Celebrating heroes: A real-life Cool Hand Luke

Hero: Mbaye Diagne

Hero: Mbaye Diagne

Through magazines, newspapers and television we’re bombarded with an abundance of ‘celebrities’ on a daily basis, people who become ‘role models’ because they’re all we ever see and hear about. People ‘papped’ for falling out of clubs, shopping, getting into trouble… basically famous for being famous. But the real celebrities, those who deserve to be famous and lauded for all that they do are the heroes who are trying to make other people’s lives better, the people who are rarely considered news worthy as what they do isn’t glamorous enough or worth gossiping about.

Take Dr Denis Mukwege, who I wrote about back in August. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize the same year Barack Obama won and is a living hero. He puts his neck on the line every single day to save the women of the DR Congo, but he barely makes the news headlines. You might see him somewhere in the Africa section of the BBC News website now and then, like when there was an attempt made on his life recently, but it’s not enough.

There are many more people like Dr Mukwege who deserve recognition for what they do and have done. One of those people is a man described by those who knew him as “The bravest of the brave,” “The greatest man I have ever known,” “A real-life Cool Hand Luke…”

These are just a few of the words used to describe Senegalese UN soldier Mbaye Diagne.

The story starts a long time before Mbaye Diagne landed in Rwanda as an unarmed UN military observer as part of the UN Peacekeeping forces during the lead up to the country’s genocide in 1994.

For almost a hundred years tensions were high between the two main ethnic groups in Rwanda – the ethnic Hutu majority and the ethnic Tutsi minority. They were thrown into years of rivalry by Belgian colonists who favoured the Tutsi’s, considering them superior to the Hutu’s, and enabling them to enjoy a far greater life.

The Tutsi’s received better jobs and education and this built a bitter resentment amongst the Hutu population, but in the late 1950s they overthrew the Tutsi government, treating the minority Tutsi’s poorly for many years to come. In the early 1990s a full-scale civil war erupted and lasted for three years until a cease-fire was brokered after the international community put increasing pressure on the Hutu-led government of Juvenal Habyarimana. But on 6th April 1994, President Habyarimana was assassinated when his plane was shot down over the capital Kigali.

Président Juvénal Habyarimana.© Nouvel Observateur

Président Juvénal Habyarimana.
© Nouvel Observateur

It is still not known to this day who shot the plane down. Hutu’s blamed the Tutsi’s for murdering President Habyarimana but some believe it could have been the Hutu’s themselves who carried it out in order to gain support for their growing plan to murder all of Rwanda’s Tutsi population.

The plane carrying Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down on April 6, 1994, their assassination sparked the Rwandan Genocide ©Jean Marc Boujou, AP

The plane carrying Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down on April 6, 1994, their assassination sparked the Rwandan Genocide ©Jean Marc Boujou, AP

After the death of the President, the Interahamwe, a group of Hutu extremists, saw their opportunity to wipe out what they called the ‘cockroaches’ and gained the support of the Hutus in government, the local military and the mass media throughout Rwanda. They used the national radio stations to broadcast violent propaganda against the Tutsi’s and set up checkpoints throughout the country to stop those who tried to escape. An American military adviser at the time suggested that the US could use jamming equipment to take the radio stations off the air to stop the spread of violent propaganda and hatred but a lawyer from the Pentagon made the argument that that would be contrary to the US constitutional protection of freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

With no one to stop them the Interahamwe put their plan into action and began the mass extermination of Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu’s. Over the next 100 days they murdered 800,000 men, women and children – that’s 8,000 people per day – butchering the majority of them to death with machetes.

Scenes like this were seen far and wide across the country

Scenes like this were seen far and wide across the country

What were the UN and the rest of the world doing about it you ask? Good question. Seven weeks into the genocide Bill Clinton gave a speech outlining the United States’ position on the state of Rwanda, advising that they would only intervene in a humanitarian crisis and only if it was in America’s national interest “…whether we get involved in any of the worlds ethnic conflicts in the end must depend on the cumulative weight of the American interest at stake…” By this point almost half a million people had already been murdered by the Hutu’s and soon the UN started to pull their peacekeeping troops out of the country.

When Belgian UN peacekeepers abandoned the Don Bosco Technical School, where they had been protecting 2,000 refugees, Hutu militants who had been waiting outside, drinking beer and chanting “Hutu Power”,  saw their chance and entered the compound, massacring every single person inside, including hundreds of children.

