The world had abandoned Rwanda, but one 'gutsy' Senegalese peacekeeper refused to stay on the sidelines

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. This weekend marks 20 years since Rwanda's genocide began and we're still at a loss to explain just how it could be that the world watched and did little as some 800,000 people were slain. Over the past two decades, a lot of people have blamed the United Nations but it's more complicated than that. A small UN force was in Rwanda before the massacres began but after the slaughter started, most Western peacekeepers were evacuated. Those that remained, many from African nations, were poorly armed and lacked a clear mandate. The BBC's

Mark Doyle says one of them, though, a Senegalese captain named Mbaye Diagne, stood out for his actions. Mark Doyle was among the few Western journalists who were there through most of Rwanda's darkest days and he remembers Diagne for the first time.

Mark Doyle: He came up to me and said "you're that journalist aren't you?" I admitted to being "that journalist" from the BBC and he said "why do you keep saying that the militia are killing people?" I said "well, because they are." He said "it makes my work very, very difficult. That makes them very angry. I think you should stop doing that." I wasn't sure whether he was teasing me or not. I suspect he was, actually, because he certainly wasn't trying to tell me how to do my job but it was typical of the man. He was a great talker, a great negotiator and he used those skills to talk his way through the roadblocks and save people's lives.

Werman: Right, and to be successful at that, you can't just be very engaging with a sense of humor. Physically he must have been pretty impressive as well.

Doyle: He was a tall guy, he was immaculately turned out as Senegalese tend to be. He had a big smile. He was unarmed, though. He didn't have a gun. He was a military observer. But as a military observer, he was the eyes and ears of the United Nations, the eyes and ears of his commander who was a Canadian at the time, a guy called General Roméo Dallaire. Dallaire very astutely appointed him to this job as a military liaison between the United Nations and the government army.

Werman: To get a sense of the missions everyday throughout this slaughter, this genocide, I'd like our listeners to hear the voice of one Rwandan, Dr. Odette Nyiramilimo. She was on just one of the many convoys piled full of people trying desperately to get safely out of the situation and they came under attack by these Hutu militiamen wielding clubs.

Dr. Odette Nyiramilimo: Captain Mbaye arrived and he looked at all those people who were trying to pull us out and pushed them away and told us to lay down and he stood on that truck saying "you are not killing these people. If you want to kill them, you kill me first, but you are not killing them when I'm here."

Werman: One of many episodes of heroism by Captain Diagne. None of the 70 or so people on the convoy that day were killed. What were the guidelines that Captain Diagne was supposed to be following and what was the spin he put on the UN mandate?

Doyle: It was a United Nations mission which had been more or less abandoned by the world and really double-crossed by its bosses in New York as well. It was most unclear what they were supposed to achieve and the mandate did not explicitly say they should save Rwandans. It said that they should evacuate foreigners and they should monitor things. Captain Mbaye, as his friends would call him, Mbaye was his first name, stretched those rules to the absolute limit. He just spontaneously saved people whenever he could and it was with a nod and a wink from General Roméo Dallaire, the commander, but the people in New York wouldn't have necessarily approved of him putting his life at risk for Rwandans but that's what he did time after time.

Werman: One of the first targets of the genocide was Rwanda's prime minister and she along with her husband were attacked in their home and killed. Captain Mbaye Diagne got to the compound where her children were hiding, terrified and were also obvious targets of the Hutu militia. Let's hear from General Roméo Dallaire, who you just mentioned, the UN commander in Rwanda, describing what Captain Diagne did.

General Roméo Dallaire: He decided to load the kids up in his vehicle, hide them under tarp and so on and just drive like stink and made it through the checkpoints. There are no limits in trying to describe him. That's the Victoria Cross type of action in a civil war.

Werman: So then the unarmed UN peacekeeper, Captain Diagne, takes these kids in his unarmored car to the UN guarded hotel, the Mille Colline, which is talked about in the film, "Hotel Rwanda." What would that drive have been like?

Doyle: The distance between the compound and the hotel actually was relatively small. It was less than 1 kilometer but they had to get through at least one serious roadblock. There were roadblocks all around the hotel because there were lots of ethnic Tutsis in the hotel, there were ethnic Hutus there as well in fact, because Captain Mbaye had deliberately allowed some Hutus in so that it wasn't just a target full of Tutsis as it were. So he had to drive through this roadblock with these children who were being sought because they were the symbolic family members left of the prime minister who the militia had just killed hours before. The daughter of the prime minister told me how she was bundled into the car, she was told that she shouldn't speak Rwandan, she should only speak French so if anybody caught them, Mbaye could pretend that they were Senegalese or something like that. He took them to the hotel.

They were then in the hotel and inside they had to constantly move rooms virtually every day or every other day because the presidential guard, one of the groups leading the genocidal killings, suspected that the children were in there. In the end, three or four days later, after Mbaye had sort of babysat them, along with a French guy who happened to be in the hotel and was also very well connected politically, the French guy then eventually drove Mary Christine and her brothers to the airport with Mbaye's help.

Werman: All this time, French, Belgian and Italian armed forces are flying into Kigali's airport, ferrying out their own citizens, leaving Rwandans behind. Did that anger Captain Diagne to no end?

Doyle: It did. Of course, sadly, Captain Mbaye died two months into the genocide. He was killed by what I believe was a stray mortar. But I've spoken to many people, including this Frenchman that I mentioned who got know Mbaye very well in the intense few days while the French guy was still in the hotel and he said that it absolutely horrified Mbaye. Of course, he saw it for what it was, which was a racist extraction of white people.

Werman: Before Captain Diagne was killed, he actually saved your life. Can you tell us about that day?

Doyle: He gave me a lift once to a suburb on the edge of Kigali. We were driving along, we got stopped at a militia checkpoint. I should say at this point that the militia thought that the Belgians were their enemies and they'd killed 10 Belgian soldiers a few days earlier. So this militiaman lent into the car with this Chinese stick grenade, which is one of these old fashioned sink plungers, but instead of a plunger at the end it's got a bomb at the end of it. He waved this thing under my nose and said "who is that Belgian?" and I was obviously terrified. I thought he was going to kill me.

Mbaye looked at him and cracked a joke. He said "I'm the only Belgian in this car. Look, look," and he pointed at his skin, and Senegalese have very black skin, he said "look, black Belgian," and the militiaman laughed and smiled. At that point, that sort of broke the tension and then Mbaye said "right, get out of my way. We're going through. This man is a British journalist, he's not a Belgian. Get out of my way," and the militiaman instinctively did and moved away.

Werman: That's really gutsy.

Doyle: Yes. Let's face it, if he'd have been American or British, they would've made a Hollywood film about him a long time ago.

Werman: I'll say. Mark Doyle, the BBC's international development correspondent, thanks so much for telling us about Captain Mbaye Diagne and filling in those blanks. We really appreciate it.

Doyle: Thank you.