by Kevin Knodell, freelance journalist
At the height of the Rwanda genocide twenty years ago, as thousands were slaughtered and raped by machete wielding militias, the world stood by and watched. But even in the midst of one of humanity’s darkest hours, heroes emerged. One of them was Capt. Mbaye Diagne, a Senegalese army officer attached to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR).
He was there as an unarmed military observer, primarily tasked with reporting ceasefire violations. But when the ceasefire broke down into widespread slaughter, he was not content to merely observe. He leapt into action. He braved gunfire and mobs to smuggle civilians past death squads to safe zones.
This was a violation of his orders. Though superiors knew to some degree of his activities, they looked the other way. Anything that was saving lives was considered a good thing. And he was saving hundreds. Today it’s believed he personally saved as many as 600 people. Unfortunately, Capt. Mbaye was killed by shrapnel on May 31, 1994.
Years later BBC Journalist Mark Doyle, who was once saved from machete wielding militia by Mbaye, wrote former UNAMIR commander, Canadian Gen. Roméo Dallaire. “Can you imagine the blanket coverage that a dead British or American peacekeeper of Mbaye’s bravery and stature would have received? He got almost none,” Doyle wrote.
Last month, Doyle rectified that by producing a BBC documentary about Mbaye called A Good Man in Rwanda to air coinciding with the anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. His story struck a nerve. Jordanian U.N. Ambassador Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein watched the documentary, and has proposed to the Security Council that a new medal for peacekeepers be created in his honor, the “Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage”.
It would be awarded to those serving in U.N. peacekeeping missions who take actions that save the lives of innocent people in conflict zones. The Prince hopes that this medal would inspire soldiers to emulate Capt. Mbaye’s courage. This medal could indeed be a fitting tribute, and a step toward recognizing the sacrifices of troops called to act as referees on the international community’s behalf in far away wars. But only if some important lessons are learned.
Capt. Mbaye was a role model to his comrades in Rwanda. He was known for being fearless, energetic, and maintaining a sense of humor even in the face of the worst horrors of war. He could charm his way through checkpoints even with civilians in tow. It was Capt. Mbaye who in the aftermath of the murder of Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, found her children hiding in a closet and smuggled them to safety.
He was based at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, and played an important role bringing people to safety in the hotel, and standing up to militias who tried to get in. He did so armed only with his personality. Doyle even once watched him kicking armed militiamen away from a truck loaded with refugees.
Oddly, despite his important role in protecting the hotel and aiding the refugees there, he is never shown or even mentioned in Hotel Rwanda, the film that reintroduced westerners to the genocide. Still, genocide survivors in Rwanda hold him in high esteem for his actions. He also was one of the few people to document the genocide visually. Carrying a camcorder he shot home movies of peacekeepers and civilians living in U.N. compounds, some of the only footage that exists.
He was killed while delivering message from Rwandan Army Chief of Staff Augustin Bizimungu to Gen. Dallaire. While driving, a piece of shrapnel came through the back window of his truck and struck him in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
It was a major blow to UNAMIR’s morale, he had been popular with both U.N. military and civilian personnel. It got worse when they realized that there were no body bags available when recovering his body, and there would be no casket. His body was sent back to Senegal wrapped in a blue refugee tarp. Little attention was paid. To the international community, he was just another dead African.
It was a pervasive mindset that continually plagued the mission. Later, when Dallaire stepped down as commander of UNAMIR, he recommended his Ghanaian deputy commander Gen. Henry Anyidoho be put in charge. His superiors in New York told him that though they welcomed his input, Anyidoho would not lead the mission. Dallaire was told that it was heavily preferred that the commander be a general from a western nation. Dallaire saw it as a slap in the face. Anyidoho and the Ghanaian contingent had played a critical role in defending refugee sites. It’s likely that they saved thousands of lives. They would receive little credit for what they did.
If the United Nations and its member states want to properly honor the memory of Capt. Mbaye, it needs to be by supporting the soldiers it continues to send into harm’s way to protect people. Blue berets are as busy as they ever were in conflict zones all over the world. And perhaps they are busier nowhere else than Africa.
In some ways, there have been lessons learned. When violence broke out in South Sudan in December, the U.N. mission there opened its gates to allowing refugees into its bases for shelter. Early on, Indian peacekeepers Dharmesh Sangwan and Kumar Pal Singh were killed protecting civilians seeking shelter on their outpost from an armed mob. Regardless of these losses, the peacekeepers stepped up, repelling attacks by armed mobs, escorting civilians to safety. When medical supplies like plasma ran low, some peacekeeping troops donated their own blood to aid wounded refugees.
Unlike in Rwanda, when Dallaire had hundreds of troops withdrawn and forces cut, troops in South Sudan were promised reinforcements. However, the promised reinforcements have been slow to arrive. The peacekeepers and the refugees under their protection are under siege. So far, the international community has not backed up its words of support with the material needed on the ground.
The story is even worse to the north in Darfur, where another embattled peacekeeping mission is struggling to keep people safe. From its inception, the United Nations African Union Mission (UNAMID) in Darfur was constantly hamstrung. On paper, it was the largest and most expensive peacekeeping undertaking in history. In practice, promised resources and troops arrived late if ever, to the point where troops were often short of basic food rations. They had no air support, and yet were expected to quickly respond to attacks anywhere in a region the size of France. The ill-equipped, mostly African troops were being asked to do the impossible. They’ve also often struggled to defend themselves, let alone the Darfuris.
Leaks to the press from that mission lead to an expose by Foreign Policy magazine that revealed disturbing allegations about how UNAMID has been handled. U.N. officials have often omitted information or outright lied about the circumstances of the deaths of many of its peacekeepers killed by Sudanese Government troops. In almost all cases, the perpetrators were referred to only as “unknown assailants”. The mission has been deadly for troops and has had one of the highest casualty rates for peacekeepers of any mission to date, not even counting peacekeepers frequently being wounded in attacks.
If the U.N. Security Council wants soldiers under its banner to be more like Mbaye, they need to take some important steps. Though it’s admirable when soldiers perform above and beyond the call of duty and face the impossible, it should not be taken for granted that they will do so. Many of these men and women have families of their own they would like to return to.
If the international community wants to send peacekeepers into war torn nations to protect people they’ve never met, they need to be given more than a pat on the back. They need to be given the tools they need to succeed in their mission. This proposed medal should be backed by real intent to support these missions. Otherwise it will just be another pretty piece of ribbon. Another empty gesture.