In Box

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

Beirut, Lebanon

"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 

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

"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
and information."

--Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

"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

Baghdad, Iraq

"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

Tripoli, Libya

"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

In Box

The Ritz-Carlton of Failed States

Welcome to the Serena Hotels, outposts of multi-star luxury in countries with zero-star conditions.

Amid gunfire between the Pakistani military and Taliban fighters in the Swat Valley a few years ago, BBC reporter Nadene Ghouri found herself the lone guest at the luxurious Serena Hotel just outside the city of Mingora -- and right in the center of the action. Despite the nearby battle, uniformed staff attended to her every need. When Ghouri inquired how they could afford to keep up the impeccable service, a saffron-suited waiter replied: "We are a five-star hotel, madam. We must maintain standards at all times."

The intense fighting eventually proved too much, and the Swat Valley hotel, part of the Serena chain operated by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, was mothballed for more than a year. It reopened in April 2010, after the Pakistani military had pushed back the militants. Now the chain is looking to expand operations in -- of all places -- war-torn Afghanistan, where its five-star hotel in Kabul has been struck by Taliban rocket fire, beset by rioters, and damaged in a deadly bombing. Rooms at the Kabul Serena start at $356 per night, sealed off from the disheveled crowds, street noise, and fetid sewage outside. Call it blind optimism, but Serena now wants to create what it calls a "tourism circuit" in Afghanistan, with possible hotels in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.

It's a niche: the Ritz-Carlton of failed states. Serena owns 35 hotels, resorts, and lodges across nine countries, most of them outposts of multi-star luxury in places where residents live in zero-star conditions. High-risk hostelry has proved to be a booming business, as the chain -- named Serena in a deliberate echo of the title "His Serene Highness" used by the Aga Khan's father -- has doubled in size over the past decade, inaugurating a new property every two years, the most recent last November on the site of a Soviet-era shoe factory in Tajikistan. The Serena properties in East Africa reported a 33 percent rise in profits for 2010, and the entire hotel group is estimated to be worth more than half a billion dollars.

Serena doesn't confine its operations to dangerous locales, but the chain is very much driven to the world's political frontiers by its unusual benefactor. The 75-year-old Aga Khan -- with personal wealth estimated at $2.7 billion -- is the spiritual leader of the world's 15 million Ismaili Muslims, followers of a Shiite branch of Islam who regard him as a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. He started the Serena chain in the 1970s in Africa and then began opening hotels closer to large Ismaili communities in Central Asia.

Today's Serena touts its unusual business strategy -- in effect, combining development work with the quest for profits. "We are not in business to lose money," says Serena's managing director, Mahmud Jan Mohamed, "but our objectives are different from other hotel companies. We're happy to take on difficult projects." The Aga Khan himself has described Serena's involvement in troubled states and post-conflict areas as bringing an "investment seal of approval" to attract even more foreign capital. "In all of these places," he said at the 2006 opening of the Serena in Kampala, Uganda, "our goal is not merely to build an attractive building or to fill its rooms with visitors, but also to make a strategic investment which many private investors might be reluctant to make."

It's a vision not unlike that of the Hilton hotel chain in the 1950s, when the U.S. State Department thought opening beacons of modernity and Western comfort in exotic settings could bolster economic and political stability amid fears of rising Soviet influence. Washington actually financed part of Hilton's overseas expansion through the Marshall Plan, funneling millions of dollars through the State Department's Foreign Buildings Operations program to pay for construction in places such as Baghdad, Berlin, Cairo, and Istanbul.

In today's Afghanistan and Pakistan -- where Serena runs nine hotels, including its heavily guarded flagship in the heart of Islamabad -- the properties are supported and partly owned by the World Bank's International Finance Corp. and Norfund, the Norwegian-backed development institution. "Other partners see things are going sour and they want to pull out," says Kjartan Stigen, Norfund's investment director. "They hang in there in bad times."

Serena's philosophy finds its ultimate test in places like Quetta, Pakistan, the Taliban's headquarters south of the Durand Line. Home to the Haqqani network, the surrounding area is rife with Islamic militants and suicide attacks -- and a Baluchi separatist insurgency. But the hotel, built with curving mud walls typical of local architecture, is a haven of cool marble tiles and flower-filled courtyards. Wood and onyx decorations dot the public areas, which include three restaurants, a swimming pool, and two posh presidential suites. For all its opulent amenities, however, the Serena resembles a military barracks from the outside. "It's a fortress, but a very elegant, luxurious fortress with terrific restaurants," says Jonathan Landay, a national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.

Across the border in Afghanistan, the Kabul Serena was converted into an oasis of well-being with marble bathrooms, a health spa, sun deck, swimming pool, pastry shop, and banquet hall, as well as its own electric generators after a $36 million overhaul of the battle-scarred and decrepit Hotel Kabul. So far, the Serena has been attacked three times. Within months of its 2005 opening, rioters rampaged through the lobby, driven by a mistaken belief that the hotel served alcohol. (Other hotels in the chain do.) In 2008, Taliban suicide bombers struck again, killing eight people, including a Filipino spa worker. Then, in 2009, two rockets hit the premises, shattering windows and filling the reception area with smoke.

With each attack, the hotel has beefed up security, installing blast barricades, high perimeter walls, and armed guards. A loyal clientele of dignitaries, diplomats, consultants, aid workers, and journalists keeps occupancy rates above 60 percent. "Kabul would not have an international-standard hotel, which it needs, without the Serena," says Barnett Rubin, a State Department advisor on Afghanistan, "and no normal hotel company would have done it."

But doing business in problematic states brings, well, problems. In Syria, where the Aga Khan has signed agreements with the government of President Bashar al-Assad to open hotels in Damascus and Aleppo, Serena is vowing to complete plans made before the brutal crackdown by Assad's regime that began in March 2011. Under the 2008 agreements, the properties will be state-owned but operated by the Aga Khan Development Network. "My interest in working in Syria," the Aga Khan said in Aleppo when the deal was inked, "is to take the various lead countries of the ummah [the global Muslim community] and say, 'Let's start. Let's move together. Let's revive our cultures so that modernity is not only seen in the terminology of the West, but in the intelligent use of our past.'"

Now, with Syria facing international sanctions over Assad's violent suppression of dissent that the United Nations says has already killed more than 6,000 people, hotels are nearly empty, and the decision to continue work with the bloodstained and internationally isolated Assad could hurt the Aga Khan's reputation.

Still, Serena's Syria construction is moving forward. The chain is restoring three landmark houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Old City of Damascus and refurbishing former government offices in Aleppo built during the French colonial period.

It's hard to predict what Syria might look like when the facilities are slated to open in a few years. Even if Assad succeeds in clinging to power, luxury tourists are unlikely to rush to Syria to see the country's famous ruins. But if nothing else, there will at least be a hot shower and a plush bed for the journalists covering the chaos -- and the businessmen seeking to profit from it.