Salute to Captain Mbaye Diagne, the African soldier

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Captain Mbaye Diagne

Captain Mbaye Diagne

By Owei Lakemfa

KIGALI, the capital of Rwanda, is beautiful and clean with attractive hills and structures rising to salute a promising African country. However, the Kigali Memorial contains hundreds of skulls, including those of children.

Many of the skulls had been fractured, revealing the brutal, bestial end they had met. These are the victims of a civil war which turned genocidal in 1994.

It is a sobering place to visit. Whenever I do, I ask myself why neigbours, relatives and fellow citizens could turn on themselves and within a hundred days, massacre over 850,000 persons using any weapon imaginable, including cudgels, machetes and guns. What was most painful was that the skulls of many of these victims would not have been at that memorial or any other such place in the country, had the world decided to stop, rather than accept the genocide.

On ground was the United Nations Assistance Mission For Rwanda,UNAMIR, a UN peacekeeping force sent  to oversee the implementation of the Arusha Peace Accords. It was a peace agreement signed between the warring Tutsis and Hutus to bring the Rwandan civil war to an end.

Tragically, on April 6, 1994, the aircraft carrying the Rwandan President, Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down, killing him. Many Hutus blamed the  rebel Tutsi-dominated  Rwanda Patriotic Force, RPF, for the tragedy.

The next morning, the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who was known to favour peaceful negotiations, was attacked and killed by the Presidential Guards along with her ten Belgian peacekeeping bodyguards. The planning and implementation of the genocide was on.

There were announcements on  Hutu-controlled radio stations calling the Tutsis cockroaches that must be exterminated.  Roadblocks were erected   to search and separate Tutsis. The UNAMIR was aware that the genocide was afoot but did nothing to stop it. The RPF immediately began a race towards Kigali in an attempt to stop the genocide.

The  UN and its peacekeeping force was despised by the Tutsis who were appalled that they could allow such horrendous acts against an unarmed civil populace to go on, while the Hutus were angry with them for allowing the Tutsi advance.

The question was: what was the use of the UN and its UNAMIR if it could neither   prevent conflict nor even symbolically prevent a genocide that was afoot? A UN report stated that the world body and its member states tragically failed Rwanda in preventing a genocide that was openly planned, taking no steps to protect the victims, and leaving the Rwandan people to  a horrible fate.

However, one man, rather than watch the genocide from the sidelines,   decided to take action. The soldier is trained to obey orders, especially the last order. Mbaye Diagne, was a captain in the Senegalese army. He was in 1993, at the age of 35,  part of the  UNAMIR.

When the conflict  began to take the shape of a genocide, the UN had given orders  that all its troops disengage and pull back. But Diagne, a military liaison officer between UNAMIR and the Rwandan government,   refused to obey the orders.

As far as he was concerned, his duty as a soldier was to protect lives, especially of civilians, including women and children. At the risk of being court marshaled, especially when he returned home, he put  his life at  risk; he went round Kigali, snatching people from the jaws of death.

Diagne’s courageous efforts began when he raced to Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana’s  residence  to confirm rumours that she had been assassinated. He discovered that her four children were hiding in the adjoining United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, compound.

When  UNAMIR Force Commander, General Roméo Dallaire arrived, Diagne  briefed him and feared that  the Presidential Guard might  return and kill the children. The General assured Daigne  that UNAMIR armoured personnel carriers would come in hours to rescue the children and UNDP employees.

Rather than take his general’s assurances on face value, Diagne decided to stay back. But the UN rescue team never appeared.  He decided to take matters into his hands  by putting the children in the back seat of his own vehicle, covered them with clothes, and drove them to a safe location.

Then he smuggled them through Hutu checkpoints   to the Kigali  International Airport where he secured them seats on a Canadian plane to Kenya.

To rescue endangered Rwandans irrespective of their ethnic origin, became his passion. Apart from risking his life, he spent his personal funds bribing Hutu militias to allow him safe passage through their roadblocks. He once paid off Hutu militias to allow the free passage of UN employees and contract staff of Rwandan origin.

One day, he   came across a Hutu priest who was about to execute a woman. He stood before the pointed gun and asked why the priest  would execute her. He told the priest that there were witnesses who will let the world know the atrocity he was about committing.

The priest changed his mind. He sometimes spent days rescuing Tutsis, taking them  to safety. Diagne’s actions became known, but General Dallaire, perhaps appreciative of his actions, did nothing to stop him.

Later, the UN  facilitated a deal between the warring factions to enable trapped Hutus behind rebel lines move to government areas, and  endangered Tutsis, move to rebel held areas. During one of  such transfers,  the  UN convoy carrying Tutsis was attacked by Hutu militias, Diagne struck off some of the machetes with his gear bag to enable the convoy return to safety.

The exact number of lives Diagne saved is unknown. General  Dallaire said they are  “dozens upon dozens”. The American State Department said as many as 600 people, while independent observers put the number at over 1,000.

On  May 31, 1994 Diagne, with a message from the Rwandan Armed Forces Chief, Augustin Bizimungu  to General  Dallaire, was stopped at a checkpoint along the Boulevard du MRND. At that moment, the  RPF forces fired a mortar at the position. Shrapnel hit Diagne  in the back of the head, killing him.

Gregory Alex, the head of the UN Humanitarian Assistance Team in Rwanda described the scene: “We’re calling around for a body bag, and there’s no body bags…. We had some UNICEF plastic sheeting and we had some tape.

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.”

Captain Mbaye Diagne, the internationalist African soldier fell on the battle field, covering the shame of the UN, and reminding us all that life is only meaningful if we live it for others.

VANGUARD

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Source: Vanguard News.

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