The guardian angel of Rwanda

We know little about the life of Captain Diagne before his arrival in Rwanda. Born the 18th of March 1958, he grew up in Pikine, a popular district of Dakar, and the capital of Senegal. From a Muslim family of nine children, he was the first of his family to go to university. Graduated from the University of Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar in economical sciences, Mbaye joined the Senegalese army in 1983, and gradually climbed the ladder. In 1991, he was promoted to the rank of captain. Then, Mbaye worked for the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), before joining the peacekeepers of The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). He was then only 36 years old.

Initially created to help put in place the Arusha Peace agreement signed by the Rwandan government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) the 4th of August 1993, the assignment of the UNAMIR remains, facing the tragic events of the genocide, globally a failure. Hindered by a mandate obliging them to keep to strict neutrality, the mission suffered from a lack of political direction, equipment too dilapidated and reduced workforce. Thus, in the middle of the massacres passed on by the foreign media, the UN decided, the 21st of April 1994, to reduce the workforce of the mission from approximately 2500 people to 2701. Several members of the UNAMIR will manage to save between 30 and 40000 people. Among them, several hundreds owe their lives to Captain Mbaye Diagne.

Yet, the mandate forbids the UNAMIR soldiers from being armed. Colonel Mamadou Sarr, who served alongside Mbaye, says: “We couldn’t even have a knife. Our only weapon to save the civilians was with words”. It’s therefore with exceptional courage and a natural ease that the captain organises, often by his own, numerous safety operations. The first is held the first day of the genocide, the 7th of April 1994.

That day, members of the presidential guard arrive at the Prime Minister’s house, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a moderate Hutu willing to share power with the FPR. Her five children, the youngest only 3 years old, are not far. Marie-Christine, then aged 15 years, remembers: “There was a lot of gun fire. The soldiers were screaming with joy. Then there was an agonising silence”. Her mother, the Prime Minister, and her husband were shot. While on a mission to recuperate the members of the civil staff of the UN, Captain Diagne got wind of an eminent attack and came running into the place. The assassins have already left, but he finds the children hidden in a dark room in the neighbour’s house, behind clothes and furniture. Other members of the UNAMIR get there, for instance his major, the general Roméo Dallaire. A long debate arises then regarding the actions that the UNAMIR can take. The general finally promises Captain Diagne that armed vehicles will arrive later in the afternoon to keep the children safe. Mbaye decides to stay with them until they are safe. Unfortunately, no vehicle comes. The captain decides to take them himself to the Hôtel des Milles Collines. He hides the five children under a cover at the back of his non-armed vehicle and drives as fast as possible. The 10th of April, a group of soldier and militiamen come to claim the children. After a long discussion, the captain manages to get them to leave. The next day, a Canadian plane is ready to evacuate the children. The captain drives them to the airport, after having crossed the militia’s roadblocks without any problem. Today in Europe, Marie-Christine says: “If (Mbaye Diagne) hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be alive. I owe him my life.


1 Resolution S/RES/912 (1994) of the Security Council of the United Nations, 21st of April 1994.