War is heck at `hack' hotels

Survival: Foreign correspondents cope with snipers, bad food, too little or too much alcohol, price gouging and the scramble for a way to transmit their stories during assignments in brutal times.

October 21, 2001|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Every war seems to have its "hack" hotel - hack being a word of British origin applied to journalists.

In Saigon it was the Caravelle where hacks sat on the veranda sipping cocktails while the war rumbled in the distance - and occasionally nearby. In Beirut it was the Commodore, where a parrot named Coco whistled a scary imitation of the sound of incoming artillery. The American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, whose central part is an old pasha's palace, is the favorite lodging and drinking place for foreign correspondents. In Sarajevo it was the Holiday Inn, where the front rooms were not used because they faced the city's notorious "sniper alley." In Baghdad it's been the Al Rashid, overlooking the bombing of Iraq during the gulf war and later. In Belgrade it was the Hyatt, which managed to bring food to two dozen foreign correspondents jailed because they were on the roof of the hotel the night NATO started bombing.

War correspondents work very hard in very difficult, dangerous places. They have simple requirements. They need, above all, a place to transmit their stories. They need a place to sleep. They need food and after a long, dirty, scary, frustrating day, they need drink.

Catering to press

Beirut's Commodore Hotel may be the most famous hack hotel of modern times because the conflict in Lebanon lasted so long and because the hotel's management and arrangements were structured exclusively to serve the press. A Reuters and an Associated Press wire machine clattered around the clock in the lobby. The hotel had three working telex machines (this was before widely available satellite communications), a dependable international telephone hookup, a restaurant where the food was lousy but abundant, a bar that remained open until the last hack was sated. Each room had a mini-bar restocked every morning. The hotel had a kidney-shaped swimming pool, but it rarely was filled with water - a fact painfully discovered by the occasional drunken hack.

Empty pool or not, everything at the Commodore was outrageously expensive. Before the war, the hotel was nothing. But the war made its Palestinian owner, Yousef Nazzal, one of the wealthiest men in Beirut until it closed in 1987. By then, there were no more hacks in Lebanon, except for hostages such as the AP's Terry Anderson. Shiite militiamen ransacked the hotel. Coco the parrot was never seen again. It was the end of an era.

Wondering what hack hotels have emerged in this latest war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, I called a couple of our correspondents over there: Frank Langfitt, The Sun's Beijing correspondent, who has been based in Islamabad, Pakistan, for the past five weeks, and John Murphy, The Sun's Africa correspondent, who was dispatched to the region three weeks ago. He was in Quetta, Pakistan, close to the Afghanistan border.

The hack hotel in Islamabad is the five-story Marriott, which Langfitt reports is reasonably comfortable and serves decent food. One sign that this is a hack center is that ABC television has taken most of an entire floor and famous "talking heads" are starting to appear. Langfitt says that one day he ran into George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton chief of staff --turned- commentator, standing in his undershorts on the ABC floor.

The Marriott, like the Commodore in its time, has quickly adjusted to the needs of the hacks, usually at a heavy cost. The room rates have been raised from $145 to $275. (This is Islamabad, mind you, not Monte Carlo.) The hotel has been charging the networks $500 a day for the use of the roof for their satellites.

The Marriott in Islamabad serves no liquor. Islam forbids it. So the correspondents there skip off to a United Nations club where booze is served. An oasis!

The prohibition does not seem to stretch all the way to Quetta, where our man Murphy is staying with about 100 other hacks in the Serena Hotel, which was built to accommodate about 20 guests.

Under virtual arrest

Correspondents have been held there, effectively under hotel arrest, locked in a relatively plush resort of charming adobe-style structures. A buffet is served daily, in an event billed as "hi tea." ("Pakistani food tastes like Indian food with lots more grease," Murphy reports.)

The big problem is that the hacks can't get out to cover the story. The gates to the Serena resort are locked most of the time and guarded by a force that's commanded by a top cop whose voice "is adequate to keep ships off distant rocks in a hurricane," as Mort Rosenblum of the AP reported. When the hacks are permitted to leave, they must be accompanied by an armed guard.

There is plenty to drink, though. Murphy reports that the abundant supply is available to anyone who signs a declaration that he is not Muslim. The hooch is produced by the Quetta Distillery Ltd. and rationed to one bottle of whiskey, three bottles of wine and 20 bottles of beer per person.

"Per week or per month?" I asked Murphy.

"Per day," he replied.

War is hell.

The Sun correspondent staying in the most awful hack hotel is Doug Birch, who is usually stationed in Moscow. For the past two weeks he has been in the worst places, living lately at the so-called Northern Alliance "Guest House," in the wretched town of Jabal Saraj.

Birch is sleeping on the floor of a small room with 10 other people. He and his colleagues share one outhouse. They wash with water poured from a single bucket. Cold water, that is.

For this accommodation, the Northern Alliance - our new friends - charges each correspondent $25 a day, a fortune by Afghan standards. Now they've slapped on a $5 supplement for electricity, even though the only electricity to speak of is produced by one sputtering generator.

No wonder these guys are our friends. They're the most aggressive capitalists in the region.

I don't know if Birch can get a drink, but if anybody deserves one, he is the man.

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