The Witch and the Lion

 

The Rwandan Genocide began 25 years ago today. Three months later, an estimated 800,000 people had been murdered.

For all its scale and speed, this slaughter was intensely personal. Family members, neighbors, and colleagues joined militias in the killing, mostly using machetes.

 

Rwandan Landscape, Joachim Huber, 2007

 

The little two-room house in Musamo Village quickly became a safe haven for Tutsis, Burundians and even three Europeans during the genocide. Dozens of people reportedly hid under her bed and in a secret space in the roof. Others say she dug a hole in her fields where people hid.

 

When the killers would come to Zura Karuhimbi’s home, she frightened them off with threats of evil spells. She was using her wits, however: as she later explained, “the thing of magical power was just an invention and cover I was using to save lives.”

Ms. Karuhimbi – who herself lost a son and a daughter – is thought to have saved dozens of people. Her BBC obituary records that she died in poverty, age unknown.

 

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He shouted, “You cannot kill these people, they are my responsibility. I will not allow you to harm them – you’ll have to kill me first.”

 

Mbaye Diagne, a captain in the Senegalese army, was an observer with the United Nations force in Rwanda. Once the killings erupted, most of the UN staff and soldiers retreated to safety.

This BBC tribute explains how Captain Diagne, unable to tolerate such inaction, set to work.

“When he was stopped at these roadblocks, the militiamen would say ‘Boss, I’m hungry’ or ‘Boss I’m thirsty’ so he’d give them a cigarette, or if it was one of the militia chiefs he’d give a beer or a whisky … This allowed him to go everywhere without making the militiamen too angry. And that’s how he saved people the militia wanted to kill – five or six people in his car at a time.”

Captain Diagne is believed to have saved hundreds of people. He was killed by a mortar shell at a roadblock, alone in his vehicle.

Senegal posthumously knighted him with the National Order of the Lion. The UN now awards the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage.