Hotels for Hacks
A look at some of the world's famous hotels, loved, hated, and holed up in by far-flung war correspondents.
After nearly three days of being held hostage by armed Qaddafi loyalists at Tripoli’s Rixos hotel, more than 30 international journalists were set free on Wednesday, Aug. 24. It was apparently a tense and wild ride: In the late hours of Monday night, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi showed up to rouse the press corps with his convoy’s appearance in the parking lot, but as the city was overrun by rebel forces, a handful of loyalist gunmen prevented journalists from leaving the hotel. With sporadic electricity, sniper fire, and threat of bombardment, journalists holed up in hallways and in the basement.
Upon being released, CNN’s senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance, tweeted “Crisis ended when #rixos gunmen realised that #Libya outside of hotel doors was no longer Libya of old. Handed us their guns & said ‘sorry.'”
The Rixos experience may have been rather brief — and thankfully, bloodless — but the hotel now deserves its place in the pantheon of legendary havens for traveling war correspondents. Here’s a look at seven of the world’s greatest hack haunts.
THE HOLIDAY INN
During the 1992-1996 Bosnian war, the Holiday Inn — the city’s only major hotel — was the unofficial center of operations for the international press corps. Unfortunately, it was only a few hundred yards from the front, where Serb and Bosniak forces battled throughout the conflict, and was adjacent to “Sniper Alley” — the city’s most dangerous thoroughfare. To leave the hotel, the journalists had to don flak jackets and run in a zigzag pattern to avoid the snipers. Even within the hotel, reporters were forced to avoid windows for fear of stray bullets, making reporting on the action outside difficult.
Inside the Holiday Inn — which, by the time of the siege, was no longer affiliated with the U.S. chain — conditions degenerated fast. With no intact windows, running water, or heat during the brutal Bosnian winters, journalists would trade granola bars and cough medicine as well as tips and information with each other for amenities like immersion water heaters for baths and electric hot plates. Despite the hardships, Holiday Inn veterans recall a spirit of camaraderie among the press there, and several marriages began in the hotel’s freezing, crumbling halls.
The Holiday Inn still stands today, though reviews are not particularly positive.
LE ROYAL (LE PHNOM)
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Remembered by one nostalgic hack decades later as The Hurt Locker meets Animal House, the Royal — which was renamed “Le Phnom” under Cambodia’s short-lived republican government during the early 1970s — was the preferred destination of journalists like Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times and Stanley Karnow of Time magazine, who covered the illegal U.S. war in Cambodia and the growing Khmer Rouge insurgency. The hotel pool was a popular way to unwind for journalists covering the confusing and shifting front lines outside the city — at least, for those who eschewed the city’s opium dens.
As the Khmer Rouge got closer to the capital city, rockets began crashing closer to the hotel, blackouts became more common, and swimming in the pool was prohibited; there were fears that in the event of a long siege, the pool water would be needed for drinking. But the siege was not to be — journalists evacuated in a hurry as the Khmer Rouge entered the city in 1975. Some are still haunted by the pleas of the hotel staff to help them escape. More than 1 million Cambodians would be killed under the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule.
Dozens of journalists returned to the Royal in 2010 for a ceremony commemorating the journalists killed covering the conflict. Schanberg’s coverage of the war — including his time at the Phnom — was the subject of the Academy Award-winning 1984 film The Killing Fields.
THE HÔTEL MONTANA
The Montana, a vast hotel that included an indoor shopping center in Port-au-Prince’s leafy Pétionville suburb, was for decades an island of luxury amid Haiti’s suffering and poverty — the destination of choice for aid workers, bureaucrats, and, of course, journalists. Covering the 1994-1995 U.S. intervention in Haiti for Harper’s, journalist Bob Shacochis recalls entering the hotel’s lobby as being “space-warped into an après-beach party, gawking at the throng of media celebs, the Eddie Bauer tropical-fashion show, the crush of machos at the bar in shorts and network caps, looking as if they’ve spent their day playing softball.” It wasn’t all fun and games, however. The Haitian junta would sometimes dump bodies of political enemies in front of the Montana in order to guarantee media attention.
The hotel was almost completely destroyed during Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, trapping dozens of guests and workers inside. Aid groups were criticized for attending to the international victims at the Montana while victims in much worse-off parts of the city languished. The Montana’s owners are still struggling to rebuild.
For those who grew up reading news of the Vietnam War, it’s a good bet that a hefty portion of those articles were filed from the Hotel Continental in Saigon. Both Time and Newsweek maintained bureaus on the hotel’s upper floors, and the interior courtyard was awash with diplomats, sources, and soldiers. But the hotel had an earlier chapter for statesmen and scribes as well.
