This April, the world will commemorate 25 years since one of its largest and most saddening human rights crises in its history.
The Rwandan Genocide started on April 6, 1994 as a conflict between ethnic Tutsis and Hutus. On that date, according to the BBC, Rwanda’s president, a Hutu, was killed when a helicopter he and the president of neighboring Burundi were in was shot down. Hutu extremists blamed native Tutsis, and an ethnic cleansing began. At the time, Rwandan ID cards included the ethnicities of their owners, proving it easy to identify Tutsis. By the time the horror had ended, over 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis had been killed.
This is a very well-known tragedy taught in history classes to many kids around the world. However, while most people know the horror that went on, not many people know about the heroes who stood up and risked their lives to defend innocent people forced to hide from an extreme Hutu militia. The 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda helped show some heroic actions during the fighting, telling the story of Paul Rusesabagina, who helped hide over 1,200 Tutsi refugees in the Hotel des Milles Collines. However, there is another hero who has historically been overlooked. His name was Mbaye Diagne.
Born in Senegal, Diagne was serving as a UN peacekeeper at the time of the genocide. On the first night, the Rwandan Army went after Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana- a moderate Hutu who stood up for Tutsi rights. She was killed, but the army sent to kill her didn’t find her children hidden within the house. After long arguments about what to do regarding the children, it was eventually decided that Diagne would go on a rescue mission across the dangerous mine-filled roads alone and unarmed. He would then take them to the Hotel des Milles Collines, one of the few safe places for Tutsis in the country. Against all odds, Diagne managed to hide the kids in the truck and get them to safety. This was the first of many high-profile rescues pulled off by Diagne.
Described by BBC reporter Mark Doyle as a “man of immense charm”, Diagne managed to constantly get through Hutu roadblocks through wit and generally being friendly. He was also safe (to a degree) due to his position. Despite quickly becoming known to the Hutu militia for his rescues, they knew that they would have some serious problems on their hands if a man who was technically a UN observer was killed.
Diagne also would often bribe Hutu he would meet. Despite being a practicing Muslim, he had alcoholic drinks in his car at all times to distract Hutu militiamen. The drinks, cigarettes, and wits he carried would often end up saving the lives of his passengers if they were found out. This includes Doyle, who recalls Diagne saving his life by cracking jokes with Hutus at a military checkpoint before mentioning that if Doyle was killed, the whole world would find out.
As other countries, particularly the US and European countries, began pulling their troops out, Diagne was left to stay. After only two days of the genocide, almost all of the UN observers from other countries left. The Rwandans that managed to make it to foreign embassies were turned away. This left Diagne shocked and disgusted- but also more determined to save as many people as he could without the help of the US or Europe.
However, there was one thing standing in the way of Diagne rescuing civilians- he was a UN peacekeeper. Technically, that meant that he was a UN observer. And international observers were not allowed to go out on rescue missions.
This rule ended up being a major part of why the UN’s attempts to quell the Rwandan crisis were largely decried in the years to follow. Many people believed that more lives could have been saved if not for the UN’s inaction.
However, Diagne was having none of it. Besides saving Minister Uwilingiyimana’s children, he was also an important piece of protecting Tutsis in the few safe places left in the capital, Kigali- the Hotel des Milles Collines and a few churches throughout the city.
It soon became clear to his superiors that Diagne was blatantly disregarding the orders to not interfere. However, they decided to simply not do anything about it. After all, even though he was disobeying international law, he was clearly saving lives and doing the right thing.
On May 31, 1994, Diagne was driving to deliver a message from the head of the government army to the UN commander in Rwanda. Along the way, his car was hit by shrapnel from a mortar shell. He died instantly.
According to the BBC, he was nine days away from returning to his home in Senegal.
No one knows exactly how many lives Diagne ended up saving. However, it is almost universally agreed upon that the number is at least greater than 400, and possibly even higher than 1,000. Diagne is a true world hero who stepped up in one of the darkest chapters of the world’s history, and should be more well known for his heroism.
This story was written in March of 2019, and planning for it had been in the works for months prior; in fact, it was even in an interview I did for local publication The Valley Breeze. Diagne is truly a person that should be recognized as a hero by the entire world, and it’s truly a shame that he isn’t. This story received a Special Achievement award from the New England Scholastic Press Association.