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The Rwandan Genocide — The View from Ground Zero

Two decades of ethnic tension and a civil war in 1990 laid the groundwork for one of the most savage episodes of wanton slaughter witnessed in the past half century. The day after the airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and the president of Burundi was shot down, the Rwandan military responded to the deaths of the two Hutu presidents by starting a murderous campaign to eradicate all the Tutsis they could reach. Thus the Rwandan Genocide began on April 7, 1994, as hundreds of thousands of innocent people were  massacred in only a few short months. Robert Gribbin, Ambassador to the Central African Republic at the time and Ambassador to Rwanda in 1996, and Joyce Leader, Deputy Chief of Mission in Kigali from 1991 to 1994, recount the background of ethnic hatred that led to the explosion of violence, their experiences as the genocide broke out, and the massive evacuation they had to oversee to get foreigners out of the country.  Read more

April Fool’s Day in the Foreign Service

The State Department is not exactly known for its jocularity but once in a while, it can have its fair share of pranks. When April Fool’s Day rolls around, local officials may pull pranks on Foreign Service Officers, who in turn have occasionally  played jokes on their fellow officers and superiors (which does not always go over so well). The Foreign Service’s “post preference sheets,” indicating where FSOs would like to be posted in their next assignment, also used to be due on April 1st and came to be referred to as the April Fools Sheet (prompting some wry remarks by FSOs on it representing the likelihood of getting your preferences). Read more

The War in Bosnia and the Moral Dilemma of Refugees

The Bosnian War, which began April 5, 1992, was the result of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Pressure began to build in Bosnia-Herzegovina in February 1992 after the government passed a referendum for independence from Yugoslavia, which further exacerbated ethnic tensions in the already tense territory. Bosnian Serbs, who wished to be united in a Greater Serbia, boycotted the referendum and launched an attack on the capital city of Sarajevo after Bosnia declared its independence. The Croats and the Bosniaks possessed their own forces and the three competed in a bloody battle for dominance over the territory. One of the conflict’s tragic features was ethnic cleansing, which was carried out primarily by the Bosnian Serbs, though all sides were guilty of it to some degree. Read more

Al Haig and the Reagan Assassination Attempt — “I’m in control here”

When President Ronald Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981, chaos ensued behind the scenes at the White House. With no real protocol in place for such a situation, everyone involved had to improvise and hope that everything would turn out right. In an attempt to keep everyone calm, Al Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State, committed a PR faux pas — and showed a glaring lapse in basic knowledge of the Constitution — by telling the press that he was in control while the President was in surgery. Unaware of just how serious the President’s condition really was, key officials began to do their best damage control and keep not only the reporters calm but the country and the world at large. Read more

Guns and Ganja: Marijuana Usage in the Foreign Service

Like many countries, the U.S. has recently grappled with the issue of how to deal with marijuana usage:  Should it be legalized or merely decriminalized? What about the use of medical marijuana? What are the human costs if possession is a felony? And what are the costs if it’s readily available? The following excerpts provide some touching, thought-provoking, and funny perspectives on the issue. Read more

The Downing of KAL Flight 007

On August 30, 1983, a Boeing 747, Korean Airlines 007  took off for Seoul from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.  With 246 passengers and 23 crew on board, the routine yet ill-fated flight would never complete the second leg of its journey from Anchorage to Gimpo Airport. Significantly off course, Captain Chun Byung-In inadvertently piloted the plane through restricted Soviet airspace in the Kamchatka peninsula. On September 1, as it flew near Moneron Island, west of Sakhalin, a Soviet SU-15 interceptor, piloted by Major Genadi Osipovich, shot down the civilian aircraft. All on board were killed, including 22 children under the age of 12 and U.S. Congressman Lawrence McDonald of Georgia.  Read more

Consular Tales from Croatia — The Good, The Bad, and the Bianca Jagger

The Bosnian War spanned from April 1992 to December 1995 and was a result of ethnic tensions that boiled over after Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia. Bosnia was split between Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats. Neighboring Croatia, which had declared independence earlier, sought to incorporate parts of Bosnian territory into Croatia and supported the Bosnian Croat forces.

This led to a spillover of violence and political upheaval in Croatia, as well as unexploded landmines, car bombs, and a number of refugees and orphans — and the foreigners who wanted to help them, often without bothering with such formalities as visas and passports.

Ann Sides, a consular officer in Zagreb at the time, recounts the heart-pounding and head-scratching cases of a Foreign Service officer in a conflict zone and her run-in with Bianca Jagger and Congressman Torricelli.

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Ukraine’s Push for Independence

“With Ukraine, Russia is an empire. Without it, Russia is just another country.” The history between these two is long and often fraught with conflict. Before the current protests in Ukraine over relations with Russia, Ukraine had to fight to free itself from the Soviet Union. Official independence was declared August 24, 1991 and with it came its own host of problems. The United States was split between keeping the Soviet Union intact (and its reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev in power), versus supporting Ukrainian democracy and self-rule. This ambiguity was highlighted by President George H.W. Bush’s much-criticized “Chicken Kiev” speech, in which he warned against “suicidal nationalism.” Eventually Washington decided to recognize Ukraine. However, its sizable nuclear arsenal, lingering Communist sentiments, the situation in Crimea, and the nature of the future government all became salient issues post-independence.  Read more

Up or Out — The Challenges of the State Department Personnel System

The United States Department of State is not the monolithic entity it may at first appear to be.  The lack of streamlined appointment and promotion policy between the Civil Service and the Foreign Service has at times created an atmosphere of tension within the Department. Previous Directors General of the Foreign Service have attempted to bridge the divide between the agencies, with mixed success. After the Foreign Service Act was revised in 1980, subsequent Directors have sought to accommodate the changes. Former Directors General George Vest (who served from 1985-1989) and Anthony Quainton (1995-1997) discuss their experiences implementing the new Act and addressing matters of personnel and the relationship between the Civil and Foreign Service. Read more