Diomède (right), accompanied by ICRC President Peter Maurer (second from left). Patrick Bourgeois / ICRC

Remembering Diomède Nzobambona, a caring mentor, leader and innovator

On Sunday, August 22, Diomède was walking in the streets of Bamenda, in Cameroon, when he was attacked by armed men in the middle of the afternoon. He succumbed to his injuries the next day.
Article 13 September 2021 Cameroon

While in the field, Diomède Nzobambona had a ritual. He liked to walk long hours every weekend, sometimes under a blazing sun. In Mali, he was called "the man of the march on the seawall from Mopti to Sévaré," recalls Jean-Nicolas Marti. "To clear his mind, he walked along this track strewn with rice fields and palm trees over an area of eight kilometres."

Diomedes (right), accompanied by ICRC President Peter Maurer (second from left). Patrick Bourgeois / ICRC
Diomedes (right), accompanied by ICRC President Peter Maurer (second from left). Patrick Bourgeois / ICRC

It was in his native country, Burundi, that he joined the ICRC in 2003 before moving with his family to Canada. "He was very committed and dynamic. When he arrived in Canada, he immediately continued his humanitarian approach by contacting the Canadian Red Cross. Then he absolutely wanted to go back on a mission with the ICRC," describes his colleague and friend, Philippe Mbonyingingo.

Diomède carried out humanitarian missions in Mali, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Iraq and Yemen. When told that he didn't choose "easy" assignments, he would naturally retort, "This is the job! "

In 2012, when the city of Gao fell into the hands of armed groups, a dozen ICRC staff spent 48 hours lying low before evacuating to Niger overnight. Among them was Diomède. "We shared a lot of strong moments together. He helped me negotiate our exit. I remember an extremely calm man," Philippe said.

Determined, curious and meticulous are words used to describe Diomède, who worked on water and sanitation issues for ICRC. "You had to see it! He spent a lot of time reading and researching on the computer to always be on the cutting edge of innovations," said Philippe. In Mauritania, he challenged himself to increase the number of water points to resolve conflicts between humans and animals.

In his office, a map with locations marked with pins adorned his wall, as a way to keep his goals in mind.

"At first we dreaded his arrival but very quickly he became a mentor to many of us. He was happy to share anecdotes and his experiences from other contexts," said Terence Ngwabe Che, ICRC's communication officer in Cameroon.

Colleagues shared sentiments such as "He made us feel at home" and "In the evening when we came home exhausted, he was always willing to cook good meals, lead endless debates and make us laugh." These memories show how Diomède was keen to help his companions forget the violence and the fragility of life in a conflict zone.

At 62, Diomède was thinking of retirement and was talking about it with his colleagues. "He was thinking about it, but he was so involved that I could not see him stopping his professional pathway. This walk was not to end like that. He deserves a peaceful rest," Philippe said.

Husband, father, brother, friend and colleague. Diomède has been all of this. His humanity and friendship have left an imprint on many lives.