Diagne Mbaye, Senegalese soldier who died to save thousands lives in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide

LEFT: Diagne Mbaye

In 1994, a plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, the then Rwandese president and Ciprien Ntaryamira, president of Burundi was shot down close to the airport in Kigali Rwanda. The assassinations of these presidents raised the already worse tensions between the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi. The chain of reactions followed thereafter. In a span of 100 days, an estimated 500,000-1,000,0000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were brutally murdered and a further two million people were displaced.

Rwanda had already been ravaged by a civil war between tribalist Habyarimana’s government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a paramilitary force, comprised mostly Tutsi refugees in neighbouring 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.

Born and raised in Senegal Diagne was sent to Rwanda as part of an Organisation of African Unity, a military observer team tasked with monitoring the Rwandan Civil War. Later he was assigned to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), a UN peacekeeping force meant to oversee the implementation of the Arusha Accords, a peace agreement meant to end the Civil War.

During the course of the genocide, Diagne perplexed his colleagues with mysterious and unfathomable movements, often rushing from one military headquarters to another. They would later learn he was saving lives. (His actions was against and illegal from above his commands)

After learning Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, was murdered in her official residence, Diagne decided to investigate the circumstances further and discovered the Prime Minister’s children were 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.

31 May 1994 Diagne was killed when a mortar shell launched by RPF forces exploded near his car while he was stopped at a government checkpoint. His death led the UN to suspend relief operations in Kigali. His body was repatriated to Senegal and buried with full military honours.

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.


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