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A Memorable Intern-ational Experience

Internships are often good opportunities to gain on-the-job experience before searching for full-time employment. These experiences can help shape a person’s career aspirations while allowing for the development of crucial skills and a broader knowledge base. They do not typically involve sandstorms, riots, or armed intruders. However, one intern experienced all of these. Before beginning his career in the Foreign Service, Ambassador Ronald K. McMullen worked as an intern at the embassy in Khartoum, Sudan in the mid-1970s. In an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in August of 2012, he recounts his experiences arriving unexpectedly in Khartoum, living in the Ambassador’s guest house, and being held at gunpoint.

Read other Humorous Moments.


“The internship program was not well-coordinated between Washington and post”

MCMULLEN: Being a student intern at Embassy Khartoum was one of the most influential experiences of my life. The internship program was not well-coordinated between Washington and post. I got to Khartoum before the embassy was informed that it was receiving an intern. I flew to Khartoum.

When I arrived, there was nobody at the airport to meet me. My luggage had gone to Abu Dhabi. I arrived in Khartoum with my carry-on bag, no suitcase, and nobody from the embassy to meet me. I spent the first night sleeping on the concrete floor of the airport in 110 degree weather.

The next morning there was still nobody from the embassy. I found a taxi. The taxi driver spoke no English. I spoke no Arabic, and we began to drive rather aimlessly through Khartoum until I saw an American flag on a magazine cover at a newsstand. I got all excited, pointed at the American flag, and the driver then realized I was an American. He took me to the American embassy.

I said to the Marine Security Guard at post one, “Hi, I’m Ron McMullen, the new intern.”

He said, “What intern? I don’t know anything about an intern.” That was the rather rocky start of my internship.

Ambassador Donald Bergus and his wife had a relative, a son perhaps, in college about my age and took me under their wing. There was a guest cottage at the Ambassador’s residence and because there’d been no housing reserved for me, the Ambassador said, “You can stay in the guesthouse until other arrangements are made.”

Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Bergus had some medical complications and they went back to the U.S. for the rest of the summer, leaving me to oversee the residence.

In the morning, I’d wake up and find the household staff waiting for their assignments. I’d say, “You five guys can have the day off, you three have to work until noon, and you two are on all day. And we’ll rotate tomorrow.”

I worked with the personnel officer at post, doing a local wage survey to see how much the UN, hospitals, banks, and other embassies paid various workers. The FSNs (Foreign Service Nationals) got a big raise, which made me popular.

“The Sudanese were very friendly, even when they were rioting”

I also got to travel around Sudan a bit, which was very interesting, as I’d never been to Africa or the Middle East before. The Sudanese were very friendly, even when they were rioting. I happened to be in Wad Medani once during a student riot against tuition increases or something.

I got talking to a group of young men, high school or college-aged students who were interested in America. They asked, “Do you play soccer? How will you find a wife? What kind of music do you listen to?”

Then a security vehicle would come past and they’d stop talking with me, pick up rocks and bottles, throw them at the vehicle, and duck behind a low wall when the police would fire into the air. Eventually it got more dangerous and they said, “We need to run away.”

I have to say, being in a riot was exciting. These young men were pumped up, but very polite to me….

I was fascinated by the physical appearance of Southerners. Northern Sudanese are Muslims who speak Arabic and wear long robes and floppy turbans. Some Southerners had tribal scars on their foreheads or had their teeth modified in ways that identified them as being of a particular ethnic group. Many were tall, statuesque people with unusual tribal markings and almost blue-black skin.

I played basketball at the American Club against a Catholic Club team. The Catholic Club team consisted of Southerners who were refugees in Khartoum. We lost by a bunch, but I enjoyed visiting with these guys afterwards.

I felt a lot of sympathy for the South and appreciated the interactions I had with Southerners in Khartoum….My attitudes on race, ethnicity, and culture changed after seeing what cultural constructs race and ethnicity can be.

Northerners and Southerners in Sudan considered themselves to be quite different, where we might have seen both groups as simply black. Because of different language, religious, and regional backgrounds, the distinctions they drew between themselves were great. And among Southerners, the Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk divide is largely a cultural, political construct. That made me think, yeah, we’re all just people and draw these lines between us for various reasons when in fact we’re all part of the same family.

“Here I was, out in this raging sandstorm, in my underwear, with the door locked behind me, and two Sudanese guys with rifles pointed at me”

Q: At our embassy, was there any carryover discussion about the assassination of our Ambassador and chargé?

McMULLEN: Yeah. Ambassador Cleo Noel was kidnapped in 1973 at a reception at the Saudi Embassy during a sandstorm and was subsequently murdered by the Palestinian group Black September. There were bullet holes in the façade of the U.S. embassy but they were unrelated to Ambassador Noel’s assassination.

One Saturday when I was staying in the Ambassador’s guest cottage, I took a nap prior to going to a British diplomat’s house for dinner that evening. When I awoke it was pitch black and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’ve overslept. It’s nighttime and I’ve missed dinner.”

When I became fully awake, it became apparent that Khartoum was experiencing a haboob, an intense dust storm that blackens the sky and causes sand to drift under doorsills and in the streets.

It had been during a haboob in 1973 that the Palestinians struck at the Saudi residence and killed Ambassador Noel. So I got up and began scurrying around to close up the guesthouse.

I stepped out on the back porch in the raging sandstorm to close the main door. There were two Sudanese on the porch with guns, which they leveled at me. My reaction was to reach back and pull the slatted screen door closed, which locked behind me.

So here I was, out in this raging sandstorm, in my underwear, with the door locked behind me, and two Sudanese guys with rifles pointed at me. I immediately turned around and kicked in the slatted door, slammed and locked the inside metal security door, got on the radio, and raised Post One [located at the main entrance to the embassy and manned by Marine Security Guards].

I said, “There are two armed intruders at the Chief of Mission’s residence. Send help right away.”

The Marine Security Guard on duty said, “The local guards are not responding to the radio call. Maybe they left because of the haboob. We’ll send somebody over as soon as the storm blows over.”

I thought, “Well, thanks a bunch.” Ambassador Noel had been killed during a haboob, I recalled, and wondered if the gunmen inside the compound were after the Ambassador, and if they would know the difference between an ambassador and an intern.

Luckily, they did not attempt to force their way into the guesthouse. When the sandstorm broke, the Marines in gear came over, swept the compound, and found no trace of the two armed intruders. To this day I don’t know who they were or what they were doing. It was a good reminder that American diplomats are sometimes targeted, and that we have security procedures and personnel for a reason….

This was during the Nimeiry regime, when political Islam was on the rise, and I later witnessed a mass demonstration for “Islamia Jumhūriyyah” (Islamic Republic). We thought that the Sudanese civil war had ended, when in fact 1979 turned out to just to be a brief lull.

An American defense contractor said, “We’ll let you ride on one of our big transport planes on a support flight down south, if you can talk your way into the military airport.” Several times I made it into the military airport, hoping to hitchhike on a C-130 to a remote part of southern or western Sudan, but failed. I went by train and bus to areas I could reach.

One day at a country team meeting [with representatives from all the offices and agencies at the embassy] I looked around and thought, “You know, these people have a really interesting job. And I don’t think they’re all that much smarter than I am. I think I could do this.”

I took the Foreign Service written exam again at Embassy Khartoum and passed.