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Capt. Mbaye Diagne

 

The Man Everyone Remembers: By Greg Barker, the producer of "Ghosts of Rwanda"

"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.

On May 31st, Capt. Mbaye was driving alone back to U.N. headquarters in Kigali when a random mortar shell, fired by the Rwandan Patriotic Front towards an extremist checkpoint, mistakenly landed next to his Jeep. He was killed instantly.

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. After his death, he was buried in Senegal with full military honors. He was survived by a wife and two young children.

In mid-May 1994, about a month into the genocide, someone gave Capt. Diagne a video camera, and he started filming U.N. peacekeepers and aid workers in Kigali. His tape is a rare glimpse inside the U.N.'s force in Rwanda -- humorous, poignant and very human. But there are no clues as to how Capt. Mbaye managed to save so many lives. He never took his camera on his rescue missions, and so the true source of his heroism remains a mystery.

After Capt. Mbaye died, one of his closest friends -- Lt. Col. Babacar Faye, another Senegalese officer in Kigali -- found his videotape and later gave it to Capt. Mbaye's family in Dakar. Lt. Col. Faye and Capt. Mbaye's widow kindly made the tape available to FRONTLINE so that the memory of this remarkable soldier and hero can live on.

For more information on Capt. Mbaye go to PBS: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/ghosts/video/mbaye_hi.html

My Communion of Saints

By Michael Garvey '74

He was at Denny's grave with us, too, this most surreptitious of military heroes. One of the Muslims in the litany, Diagne was a native of Senegal, born to a large, poor family in a Dakar slum, the first in his family to go to college. After graduation from the University of Dakar, he joined the army and worked his way up through the officer's ranks.

When the United Nations sent peacekeeping troops to Rwanda in 1993, to moderate a smoldering war between the Hutu government and the Tutsi rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, Captain Diagne was among them. As trouble spots go, Rwanda seemed unremarkable at first, as did the U.N.'s standing orders to its forces there: They were to observe the strictest neutrality, not intervening in yet another local ethnic brawl among Africans without oil. Such orders are easily obeyed, even by men like Diagne.

But then, in spring 1994, all hell broke famously loose. Off-duty government soldiers, Hutu street gangs, and finally ordinary men and women began to kill every Tutsi and peaceable Hutu they could find. An unimpeded slaughter continued through spring and summer until conservatively 800,000 Rwandans had been put to death.

Perhaps because their murderers preferred to work with machetes, perhaps because a cowardly U.S. administration and international community wanted to avoid the legally actionable term "genocide," perhaps simply because of its incomprehensible enormity, the carnage was, and still is, too often described as a tribal frenzy of bloodlust. The massacre in Rwanda was not, however, a spasmodic eruption of insane violence, but something every bit as purposeful, organized and satanic as the Nazis' "Final Solution" half a century earlier. The customary orderliness of Rwandan society, the cooperation of the media, and a perverse notion of "umuganda," the work and civic duty of ordinary citizens, were all carefully harnessed by ideologues zealous for Hutu power and enraged by real or imagined challenges to it. Like their Aryan supremacist predecessors in Nazi Germany, the perpetrators of the Rwandan slaughter could count on the inaction of witnesses.

Mbaye Diagne was not inactive. In fact, one BBC reporter, Mark Doyle, remembers him as absurdly hyperactive, the very stereotype of an ineffectual U.N. official in a war zone, rushing around from one military headquarters to another with maps tucked under his arm, busy with mysterious and largely irrelevant errands. "I didn't know at the time what he was doing," Doyle said in a recent television interview. "I had an inkling from one or two people that he was saving people's lives, and I learnt about it several weeks later after he'd been killed."

In the first moments of the killing, the unarmed Captain Diagne evidently resolved to disobey the U.N.'s standing orders not to intervene. He plunged into the horror and began risking his own life to save others. "I learned that he'd rescued the family of the [murdered] prime minister, the children," Doyle said, "and he'd hidden them in his house. I understand that he saved quite a lot of other people as well by driving through the front line, hiding people in his car, driving back through the front line and so on."

Accounts of Diagne's heroism have only begun to emerge from the atrocity of a decade ago: How he could laugh and swagger and joke while the bloodbath roiled; how he once discovered 25 Tutsis hiding in a Kigaki basment and ferried them in five jeep trips, five passengers at a time though 23 militia checkpoints, to the safety of U.N. headquarters.

Lieutenant Colonel Babacar Faye, a close friend and fellow Senegales army officer in the U.N. contingent, believes that it was Diagne's in your face attitude that allowed him to negotiate the roadblocks of bloodthirty militiamen.

"He established real contact through his sarcasm," said Faye. "Most of the time he made you angry before you became his friend. . . . He was the kind of person that could share all that he had; he would give you a pack of cigarettes or for all the group. Sometimes he would just force somebody to smoke with him."

"That's just the way he was," said Gregory Alex, head of the U.N. humanitarian assistance team in Rwanda. "People laughed. Even they [the genocidal militiamen] 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."

Diagne's eccentrically heroic career was cut short on May 31, 1994, when a checkpoint at which he was waiting came under rebel mortar fire. A piece of shrapnel shot through his Jeep's rear window and killed him instantly. To this day nobody knows how many men, women and children this insubordinate martyr managed to conceal in hiding places throughout Kigali and the surrounding countryside. Nor does anyone know the number of people he was able to smuggle, sweet-talk, bribe and backslap past checkpoints manned by murderers. Dozens, certainly. Hundreds, probably. Thousands, possibly. It is by no means a clich to add that God knows.

And Denny, too, no doubt.

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