My orders were clear, but I followed my heart.
When do you play by the rules, and when should you write your own to fight for what you believe in?
I faced this dilemma early in my career. It was the summer of 1993, I was a 26 year old foreign service officer that had just taken a position at one of the smallest US embassies in the world in Kigali, Rwanda.
I was so excited to be going there because I was actually getting the chance to make a real difference in the world by helping to implement the Arusha Peace accords, to bring an end to a brutal civil war and establish the basis for a peaceful, unified and democratic Rwanda.
I never imagined that instead I would become a first-hand witness to genocide and watch as the world stood by and we let almost a million people die in three months’ time. Nor did I realize the great challenges and moral dilemmas I would face and how much my life would be forever changed by the events that unfolded.
When word spread through Kigali that the Americans were leaving, Rwandans began to flock to the evacuation points and to the Embassy begging for help.
The State Department gave me clear instructions: “Laura, your job is to evacuate American citizens and help foreign passport holders out of the country – not Rwandans.”
I remember thinking, “What do I do? If I don’t follow orders, my career is over. I’ll never be a US ambassador to anywhere in the world. But I can’t condemn these people to die.“
I was an American citizen – so I got to live. But Rwandans – many of whom I had come to know and love – would die for no other reason than they were born here? I’ve never been so torn as to what the right thing to do was.
My orders were clear, but I followed my heart. Find out what actions I took in the face of genocide and my deepest regret from the experience by watching my talk at TED@UPS.
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