Built in 1880 by businessman Pierre Cazeau, the elegant hotel was a waypoint for French travelers and colonial emissaries. Among its more notable long-term guests were author (and later, Charles de Gaulle’s information minister) André Malraux, Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for literature), and Graham Greene, who famously wrote much of the The Quiet American while staying in Room 214. In that novel, set during the French Indochina War, a car bomb explodes across the street from the hotel.
By the time that American journalists descended upon it, violence on the streets of Saigon was a much more regular occurrence. “The sound of artillery shells bursting in the city came through the open window of the Continental Hotel in the early hours before dawn. Up from a shallow sleep came the realization that this sound was different from the occasional incoming rocket that had awakened the capital on other nights…. The fall of Saigon was upon us,” wrote H.D.S. Greenway in the Washington Post.
The Hotel Inter-Continental Kabul, perched on a ridgeline on the western edge of the city, has been destroyed and rebuilt more times than it can remember. Opened in September 1969 in a period of relative peace and prosperity during the reign of Afghanistan’s last king, the Intercontinental first became a haven for journalists after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The hotel, which occasionally doubled as Soviet officers’ quarters, became notorious as a “nest of spies” — correspondents, diplomats, and spooks exchanged information clandestinely in the basement sauna and hotel staff helped reporters place illegal phone calls out of the country.
But the decades of war following the Soviet invasion were not kind to the Intercontinental. By 1996, when the Taliban took control of Kabul, only 85 of the hotel’s 200 rooms were inhabitable due to incessant rocket fire. The culture of the mod-era Intercontinental changed, too, as the raucous, heavy-drinking communist days gave way to a puritanical decade of Islamist rule. The contents of the hotel’s wine cellar were crushed by Taliban tanks.
The 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan again attracted droves of journalists who holed up in the Intercontinental, which had been restored to something approximating its pre-Soviet grandeur. But the high life died hard again this June when suicide attackers laid siege to the Intercontinental, leaving the building in flames and more than 20 people dead. On the day of the attack, FP’s Tom Ricks, who attended his prom there in 1971, reminisced, noting that once upon a time, Benazir Bhutto “went there to party down when her dad was running Pakistan.”
AL HAMRA HOTEL
Although it was from the top of Baghdad’s Al Rasheed Hotel that the world first saw Peter Arnett’s live coverage of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, it is the Al Hamra Hotel that most journalists covering the current Iraq war have called home. Located across the Tigris River from the Green Zone, where the recently renovated Rasheed keeps watch over U.S. military personnel, the more modest Hamra served as headquarters for more than half a dozen news outlets before a suicide bomb ripped through its interior in January 2010.
In the early days of the Iraq war, the hotel was known for its barbecues and pool parties, which “could stretch long into the sultry nights,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Deteriorating security prompted the construction of a sturdy blast wall, however, and the Hamra’s tight-knit group of correspondents soon found themselves unable to travel outside without armed bodyguards. Even before the 2010 bombing that left 16 people dead, there was a feeling among journalists that an attack was inevitable. H.D.S. Greenway reflects on the feeling of trepidation in the Global Post: “It was clear that the Al-Hamra would be next, and I spent evenings on the balcony as the dusty days turned into what seemed like a thousand and one Baghdad nights thinking about where the weak point in the blast walls might be, and from whence the attack would come.” When the attack finally came, it marked the end of an era at the Hamra. But as the Los Angeles Times put it, the “Hamra had been filled with too much life, came to symbolize too much persistence, to be allowed to fade away.”
Le Commodore in Beirut is perhaps the best-documented of wartime journalistic haunts. A destination of Doonesbury‘s marauding newsman, Roland Burton Hedley III, and home to the New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman in the early 1980s during the Lebanese civil war, the Commodore was a sometimes safe haven in a sea of destruction. The hotel clerk’s habitual deadpan, recounted by Freidman in his memoir, puts the madness in perspective: He “would ask registering guests whether they wanted a room on the ‘shelling side’ of the hotel … or the peaceful side.”
The News Bar that greets today’s travelers to the Commodore is an attempt to resurrect that romantic era. An homage to the bullet- and booze-fueled press-corps camaraderie, it longs for the time when the battle front came to journalists just as often as they went to the battle front. But with refurbished marble floors and a $35 million face-lift, the Commodore’s heart and soul have been papered over. As Friedman wrote, “You did not stay in the Commodore for the quality of its rooms. The only thing that came with your room at the Commodore was a 16 percent service charge, and whatever you found in the blue-and-gold shag rugs.”
What prompted a generation of foreign correspondents to write so passionately about this place was something else entirely. It was the faithful employees who kept the power and booze flowing throughout the war; the parrot named Coco, known for his unnerving imitation of incoming artillery shells; and the corps of unflagging correspondents, who kept ordering up “satanics and tonic,” even after armed Islamic extremists had stormed the bar and smashed the liquor bottles. It was, as Friedman writes, “the whole insane atmosphere” that guests found so intoxicating.
Ty McCormick is the Africa editor at Foreign Policy. @TyMcCormick