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Ghosts of Rwanda

memories of captain mbaye diagne
From the first hours of the genocide, Senegalese Captain Mbaye Diagne had ignored orders from U.N. headquarters to remain neutral and worked to save the lives of hundreds of Rwandans. Here are stories and anecdotes about how he did it and the kind of man he was, as told by an old friend and comrade-in-arms, Babacar Faye; BBC journalist Mark Doyle; and U.N. aid worker Gregory "Gromo" Alex.

Mark Doyle
  BBC World Service

read the full interview

I guess I didn't know at the time what he was doing. 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. … He was a very dynamic person … he was always rushing around with maps under his arm. His official job I think was liaison with the government army, so he would go from Gen,. Dallaire, the U.N. commander, to see the government army to try and get a ceasefire. [He was there] to allow an aid convoy through, or allow the Red Cross to go and pick up some people -- all of these things needed military liaison, and Mbaye did that.

But when the genocide started, I saw him still rushing around but I didn't know what he was doing. I subsequently learned that he'd rescued the family of the prime minister, the children, 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. … You could see he was never hanging around the car park like some of the some of the UN officers. He was always going out and doing things.

I remember he distrusted the media. I mean, most soldiers basically distrust the media until they get to a very high level and they start thinking that they can use the media. I remember once he said to me, "Why do you keep saying that these militia people are killing the Tutsis?" I said, "Well because they are." He said, "But if you keep on saying it it's going to make our job more difficult." Well I disagreed with him actually. I think that we should do our job as reporters, and I think that had to be done, but somehow he was calculating somehow that perhaps it was better to have a soft[er] approach so that he could negotiate, because he was facing these people [in the government army] every day.

And you can imagine what it was like. He'd be talking to them and then they'd say, "But the bloody BBC is saying this--." He would face their anger in a way that I didn't because I didn't face them every day. [Mbaye] got quite angry with me one day, actually, but we carried on talking and remained friends.

How was he able to get through these checkpoints and rescue people?

… I remember once I was very grateful I was in Mbaye's car. We were going to see an orphanage. We got stopped by the government militia, and the militia man leaned through the window with one of these Chinese stick grenades which look a bit like sink plungers, but they're not sink plungers -- they explode and kill you if they go off. And he started waving it under my nose, because he thought I was Belgian -- because at the time the Belgians were perceived by the government to be pro-rebel -- and so this militia man thought because I'm white and driving around -- and most of the white people who lived in Kigali at the time, the majority were Belgian -- he thought I was Belgian. So he said to Mbaye, "Who's this guy? Is he Belgian?" and if Mbaye had said the wrong thing at that point, then I've no doubt that we'd have all been killed.

And what he did was he just joked. He said, "No, no -- I'm the Belgian. I'm the Belgian here, look -- black Belgian." And he broke the tension of the moment, and once the tension of the moment had been broken, he said, "No, no -- in fact, look, this guy is the BBC. Here's his badge. He's a BBC journalist, he's British, and he's got nothing to do with Belgian." And this kind of put the military man off guard a bit and he no longer wanted to kill us. And I just wonder[ed] if a Canadian soldier or a French soldier would have been able to do that, to joke with this guy and potentially save my life and the life of all the other people around who would have been killed by this stick grenade. …

The U.N. people who were there were able to have a small impact…

Oh there were definitely instances in which single soldiers made a difference. …There were occasions when they were doing transfers: Tutsis would go from one side of the town and Hutus would go from the other side, and the U.N. was transporting them to areas where they felt relatively safe. The militia attacked the convoys, and I saw individual soldiers, including Captain Mbaye actually kicking people off because they didn't have guns. The UN soldiers didn't have gun[s]; they were actually kicking people off and saying, "You can't come up here. These people, we're saving these people. You can't get on here. You're a militiaman -- your bosses have said that we can do this. There's an agreement that we can do this."

That definitely happened, and I saw it happening with my own eyes, that the UN saved people but on a much larger scale. There's no doubt in my mind that several thousand well-armed soldiers could have saved hundreds of thousands of people. Dallaire had a plan, which was basically to secure football stadiums in every town around Rwanda, and to make football stadiums and maybe some churches [into areas where they could hide refugees]. …

…I remember going to the airport subsequently when his body was being taken out under a U.N. flag. … I remember bursting into tears with a colleague of his, a Senegalese captain, and the captain said to me, "You're a journalist; I'm a soldier. Now you've got to tell the world what Mbaye did. You've got to tell the people that he saved lots of lives, even while the UN was shamefully pulling out its troops, he was saving people's lives. Please tell the world." That gave me the final confirmation of what I suspected had been going on all the time anyway.

Babacar Faye
  friend and a comrade-in-arms with Capt. Diagne since their days together at military college in the early 1980s.

