Honouring Humanity- Captain Mbaye Diagne, Exceptional Courage

The ongoing global pandemic has highlighted the work of humanitarian organisations around the world. The United Nations estimates that 274 million people will require humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022. Throughout this year, we will celebrate the selfless acts of humanity by a select number of individuals while appreciating the ongoing work of thousands of humanitarian workers across the globe. 

Rwanda: Civil War and Genocide

Between April and July 1994, between half a million and one million members of the Tutsi, a minority ethnic group in Rwanda, were killed by armed militias supported by the government of the majority Hutu people. The one hundred days of political and genocidal killings were prompted by the deaths of the Presidents of Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi when their plane crashed while landing at the airport of the Rwandan capital Kigali. The presidents were returning from talks in Tanzania designed to implement a peace accord signed the previous year to end a bitter civil between the Hutu and Tutsi which had been waged since 1990.

United Nations Mission in Rwanda

A key element of the peace accord was the establishment of the United Nations Mission in Rwanda (UNMIR) in October 1993 to contribute to the security of the Kigali. Major-General Roméo Dalliare from Canada was in command of the peacekeepers, but the UNMIR mandate meant that military intervention by the United Nations was not possible when the genocide began in April 1994. Dalliare’s force was outnumbered by the militia forces, and some Rwandan and Belgian members of the mission were killed. While attempts to broker a ceasefire were unsuccessful, UNMIR troops provided refuge for thousands of Tutsi, and helped to evacuate foreign nationals.

Captain Mbaye Diagne

Captain Mbaye Diagne, from Senegal, had been a military observer in Rwanda since 1993 before he was assigned to UNMIR. When Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a moderate Hutu politician, was assassinated in Kigali on 7 April 1994, the unarmed Captain Diagne personally rescued her four children and ensured their safe departure from Rwanda. Dallaire recalled that Diagne loaded the children into his vehicle ‘and just drove like stink’.

You’ll have to kill me first

Diagne continued to rescue Tutsi and some Hutu from the militia operating in Kigali, with the tall and charming Senegal officer facilitating his passage through Hutu militia checkpoints with a combination of disarming banter and bribes. Concilie Mukamwezi and her family sought refuge in a Kigali church, where a uniformed Hutu priest pointed an assault rifle at her. Diagne arrived at the church compound and immediately ran to place himself between the priest and Mukamwezi, shouting ‘Why are you killing this woman? You must not do this because if you do the whole world will know.’ When a United Nations convoy was stopped by machete-wielding Hutu militia Diagne prevented the forced removal of Tutsi from the vehicles. He admonished the militiamen, stating that ‘You cannot kill these people, they are my responsibility. I will not allow you to harm them – you’ll have to kill me first.’

I owe him my life

Estimates of the number of people saved by Diagne range from four hundred to one thousand. His crusade came to an end on 31 May 1994 when he was killed by a mortar round while stopped at a Hutu checkpoint. Dallaire later reflected that ‘we lost one of those shining lights, one of those beacon-type guys who influences others… He had a sense of humanity that went well beyond orders, well beyond any mandate.’ Marie-Christine Umuhoza, one of the children of assassinated Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana who had been rescued by Diagne paid tribute to him as ‘a good person. I owe him my life.’ He was the twelfth member of UNMIR to die, and his death prompted the United Nations to suspend the mission in Kigali.

The Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage

The Secretary-General with Yacine Mar Diop, widow of Captain Diagne, after he presented her with the “Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage”.

On 8 May 2014, the United Nations Security Council established the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage performed by United Nations personnel in the face of extreme danger while fulfilling their mandate in the service of humanity. The first award of the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal was to Captain Diagne himself, with the medal presented to Diagne’s widow and two children at the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York on 19 May 2016. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon paid tribute to Diagne’s ‘incredible heroism while carrying out the noblest goals of the United Nations – preserving peace and protecting the most vulnerable.’

Ebola and Peacekeeping in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Private Chancy Chitete from Malawi, who died on 14 November 2018 while serving with MONUSCO (the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), was acknowledged as a ‘true hero’ by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Tanzanian and Malawian peacekeepers found themselves coming under heavy fire when they intervened to end attacks on local towns by an armed group, the Allied Democratic Forces who intended to disrupt attempts to control an outbreak of the Ebola virus. Private Chitete’s unit provided covering fire while the other peacekeepers moved to a secure location. When it came time for Chitete and his fellow soldiers to move, he saw a badly wounded Tanzanian peacekeeper, Corporal Ali Khamis Omary, lying unprotected. Chitete dragged Omary to safety and administered first aid, before being fatally wounded himself.

Shared in his heart the same humanity

The widow of late UN peacekeeper Chancy Chitete of Malawi was presented the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal by Secretary-General António Guterres.

Omary said from hospital that he owed ‘Private Chitete a lot for risking his life to save me’, and he later admitted that ‘Honestly, I feel bad because he was a fellow peacekeeper, and we were working together to carry out our duties. I wish it hadn’t ended that way, but it’s God’s will and I pray for him.’ Secretary General António Guterres observed that Chitete had made a ‘profound’ difference in helping the United Nations to eliminate Ebola from the region. In presenting the second award of the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage to Chitete’s widow and infant daughter, Guterres stated that: ‘We could not have found a more deserving recipient.  We found in Private Chitete a man who not only walked in Captain Diagne’s footsteps, but also shared in his heart the same humanity.’

Author’s Profile:

Dr Aaron Fox is a New Zealand-based military and security intelligence historian. He trained as an historian at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before directing medallic policy for the New Zealand Defence Force. He later worked as a senior local government manager, and as a specialist advisor to the renowned Weta/Te Papa exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’. His current projects include a biography of the notable New Zealand soldier and politician, Brigadier James Hargest.