Mbaye puts himself at risk every day, only armed with his self-confidence and his smile. All those who knew him can confirm that the captain became master in the art of negotiation, and his easy touch, sense of humour helped him a lot. “He loved to joke and smile”, remembers the lieutenant colonel Babacar Faye, a Senegalese peacekeeper that served next to him in Rwanda1. Captain Diagne crossed the militia’s roadblocks with audacity. Mark Doyle, a British reporter for the BBC, probably owes his life to a joke of the soldier.
One day, the reporter and Captain Diagne went to an orphanage where hundreds of children were hiding according to several sources. Their vehicle is stopped at a roadblock held by the militia. One of them got near them shaking a grenade under the nose of the reporter. “Who is this man? Is he Belgian?”, he asks the captain2. Mbaye looks at the militiaman, smiles and says: “No, I’m the Belgian. Look!”, pinching the skin of his arm, “ a black Belgian!”. The tension goes down suddenly. He takes advantage of it to add: “In fact, this man works for the BBC, look at his badge. He’s British, he’s got nothing to do with the Belgians”. The captain orders the militiaman to step aside, and he instinctively does.
Another day, after having discovered twenty-five Tutsi hidden in Nyarimrambo in Kigali, the captain takes all of them, in five trips, to the head of the United Nations, each time crossing the roadblocks held by the militia. Indeed, Mbaye has become well known by the militia holding the roadblocks, and gained their trust. He trades the life of people that he’s transporting for beer, whisky, cigarettes or money that he often has on him or in his vehicle. The soldier sometimes gives his own food ration, and his colleagues do the same when they learn of his ploy. “In all this horror, this hatred, a soon as you could see his smile or hear his laugh, you hang on to it”, explains Gegory Alex, the person in charge of the United Nations Development Program. According to him, this also counted for the militia.
This sweet light in the darkest day in Rwanda is switched off. At the end of May, the FPR have the upper hand, but the governmental army launches a last battle in the centre of Kigali. Every day, intense battle happens. It’s during one of these days, the 31st of May 1994, that Captain Mbaye Diagne is asked to transmit a message from the Chief of General Staff of the Rwandan Army, Augustin Bizimungu, to General Roméo Dallaire of the UNAMIR. While he’s at a governmental checkpoint, a mortar shot by the FPR explodes just next to his Jeep. A splinter goes through the bodywork of the car; Mbaye is hit and dies instantly.
The next day, his body gets repatriated to Senegal. The funds of the UNAMIR are so small that no coffin is available. The body of Mbaye is wrapped in a blue plastic canvas cover, normally used to shelter refugee. A United Nations’ flag is put on it.
2 The Belgians, former colon of Rwanda, were at that time considered by the Rwandan army and the militia, as enemies supporting the FPR. Furthermore, the majority of whites living then in Kigali were Belgian.