In 1993, Mbaye [was] designated first to go to Rwanda. After that, the Rwandese asked for more officers and I was designated to go with him, to join them. … When we went to Rwanda we had alreadybeen together, we had fought together. …

So what did your and Mbaye's job consist of?

In a given day you could have [an] escort mission for an official that came to Rwanda, … you could have a liason officer, … you could have [an] investigation mission. Sometimes there was a conflict between the two parties and he was sent to … see who was responsible. … The "military observer" is the label for all kind of missions that can bring peace. … It was our job, in fact, to prevent conflict.

You mentioned Mbaye was able to get information from people easily. How did he do that? … How did he manage to gather information, then to have such good contacts with both sides?

The personality of Mbaye allowed him to get a lot of information, because Mbaye was a kind of person that can be familiar to you in five minutes. He established real contact [with people through] his sarcasm. Most of the time he made you angry before you became his friend. … And also he was generous. Mbaye was a kind of person that could share all that he had; he would give you pack of cigarettes or for all the group. Sometimes he [could] just force somebody to smoke with him. But it was his[persuasive powers], in fact, the way he behaved to make sure that he [could] be familiar to you. Once you [understood] who Mbaye [was] you [could not] have a problem with him. So that personality really [helped] him to get the confidence of some families, the confidence of some groups, the confidence of some chiefs in the all sides. …

Can you tell me about how Mbaye saved the murdered prime minister's children? …

He in the morning [that the prime minister was murdered]. … He said she had been killed but I got her kids. [I asked him,] "What you are doing?" [He said,] "I am hiding them inside a house of a member of UNDP (U.N. Development Program." He told me, "I want to safeguard them because if the [Interahamwe find out] that they're alive, they will come to kill them." …

How did he get them out of the house?

After the military killed [the prime minister] and they captured the Belgian soldiers who were protecting her, the house was empty. [Mbaye] went inside the house and found the boys. He took the boys after he called at the car that arrived a few moments. … He [told me] ,"I am going to take these kids out of here." [I told him], "I will send to you security so [that] you can withdraw," but the security didn't come because the Belgians at this moment didn't want to move.


Because they had already had some people captured, and [we] did not know what the Interahamwe would do with these ten soldiers [that had been captured while protecting the prime minister]. So Mbaye waited some time and decided to take the boys by himself. … The other problem was how to evacuate these boys and to cross all the [checkpoint] lines to the airport. [Mbaye said he would] find a solution;he just [wanted] to know [how he] could get a plane. Two- three days after we got an airplane from the Canadians who came from Nairobi, [Mbaye went through the checkpoints] with the boys without any supervision. He managed that -- no suspicion or queries [arose] and he brought the boys to the airport to put them in the plane.

How did he manage to get through these checkpoints?

Mbaye was a likable man. … He liked kidding with people and he knew how to make somebody confident. I think he used these skills to cross [the checkpoints], even giving his cigarettes to [the troops running the checkpoint]. He needed [them] at the moment [to not] ask questions; they just [took] the cigarettes. Sometimes [he was] giving them some money. …

gregory gromo
  Head of U.N. Humanitarian Assistance Team in Rwanda

read the full interview

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.

How could he do that?

That's just the way he was. I always associate him with "Cool Hand Luke, " -- that he had this way about him. He's a tall guy, but he had the smile, a big, toothy smile. ... You could challenge him with anything or put him in a situation where things were difficult [and he often prevailed]. He never really stayed in one place either; sometimes he would escort us and he'd go off somewhere and he'd come back. He was always on the move. But he always made whomever he was with happy. … However long of an encounter you have with him, you come away with a smile, somehow. …

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. …

How did he die?

…it was time to leave and the plan was that we were all just going to leave at the same time. … And then Mbaye said no [because] he had some other things to do. And 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 [International Committee for the Red Cross]. … We stopped there for a couple minutes. … 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 in the back of his head and apparently killed him instantly. … And this was the day that Gen. 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. And 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.

We had some UNICEF plastic sheeting, and we had some tape and Mbaye's body comes. And he's a big man, tall, big feet. And he's on a stretcher now. Nobody knows exactly what to do, but we're gonna make a body bag. … And you wanna do it right. You want to … zip it, [but] you got this UN light-blue body bag, and we're going to make and fold the edges over. And we're folding them up, and the creases aren't right, because his feet are so damn big. … And you don't want that for him. You want it to be like, you know, just laid out perfectly. So that when people look at him, they know that he was something great.

What did he mean to you?

He was a hero. He was the guy that, in every movie that's ever made you have the guy that is the tragic hero. … But this one's real. This man was a hero to people he didn't know and people he did know, to people who didn't have a clue and didn't understand why he was doing it. …

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posted april 1, 2004

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