This is the story of the bravest man in Africa. FROM FRONT LINE.
I’ve covered many wars and seen many acts of courage. But for sheer grit and determination I’ve never known anyone to compare with Capt Mbaye Diagne, a United Nations peacekeeper in Rwanda.
I was there in 1994, when 800,000 people were killed in 100 days, and I returned to reconstruct the story of this remarkable, charismatic officer from the west African state of Senegal. The country plunged into war and genocide on 6 April 1994, when the plane carrying the Rwandan president, a member of the majority Hutu population, was shot down. Everyone on board was killed. Within hours Hutu extremists seized power and a tidal wave of murder was unleashed against the minority Tutsi population, and anyone prepared to defend them.
The army came for Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana that first night.
As gunfire rang out, her five children, the youngest just three, were bundled through a chain link fence to be hidden in a neighbour’s house.
The children were cowering in the brick-built bungalow, occasionally peeping out of the window, when they spotted soldiers looking for their parents.
“There was more gunfire," says Marie-Christine, the prime minister's daughter, who was 15 at the time.
Then we heard the soldiers scream for joy. And after that there was nothing but an eerie silence.”
Agathe Uwilingiyimana was a moderate Hutu, not a Tutsi, but she was killed because she was ready to share power with them. Had the killers found the children they would have been slaughtered too.
Hours later, when UN soldiers arrived to pick up UN aid workers from the compound behind the prime minister’s residence, they discovered Marie-Christine and her brothers still hiding in the bungalow.
A fierce argument broke out about what to do with the children. It was not clear that the UN soldiers were authorised to move them, says Adama Daff, one of the aid workers, but “on humanitarian grounds we definitely could not leave them there”.
It was extremely dangerous to travel anywhere. Roadblocks manned by Hutu killers had already appeared, and the armoured personnel carriers which were supposed to have taken UN aid workers to safety had not shown up.
In the end, Daff says, it was decided that Capt Mbaye, an unarmed military observer, would take the children in his unarmoured car to the relative safety of the nearby UN-guarded Hotel des Mille Collines.
“He decided to load the kids up,” says Gen Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the small and poorly equipped UN force. “He hid them under a tarpaulin and just drove like stink.”
The gutsiness of that. There are no limits to describe how gutsy. It’s Victoria Cross-type action.”
They were the first of many people Mbaye took to the Hotel des Mille Collines - an unremarkable edifice of glass and concrete set on a hill overlooking the capital Kigali, but one of the few sanctuaries for Tutsis in the city.
Capt Mbaye Diagne was in his mid-30s, from a small village in northern Senegal, and a man of immense charm. Tall, gap-toothed and easygoing in Aviator sunglasses, his humour put people at their ease even in one of the darkest chapters of modern history.The first, bloody days of the genocide felt like pandemonium.
There was hot lead flying in all directions and bodies lying, sometimes piled up, on the sides of the roads.The terrifying roadblocks were mainly manned by the HutuInterahamwemilitia. The word means “those who work together”- and the work was killing Tutsis with machetes, knives and sticks. I saw one man attack another in the head with a screwdriver.
Radio stations urged them on, calling for the death of Tutsi “cockroaches”.
The shooting down of the president’s plane had rekindled a civil war between the government army and rebel forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which had been briefly on hold following a tentative peace deal. Led by the Tutsi Paul Kagame, the RPF was advancing on the capital, saying it would stop the massacre.In between the two sides was the beleaguered UN force. Its vehicles were sometimes attacked by Hutus - especially if the militia thought there were Tutsis inside them.Within the first 48 hours, a lot of the unarmed military observers like Mbaye - especially those outside the capital - disappeared. “It took us nearly a month to find some who had gone to different countries,” says Dallaire. “Some ended up in Nairobi before we knew where they were.”
With virtually no-one to defend them, tens of thousands of Tutsis sought refuge in churches, but even here they were not safe. One of them, Concilie Mukamwezi, went with her husband and children to the Sainte Famille church, a large religious compound in the centre of Kigali. She remembers her time there with digital clarity.
“I had just bought some laundry soap from a stall when a priest in military uniform came up to me,” she says.“He had four militiamen with him and he was armed with a Kalashnikov rifle, a pistol and grenades.“This priest accused me of being a collaborator with the rebels.
He pointed his Kalashnikov at me like this,” she says, picking up a stick from the ground and holding it up like a rifle, “and he said he was going to fire.”
Incredible though it may seem, some Hutu clergy were collaborating in the genocide, and some were even taking part.One of Mbaye’s jobs was to be the eyes and ears of the UN mission, and he made it his business to check occasionally on the people sheltering at Sainte Famille.He knew Concilie by sight because before the genocide she had worked at the office of the national telephone company, Rwandatel, where he paid his phone bills. And by coincidence he happened to walk into the church compound at her moment of need.“Captain Mbaye ran over and stood right between the priest and I,” says Concilie. “He shouted, ‘Why are you killing this woman? You must not do this because if you do the whole world will know.’” The priest backed down.
There was no large-scale killing inside the Sainte Famille compound, partly as a result of the efforts of Mbaye and the other UN peacekeepers - although plenty took place just outside.
In many churches where people had taken sanctuary, soldiers and militiamen broke in and massacred them in the pews.