I want to focus on Mbaye Diagne, a Senegalese military observer who was profiled in the excellent Frontline program Ghosts of Rwanda. His background was unremarkable: according to the profile on the Frontline site, "Capt. Mbaye, a devout Muslim, was one of nine children from a poor family on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal's capital. He was the first in his family to go to college. After graduating from the University of Dakar, he joined the army and worked his way up through the ranks."
But what he did during the Rwandan genocide was extraordinary. Again, from Frontline:
""A real-life Cool Hand Luke…"
"The bravest of the brave…"
"...the greatest man I have ever known..."
These are the words of those who knew Capt. Mbaye Diagne, a young Senegalese army officer who served in Rwanda as an unarmed U.N. military observer. I have never heard another human being described in the way that those who knew Mbaye describe him: he was, as one of his colleagues told me, "the kind of guy you meet once in a lifetime."
He was a hero.
From literally the first hours of the genocide, Capt. Mbaye simply ignored the U.N.'s standing orders not to intervene, and single-handedly began saving lives. He rescued the children of the moderate Prime Minster Agathe Uwilingiyimana, after 25 well-armed Belgian and Ghanaian U.N. peacekeepers surrendered their weapons to Rwandan troops. The Rwandan troops killed Madame Agathe (and, later, ten Belgian peacekeepers), while the unarmed Capt. Mbaye -- acting on his own initiative -- hid the Prime Minister's children in a closet.
In the days and weeks that followed, Capt. Mbaye became a legend among U.N. forces in Kigali. He continued his solo rescue missions, and had an uncanny ability to charm his way past checkpoints full of killers. On one occasion he found a group of 25 Tutsis hiding in a house in Nyamirambo, a Kigali neighborhood that was particularly dangerous. Capt. Mbaye ferried the Tutsis to the U.N. headquarters in groups of five -- on each trip passing through 23 militia checkpoints with a Jeep-load of Tutsis. Somehow, he convinced the killers to let these Tutsis live."
Here's an interview with Gromo Alex, the head of the U.N. Humanitarian Assistance Team in Rwanda:
" -- "Who was Mbaye Diagne and what was he doing?
He had access to most of the areas … the military or gendarme or presidential guard. He covered all the territory, knew most of the people in the command structure. But fairly early on, we could see in this back room in the Amahoro hotel [that] large groups of people all of a sudden appeared and [the] next day were gone. We began to put together that Mbaye was bringing people from all over to the headquarters and then evacuating them or having them picked up and taken to safety elsewhere. And I don't even know the numbers of the people that he saved. But a lot of people know who he is. A lot of people were saved by him, and not just Rwandans but famous journalists. I think they were put in positions where their lives were pretty close to an end, and he stepped in and saved them. (...)
-- But wasn't it against orders to go out and start saving people?
Yeah, it was against orders, and the orders were not to intervene in the conflict. Mbaye ignored those orders, and at the same time his general [Gen. Dallaire] knew what he was doing, never stopped him.
… I would think that the general saw him as some expression of what we were supposed to be doing. … But here's someone who stepped out of line and [the general is] not going to discipline him because he's doing the right thing. And he saved at least hundreds of people. And we're talking about saving hundreds of people three or four at a time. So you imagine y'know, when we talk about the 23 checkpoints. And you take even 200 people, you divide it by the maximum 5 -- that would mean he [would] have 5 people in a vehicle, which is too conspicuous too. So he would do it in smaller numbers so that he wouldn't draw so much attention to people. But he'd go through all these checkpoints. And at every checkpoint you have to explain yourself. ...
-- How would he get through?
That's just the way he was. People laughed. Even they have, or had, some attachment to a real world where there's real laughter. Even in all this gore, hatred; as long as you can have that brief glimpse of his smile, or laugh about something that's good, you'll grab onto it. And with Mbaye I think that's what everybody did. At all those checkpoints, they all knew him. …"
Unfortunately, he was killed at a checkpoint. Gromo Alex again:
"[Once] it was time to leave, the plan was that we were all just going to leave at the same time. … Then Mbaye said no, [because] he had some other things to do. It turned out that he was making arrangements to go get some other people. … But he had to go to headquarters first. So we went down the hill to ICRC. … We stopped there for a couple minutes. …
So we're coming up the hill and hear something on the radio. … We heard it was [Mbaye] had, I guess, pulled up a minute after we'd gone to the bridge, the last checkpoint. A mortar had landed behind his car and shrapnel came through the back window and [hit him] in the back of his head, and apparently killed him instantly. …
This was the day that General Dallaire had gone to Nairobi to meet with some U.S. congressmen to convince them of the gravity of the situation. [So] we're stunned, and we're trying to figure out what's happening, what we can do. People are talking about going [and] getting his dress uniform. They're calling around for a body bag. But there's no body bag. Not a body bag in the whole U.N. The ICRC doesn't have any body bags that they can spare. At this time, we're starting to put together and we're saying, you know, "Here's a guy who gave his ultimate, did everything, and we don't even have a body bag to show him some respect." So we're scrambling [and] people are asking us -- we're the humanitarians, we can get some plastic sheeting, we can make something. I can't even remember [the details]. It was kind of a daze. …
We had some UNICEF plastic sheeting, and we had some tape. Mbaye's body comes, and he's a big man, tall, big feet. He's on a stretcher now. Nobody knows exactly what to do, but we're going to make a body bag. … You want to do it right. You want to … zip it, [but] you got this U.N. light blue body bag, and we're going to make and fold the edges over. We're folding them up, and the creases aren't right, because his feet are so damn big. … You don't want that for him. You want it to be, like, just laid out perfectly, so that when people look at him, they know that he was something great."
While my government was devoting its energies to figuring out how to describe what was happening in Rwanda without using the word "genocide", Mbaye Diagne just saw what had to be done and did it, at the cost of his own life. He is one of my personal saints. I think that when you find a saint, you should reflect on his life, try to learn from it, and do him honor. If anyone agrees, link to this post: Mbaye Diagne and what he did deserve to be better known.