The List

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.

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Sarajevo, Bosnia

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.

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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.

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Port-au-Prince, Haiti

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.

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Saigon, Vietnam

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.

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Kabul, Afghanistan

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."

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Baghdad, Iraq

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."

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Beirut, Lebanon

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.

AP Photo/Staff/Saade

The List

Bunker Mentality

Where do governments run when the worst case scenario arrives?

Libya's rebel fighters breached Muammar al-Qaddafi's compound at Bab al-Azizya on Tuesday. Though the fortified area was described by rebel leaders as the colonel's last holdout, there is, as yet, no sign of him (or much of his family). So where did he go? There are reports of a network of underground tunnels built beneath Tripoli during the 1980s after the U.S. attacks, which could make it difficult for the rebels to track Qaddafi down, or perhaps even allow him to escape. But Qaddafi is hardly the first leader with an elaborate plan to go to ground when the going gets tough.



Given how little information is known about even ordinary life in North Korea, reports about secret government programs should always be taken with a fair amount of skepticism. However, a number of reports have emerged about leader Kim Jong Il's emergency contingency plans. Defectors claim that, beginning during the Korean War in the 1950s, the North Korean government built an extensive network of underground tunnels connecting Pyongyang with strategic sites around the country, including the Dear Leader's villas. In the event of an invasion, uprising, or nuclear attack, Kim could conceivably use the tunnels to escape to China.

The Canadian private intelligence firm Kanwa also claims that the North Korean regime has constructed a massive bunker beneath Kim's palace on Mount Baekdusan, which could store helicopters and military fighter jets and would likely be the leader's last redoubt.

Tunnels aren't just for escape in North Korea. U.S. officials also believe there may be as many as 180 underground munitions factories in the country. In the 1970s, South Korea troops patrolling the border discovered two massive underground tunnels in the demilitarized zone that would allow tanks and regiments of troops to stream into South Korea during an invasion.


Beijing's "underground city" dates back to China's 1969 border war with the Soviet Union and it more than lives up to its name. The network of tunnels and rooms cover an area of about 85 square kilometers, roughly 10 meters below the surface. In the event of a nuclear attack on the capitol, the plan was for 40 percent of Beijing's population to head underground; the rest were to flee into the hills. At one point, nearly every house had a trap door leading into the tunnels.

For VIPs and government officials, special tunnels were reportedly constructed connecting the residences of party leaders to the Great Hall of the People and nearby military bases. These tunnels were used during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, when hundreds of  troops emerged unexpectedly from the Great Hall of the People to crack down on protesters.

The tunnels were never used for their intended purpose -- though they were apparently popular among young couples looking for a place to make out -- and gradually fell into disuse. Today, they're one of the city's lesser-known tourist attractions.

Flickr user Xiao Niao @ SK


Unlike the United States and China, the Soviet Union's Cold War-era plans in case of a nuclear attack remain official state secrets -- though a fair amount of information has come out. Moscow's metro stations, constructed during the 1930s, were built deep underground so that they could double as bomb shelters in case of attack. VIP's reportedly had access to a second underground train system, known as Metro-2, designed to facilitate the evacuation of top government officials during a nuclear attack. The Russian government denies the existence of the secret tunnels, though some brave urban adventurers claim to have located them.

According to a 1992 Time article based on conversations with former KGB officials, the Kremlin and several other government buildings in Moscow are connected by underground rail tunnels to a massive bunker six miles outside the city. According to one officer, the complex is about 500 acres in size and was build to shelter up to 120,000 people for 30 years.

A 1997 article in the Washington Times claimed that President Boris Yeltsin's government was continuing work on the complex, including building a rail link to the president's dacha 13 miles outside the city. The Russian government, however, denied the report.

Whatever the truth about Metro-2, it's clear that there's an awful lot of underground space in Moscow that's not being used. Thankfully, the tunnel network has never had to serve its intended purpose, but with skyrocketing housing prices above the ground in Moscow, the tunnels may by breached by a different threat -- real estate developers.

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The first line of defense for the president in the event of an attack on the capitol or a natural disaster is the Presidential Emergency Operations Center -- originally constructed under the east wing of the White House during World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The center is built to withstand a nuclear attack. During the 9/11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney was hustled into the bunker by Secret Service agents, from where he supervised the initial stage of the U.S. response.

If all hell really breaks loose, there are options outside the city as well. During the 1950s, the U.S. began construction of an extensive network of secret facilities where the president and top officials could go to hide out. These included the Greenbrier hotel complex in West Virginia, where Congress would shelter during a nuclear attack; Raven Rock, a site on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border from which the Joint Chiefs of Staff could conduct a nuclear war; and Mount Weather, a 200,000 square foot facility in Virginia that also houses the Federal Emergency Management Agency and would become the new home of the Executive Branch if Washington had to be evacuated. Mount Weather includes a hospital, crematorium, reservoirs of drinking water, a power plant, and a radio and television studio.

Greenbrier and Raven Rock were shuttered after the end of the Cold War, but since the 9/11 attacks, there's been much more attention given to Mount Weather. In 2006, the federal government held a major evacuation drill involving around 4,000 workers from 50 government agencies. Only the president, Cabinet officers, and the Supreme Court justices get their own private sleeping quarters.

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A little more than 100 miles from London, near the scenic town of Corsham, lies one of the Cold War's most remarkable sites. Code named "Burlington," the subterranean bunker was originally built in an abandoned mine as an aircraft factory and munitions dump. During the 1950s, it was expanded into a facility meant to house up to 4,000 government personnel -- as well as the royal family -- in the event of a nuclear attack. Yet it was so secret that many of those selected for evacuation didn't even know about it. The bunker was connected by London by a special train line.

Located 120 feet below ground, the facility included more than 60 miles of roads, featured a BBC studio from which the prime minister could address what was left of his country, boasted Britain's second largest telephone exchange, and, in fitting British fashion, a pub.

The facility ceased operation in 1991 and was finally decommissioned and declassified in 2004. The British government is currently looking for a buyer.