Thomas Hull was undaunted by Sierra Leone’s reputation as “the white man’s grave” when he set out as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1964. After all, he was seeking an adventure––but he ended up coming away with a much deeper understanding of the country and its people. This experience afforded him insight that would serve him well in the Foreign Service, including an essential understanding of the challenges facing people in the country and the continent at large, as well as knowledge of how U.S. embassies operated through his relationships with people there, and even a slight notion of what kind of ambassador he himself would someday like to be––which he would, in 2003.
This Moment in diplomatic history includes some excerpts from a larger and more fruitful recollection of Ambassador Hull’s time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, and how that set him up to eventually be the U.S. ambassador to the country many years later. Also included is a sampling of some of the aid projects Ambassador Hull was able to implement for Sierra Leone, which had only just emerged from eleven years of civil war. Read more
It’s very common for Peace Corps volunteers to feel disheartened, as David Greenlee did as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia during the 1960s, when they seemingly fail to make a difference in the communities they serve. It’s also never clear right in the middle of a volunteer’s two-year tour what impact the experience will have on their own lives—that often only becomes clear in retrospect, after leaving the country and spending some time away.
It’s also relatively common for many Peace Corps volunteers, like Greenlee, to go into the Foreign Service. But among diplomats, his professional life is remarkable in how intertwined it was with the country of Bolivia. He first returned in the 1970s as a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia, then as deputy chief of mission in the 1980s under Ambassador Robert Gelbard––a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who had served in Bolivia just one year behind Greenlee––and then finally as ambassador himself, in 2003. Read more
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This line from “The New Colossus,” by poet Emma Lazarus, upholds American values of hope and freedom from persecution towards all the downtrodden of the world. Nothing has defined America’s cultural identity more than the concept of the “American Dream,” the long-held belief that those persecuted and oppressed in other nations can find refuge and hope in the United States of America—a land where shared values of democracy, prosperity, and freedom bind people together.
Sylva Etian is someone who believed in the dream and achieved it. She is the descendant of Armenian refugees fleeing from the 1916 Armenian Genocide, when the Ottoman Empire destroyed much of the Armenian population within their borders, triggering an exodus that formed the basis of the Armenian diaspora abroad. Her family immigrated to the United States in 1953 and has largely remained there since. During her time in college, she ran into a Peace Corps recruiter, a moment that would change the rest of her life. After serving in Côte d’Ivoire, Etian continued to work for the Peace Corps and eventually USAID and the Foreign Service. Read more
After nearly fifty-five years of civil war, the Sudanese people are no stranger to immense violence and devastation. The First Sudanese Civil War (1955–1972) and the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005) caused the deaths of approximately 2.5 million people due to violence, famine, and disease. In 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement promised to grant South Sudan its long awaited independence by 2011, contingent on a successful referendum vote.
The population voted overwhelmingly for independence and to install as president Salva Kiir, who was previously the president of autonomous South Sudan and the leader of the Southern People’s Liberation Army. Reik Machar, who served as vice president during the autonomous period, was voted in officially. An important distinction between the two leaders is that Kiir is ethnically Dinka, whereas Machar is Nuer. With an unstable government and the lack of a unified military, violence again arose predominantly between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups, pushing the youngest country in the world, yet again, into a vicious civil war in 2013—precipitating nefarious war crimes.
The religious divide between Muslims and Christians proved to be central to the violence in the First and Second Sudanese Civil Wars. In 1983, President Numeiry violated the Addis Ababa Agreement by enacting Sharia Law on the entire nation, including the non-Muslims living in the south. This violation led to the outbreak of the Second Sudanese Civil War, causing rebels from South Sudan to form the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Over the course of the war, the SPLA was internally a fractionalized group of enemies each aligned by ethnic roots, yet remained unified in order to obtain their goal of southern independence. After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the installment of Kiir and Machar, both leaders were supported by ethnic militias. Two years after the independence of South Sudan, political turmoil ignited instability in the country after Kiir began dismissing government officials, who supported Makar. In 2013, Kiir claimed Makar was planning a coup d’état, provoking Makar’s dismissal as vice president and the beginning of civil war. The South Sudanese Civil War was a struggle for political power that was fought along ethnic lines between the two major groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. A lack of an institutionalized military led to the militias in South Sudan organizing themselves into essentially ethnically armed units based on personal loyalty. Read more