Tutsi's massacred by the Interahamwe

Tutsi’s massacred by the Interahamwe

After the Holocaust the world said ‘Never Again’ and adopted a UN convention requiring that future genocides be stopped. When genocide happened in Rwanda, the United States along with other governments simply avoided using the word but yet again they were full of apologies after the event.

During the genocide there were several heroes who, with no thought for their own safety, helped save the lives of thousands of Tutsi’s. The most famous story is of course that of Paul Rusesabagina, subject of the film, Hotel Rwanda.

Rusesabagina, a Hutu, was married to Tatiana, a Tusti when the genocide began. He worked as the Manager of the Hotel des Milles Collines and brought his family there for safety. It became a haven for refugees during the genocide and Rusesabagina managed to keep the Hutu militia at bay with bribes. By the end of the genocide his acts had saved the lives of 1,268 men, women and children.  Another lesser known story of heroism during the genocide comes in the form of Mbaye Diagne.

Mbaye Diagne

Mbaye Diagne

Mbaye, a devout Muslim, from Dakar in Senegal was the first person out of his family to go to university. He joined the army after graduating from the University of Dakar and worked his way up, eventually being sent out to Rwanda as an unarmed UN military observer.

On the morning of the 7th April, the day after President Habyarimana was assassinated, Rwanda’s first and only female Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a moderate Hutu, was assassinated by the Hutu presidential guard at her home along with her husband and ten Belgian peacekeepers.

Captain Mbaye Diagne heard about Agathe and the peacekeepers from civilians arriving at the Hotel des Milles Collines and immediately made his way to her house, unarmed. He found out that Agathe and her husband surrendered to the Presidential Guard in order to save her children who were hiding inside the compound. Fortunately the troops hadn’t searched the house and when Cpt Diagne got there he found the four children hiding behind clothes and furniture in a corner. He was promised by the UN that extra troops and an armoured personnel carrier would be along shortly to take them to safety but they never showed up. Mbaye knew that the children were a target and would be killed unless they were taken out of the country so he hid them in his car and smuggled them across town to the airport.

Seeing the rapid deterioration of the situation in the country, Mbaye knew he couldn’t just stand by and watch as thousands of people were murdered. He drove out to Nyamirambo, a Kigali neighbourhood that was particularly dangerous, where he found a group of 25 Tusti’s in a house. He took them in groups of 5 to the UN headquarters, each time passing through 23 Hutu checkpoints, somehow managing to convince the militia to let them live using his charm, cigarettes and money.

Mbaye’s colleagues were soon noticing more and more refugees appearing at the Amahoro Hotel in Kigali before being shipped out to safety elsewhere. They knew it was Mbaye who was bringing them there and that it was against his orders of being a UN ‘observer’ but even his boss General Dallaire refused to stop him.

On one occasion his charm managed to save the life of BBC journalist Mark Doyle:

“… 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 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. …”

On 31st May, Cpt Mbaye was driving back to the UN headquarters alone and in preparation for moving more people when a mortar landed next to his car at one of the checkpoints. He was killed instantly.

It’s estimated that he saved as many as 1000 people during the genocide – ferrying between 3 – 5 at a time through 23 checkpoints on a daily basis meaning that during the genocide he potentially passed through 4,600 checkpoints, risking his life each time.

Mbaye’s friend Gregory Alex commented on the aftermath of his death:

“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 (Red Cross) 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.”

UN soldiers surrounding the body of Mbaye Diagne

UN soldiers surrounding the body of Mbaye Diagne

The UN Force HQ held a minute of silence in his honor and a small parade at the airport on 1 June. Mark Doyle said:

“Can you imagine the blanket media coverage that a dead British or American peacekeeper of Mbaye’s bravery and stature would have received?….. He got almost none.”

Gregory Alex added:

“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. …”

Mbaye Diagne was single-handedly responsible for saving the lives of up to 1,000 people during the genocide, a feat that no other nation even attempted. His bravery knew no limits and for that reason he is a true hero.


3 thoughts on “Celebrating heroes: A real-life Cool Hand Luke

  1. Pingback: The Genocide Hunters | everylittleaction

  2. What a wonderful piece it was deep and so informative! I never even knew about Mbaye and I am glad I do now. I’ll share this.

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