Ghosts of Rwanda
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the man everyone remembers - by greg barker

"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.

Related Reading:

Memories of Captain Mbaye Diagne
Three people who were with Capt. Diagne in Rwanda offer their first-hand accounts of what he was like and how he managed to save so many lives while surrounded by dozens of checkpoints manned by the death squads.

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.

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posted april 1, 2004

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