UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. secretary-general Friday honored a Malawian peacekeeper who was killed saving the life of a fellow soldier during a firefight last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"He saved his comrades and helped the U.N. protect the vulnerable," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said of Private Chancy Chitete of Malawi. "He personally made a difference. A profound one."
Chitete's widow wept as she was presented with the U.N.'s highest peacekeeping award at a ceremony ahead of International Peacekeeping Day next Wednesday. The medal is named for Senegalese Captain Mbaye Diagne, who was killed protecting hundreds of civilians during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Private Chitete is the first peacekeeper to receive the honor since it was created in 2014 and posthumously awarded to Diagne in 2016.
Last November, U.N. peacekeepers from Malawi and Tanzania were caught in a firefight while trying to repel ADF rebels, who had been raiding towns near Beni and North Kivu in the eastern part of the country. The area is also currently in the midst of a major Ebola virus outbreak and ADF attacks have disrupted the response.
The Malawian troops were providing fire cover for the Tanzanians to move to more secure ground.
A Tanzanian soldier, Corporal Ali Khamis Omary, was badly wounded during the operation and lay stranded as the ADF fighters neared. Chitete saw him and dragged him to a safer area. As Chitete administered first aid, he was struck by enemy fire.
Both men were evacuated for medical treatment, but only Omary survived.
"Private Chitete's selfless heroism and sacrifice helped the peacekeepers achieve their objective and dislodge the militia from its stronghold and that was vital for the Ebola response to go on," Guterres said.
Being a U.N. peacekeeper carries significant risk. Last year, 98 military police and civilian peacekeepers from 36 countries were killed in the line of duty. While that is the lowest number in a decade, the secretary-general said that "it remains unacceptable."
"We ask much of our peacekeepers," Guterres said. "In return, we must continue to do all we can to ensure they are as safe as possible."
Twenty-one peacekeepers have been killed this year.
The secretary-general also laid a wreath in a special memorial garden at U.N. headquarters, which honors staff and peacekeepers who have lost their life in the pursuit of peace.