Hotels for Hacks
Six of the world's most notable "war hotels," in the words of journalists who spent time cooped up in them.
“Every war has its hotel,” the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman wrote of his stay at Beirut’s infamous Commodore during some of the heaviest fighting of Lebanon’s vicious 1975-1990 civil war. From Baghdad’s Al Hamra to Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn, here are six of the most notable “war hotels,” remembered by the correspondents who briefly called them home.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
“In the early hours of [April 28, 1975] the runways and terminal buildings at Tan Son Nhut Airport were pounded by the big artillery guns that the communists had dragged down from the mountains. The shell fire woke the city. I tumbled out of bed at the Caravelle as the first shells landed at 4 a.m., and ran to the hotel roof, where a few colleagues had already gathered. Aircraft and buildings were burning. As a smoky dawn rose over Saigon’s rooftops we saw that many residents were watching, as we were, a few brave aircraft dueling with gunners on the ground, their miniguns spitting sheets of flaming steel as surface-to-air missiles flew up toward them. I saw two aircraft fall from the sky. I phoned [George] Esper [Associated Press bureau chief in Saigon] from the Caravelle’s bar. We agreed that the shelling would probably end the evacuation at the airport and activate Option 4, the final pullout.”
–Former AP reporter Peter Arnett in his book Live from the Battlefield
“It wasn’t just the parrot in the bar, which did a perfect imitation of the whistle of an incoming shell, that made the place so weird; it wasn’t just the front desk clerk, who would ask registering guests whether they wanted a room on the ‘shelling side’ of the hotel, which faced East Beirut, or the peaceful side of the hotel, which faced the sea; it wasn’t the way they ‘laundered’ your hotel bills by putting all your bar charges down as ‘dry cleaning.’… It was the whole insane atmosphere.”
—Thomas Friedman in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem
“About halfway up the 11 flights to my room in the ozone layer of the Holiday Inn, I ran into my friend Jamie Graff from Time magazine, bounding down the glass-strewn stairwell in the opposite direction. ‘I’m getting an omelet in exchange for a bath,’ he declared gleefully, brandishing the immersion water heater that would be his part of the deal. The uninitiated might assume the coiled metal rods Graff was carrying had something to do with the omelet, as the device looks like an oversized egg beater. But any journalist who has holed up at Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn to cover the war in Bosnia instantly recognizes it as a means for heating water and knows its incalculable value. At the tail end of a brutal winter in a hotel that has no running water, heat or intact windows, anything that can help you get warm or clean is a desirable barter good in the media’s daily flea market of favors, talents
–Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times
“I stand in the illuminated lobby of the Montana Hotel, 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. On the patio, CNN is feeding a satellite; in the lounge, a big-screen TV broadcasts the Michigan-Colorado game.… Souvenance, the restaurant of choice for the capital’s aristocracy of crisis (the politicians and millionaires, the well-heeled gangsters, the diplomats and journalists), is booked up, so we settle for the gastronomic artistry of the chef at La Plantation, where the clientele can fill their glasses with the best French wines to toast the continuing — and, in some cases, karmically inexplicable — miracle of their survival.”
—Bob Shacochis, Harper’s
AL HAMRA HOTEL
“Even shortly after the 2003 invasion, journalists recall their comrades sunning in bikinis and waging impromptu water polo games in the pool. Barbecues could stretch long into the sultry nights.… The Hamra itself offered large rooms and reasonable comfort for a war zone, even if it had settled into a dreary midlife — with a bucking, defiant elevator, worn carpets and sometimes balky water supply. The constantly groaning generators would have been more maddening, but everyone understood they were all that stood between the hotel residents and Baghdad’s punishing heat. Reporters looked from their rooms over a cityscape of endless beige. But the large, rectangular hotel pool below their windows somehow always glimmered like a sapphire.”
–James Rainey, Los Angeles Times
RIXOS AL NASR
“The luxury Rixos, with its pillared lobby and opulent decor, had always seemed like a gilded cage set amid the eucalyptus trees. Even before the rebel assault, correspondents were prohibited from venturing out of the hotel on their own.… [A]s gunmen kept the 35 reporters, photographers and television crew penned up in the hotel, it dawned on us that we were pretty much being held hostage and could become human shields.… Camaraderie saw us through the ordeal. We set up an impromptu cinema one day while we were camped out in the basement, but the screening of Point Break on someone’s laptop was interrupted by fighting that broke out near the hotel. Nevertheless, spirits flagged as things wore on and we wondered when we would be freed. On a desk in a room that had been occupied by government minders, we found printouts of private emails sent by us journalists — apparent evidence that the correspondence had been monitored. Wednesday morning dawned after another tense night that brought only a few hours of sleep for most of us and hours of discussions. A bout of shouting with our armed guards in the lobby ended suddenly when the [Red Cross] team rushed in the door and to our rescue. We didn’t wait to settle the bill.”
–Missy Ryan, Reuters
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