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Building Trust and Supporting Human Rights in Apartheid South Africa

Apartheid sign | Dewet | Wikimedia Commons
Apartheid sign | Dewet | Wikimedia Commons

In 1988, a formidable coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAA) over President Reagan’s veto. Months later, USAID sent Timothy Bork to South Africa to implement this highly controversial legislation. During Bork’s tour, Nelson Mandela and other leaders remained imprisoned as violent confrontations erupted in townships across South Africa. At every step, he encountered resistance because neither Black activists, nor the White government, or U.S. activists fully trusted his motives.

To accomplish his mission, Bork had to constantly forge and rebuild relationships. He drew heavily from his experience as a young law student working with Black-led community organizations in Georgia. In both places, he learned the importance of stepping back and letting local communities and leaders design and implement the programs meant to help them. He devised “ten commandments” for his staff and every commandment was the same: “Listen, don’t speak.” Setbacks were common, but with patience and tenacity, Bork and his team helped empower Black leaders and lay the groundwork for future programs.

Timothy Bork worked for nineteen years tackling the legal challenges that USAID faced in Africa. He spent most of his career in Washington, D.C., and served as a Mission Director, General Counsel, Director of the Office of the Sahel and West Africa, and Deputy Assistant Administrator. With an eye for detail and a passion for protecting human rights, Bork began his career as a civil rights lawyer in Atlanta, and went on to work for the Ford Foundation after he retired from USAID.

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Saving Political Prisoners in the Aftermath of the 1985 Presidential Election in Liberia

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2015) U.S. Institute of Peace | Flickr
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2015) U.S. Institute of Peace | Flickr

On November 12, 1985, exiled General Thomas Quiwonkpa invaded Liberia through Sierra Leone to launch a coup against President Doe. Across the country, Liberians celebrated Quiwonkpa’s challenge to the fraudulent results of the 1985 Presidential Election. Hours later, those hopes were crushed as soldiers in the Armed Force of Liberia (AFL) captured Quiwonkpa and defeated his forces. People watched in horror as members of the AFL dismembered Quiwonkpa’s genitals in front of the USAID building and paraded them around the streets of Monrovia.

After the failed coup, Doe imprisoned many opposition leaders, including future president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Ambassador Moses Hopkins was determined to prevent the continuation of ritual cannibalistic killing of political prisoners. He directed every Foreign Service Officer, including USAID officer Mary Kilgour, to pass along a message to their contacts in the Liberian government. They stated that the United States would respond to any attempt on the prisoners’ lives. Although she describes those months in Liberia as “scary,” Kilgour admired the Liberians for being long suffering with a good sense of humor.

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One City, Two Countries: Manning the Mexican-U.S. Border in Nuevo Laredo

Downtown Nuevo Laredo (2005) J. Stephen Conn | Flickr
Downtown Nuevo Laredo (2005) J. Stephen Conn | Flickr

Bustling with commerce, illegal border crossings, and cocaine trafficking, in 2000, Nuevo Laredo was the third busiest visa post in the world. Consulate staff had to balance encouraging commerce between the two countries, managing visa traffic, and preventing the movement of deadly narcotics. During his time as Consul General, Thomas Armbruster quickly learned this was a difficult balance to strike. Despite facing internal corruption, rampant narcotics violence, and death threats in pre-9/11 Nuevo Laredo, Armbruster believes that the good mostly outweighed the bad. After 9/11, the relationship between Mexico and the United States changed dramatically. Americans and Mexicans alike had to adapt to a “new normal.”

Thomas Armbruster entered the Foreign Service as a management officer in 1988 and spent much of his career working on environmental issues. He began in Helsinki as Deputy of the Soviet Support Office and went on to do tours in Havana during the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Arctic during the creation of the Arctic Council. Before he retired, President Obama nominated him as Ambassador to the Marshall Islands, giving him the opportunity to combine his lifelong passions for field work and environmental issues.
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