Captain Mbaye Diagne (18 March 1958 – 31 May 1994) was a Senegalese military officer and a United Nations military observer during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. He is credited with saving many lives during his time in Rwanda through nearly continuous rescue missions at great peril to himself.
Mbaye was one of nine children born to a family living near Dakar, and the first to attend college. Following his graduation from the University of Dakar, he joined the Senegalese Army as an officer. In 1993 he was seconded to UNAMIR, the United Nations peacekeeping force sent to Rwanda as a military observer of the implementation of the Arusha Accords. He was stationed at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, a luxury hotel located in Kigali.
The start of the Rwandan Genocide was signaled by the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana on the evening of 6 April 1994. Hutu hardliners, who had opposed negotiating with the rebel Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front, began implementing a plan to kill moderate politicians. The following morning Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and her husband were assassinated by soldiers of the Presidential Guard. The ten Belgian peacekeepers assigned to her protection were also murdered. Later that morning, Mbaye heard rumors of Uwilingiyimana's murder from people fleeing to Hôtel des Mille Collines. Unarmed, he came to investigate and found the prime minister's four children being hidden in the adjoining United Nations Development Programme housing compound. He was discovered later that morning by UNAMIR Force Commander Roméo Dallaire, who was trying to find out what had happened to the prime minister. Dallaire told Mbaye to wait for UNAMIR armored personnel carriers to rescue the children and UNDP employees later that day, but the APCs never appeared. Mbaye eventually put the children in the back seat of his vehicle, covered them with blankets and made his way to the hotel.
Despite U.N. rules of engagement prohibiting observers from going out to save civilians, it soon became apparent to other UNAMIR employees that Mbaye was ignoring orders and carrying out rescue missions. The head of humanitarian operations in Rwanda gave an explanation as to why Mbaye was not rebuked: "here's someone who stepped out of line and [the general is] not going to discipline him because he's doing the right thing." The number of lives he saved is variously given as "dozens upon dozens" and "at least hundreds". Because he had to pass through dozens of checkpoints tasked with killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus, Mbaye ferried at most five people on each trip. In order to get past, he relied on his extensive contacts among the military and militias, his ability to defuse tense situations with quick jokes, and occasional bribes of cigarettes, money and, although he was a devout Muslim, alcohol.
On 31 May, just 2 weeks before he was scheduled to go back to Senegal, Capt. Mbaye was driving alone back to U.N. headquarters in Kigali with a message for Dallaire from Augustin Bizimungu when a mortar shell landed behind his Jeep. Shrapnel entered through the back window and hit Mbaye in the back of the head, killing him instantly. The mortar had been fired by Rwandan Patriotic Front forces at a Rwandan Armed Forces checkpoint.
The Head of the U.N. Humanitarian Assistance Team realized that the U.N. did not have a body bag and was forced to make one from a light blue UNICEF tarp and tape:
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.
UNAMIR Force HQ held a minute of silence in his honor and a small parade at the airport on 1 June. Dallaire wrote in Shake Hands with the Devil:
As one of his fellow MILOBs said: "He was the bravest of all". The BBC's Mark Doyle who considered Diagne a friend, recently wrote to me, "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."
Mbaye is also responsible for amateur video footage of the United Nations peacekeepers in Rwanda during the genocide, which is one of the few video records during that time. The footage was used in the 2004 PBS Frontline documentary Ghosts of Rwanda.
Mbaye was buried in Senegal with full military honors. He left behind a wife and two children.
UN Medal for Exceptional Courage
On 8 May 2014, the UN Security Council created the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage in honour of the actions of Diagne during the Rwandan Genocide.