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A War Reporter's Most Memorable Hotels

Caravell Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, TL500

Photo: Courtesy of Caravelle Hotel

After Palestine, I went to Bosnia, in the summer of 1992. I lived with most of the other journalists in the ugly, Soviet-style Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, which had the misfortune of being located on Sniper’s Alley. To get out of the hotel was an exercise in survival: with our helmets and flak jackets, we had to run out the back door at breakneck speed to avoid getting shot. The food was disgusting and I didn’t bathe for weeks, but the comradeship of the journalists reporting the war was fierce. I met some of my closest friends there, as well as my future husband. We were bonded together forever because of the siege and the sorrow of watching this beautiful and brave city get pummeled.

I go back often to Sarajevo now, but I have only stayed in the Holiday Inn one time since the war ended. I was too tormented by ghosts—and it was strange to turn on a switch and have electricity, strange not to see half the hotel open to the air because it had been blown apart by a bomb. However, I did search for all the waiters that I had known during the war—the ones who used to play soccer at night in the cavernous dining room because the shelling and sniping made it too dangerous to go outside. How I loved their courage, their dignity, and the fact that they wore freshly cleaned white shirts and bow ties while they served us rice and rock-hard bread for dinner. (Sadly, I managed to find only one of them.)

During the war, the entire hotel was run on black-market supplies—the heating oil one freezing winter was negotiated by one of the journalists (another one who, sadly, is now dead), and the food probably came from humanitarian aid packages. We drank the wine cellar dry that first summer. And I will never forget the first Christmas of the war, in 1992, when a bunch of us went to midnight mass (held at a secret time because the Serbs would have bombed a church full of people at midnight) and then raced back to the hotel in our cars, and someone pulled out a bottle of champagne they’d been hoarding.

After that came hotels in the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and the Ivory Coast. In Sierra Leone, a particularly interesting hotel called the Mammy Yoko had a swimming pool full of frogs. There was the place in Somalia that served spaghetti with lobster every night and where I had my own private militia. There was the hotel in Kosovo where, after I came back from a bombing raid, my husband-to-be, who thought I had been killed, organized something unheard-of and utterly luxurious: a warm shower. There was the convent in East Timor where my bed was a door frame with a sleeping bag thrown over it.

Baghdad was my last assignment before I became a mother and entered a new phase of my life. I spent nearly three months at the Al-Rashid Hotel there in 2003, during the last days of Saddam Hussein, waiting for his fall. One night, Sean Penn came to my room to talk. He was in the city as a “private protester” against the bombing that was certainly on its way. Because everything was bugged in those days—the Iraqi secret police were everywhere and followed journalists; I dressed in the bathroom with the light out—we turned the TV up full blast on some cheesy Egyptian dance channel, smoked cigarettes, and talked politics. Penn was dying for a drink and so was I, but there was no alcohol in the Al-Rashid unless you somehow smuggled it in.

For breakfast the hotel served pomegranate juice and bread with honey. We worked hard, but because we were away from home for so long, we tried to carve out normal lives. Some mornings, in the misty haze of pollution that is Baghdad, I would look out my window at the gardens and see Lorenzo, an Italian journalist, jogging. An Austrian reporter once offered to paint my hair when I said I wanted to dye it blond. Another Italian writer used to practice piano daily.

In March 2003, right before the bombs started falling in Baghdad, we were forced to move to the Palestine Hotel. I thought I would come back to the Al-Rashid, so I left two suitcases of my good winter clothes—coats, sweaters, boots—and just took the necessities with me. I never got them back. The American military moved in, and the Al-Rashid became part of the Green Zone.

In 2001 in Kabul, after the fall of the Taliban, Peter Jouvenal, a BBC cameraman who knew Afghanistan like the back of his hand, opened a hotel in a house on Passport Street that had allegedly been the home of one of Osama bin Laden’s wives. He called it the Gandamack Lodge, which is also the fictional address of Flashman, the main character in the George Fraser MacDonald books that foreign correspondents love to read. Four years later, Jouvenal moved to another location near the UNHCR building, restored the rooms, and opened a restaurant with English comfort food (shepherd’s pie; lamb chops; fry-ups for breakfast) called the Hare & Hound Watering Hole. It’s dark and seedy and fantastic. It comes close to the American Colony’s famous bar (which someone once nicknamed the Chamber of Horrors because of the amount of alcohol consumed there).

I don’t miss the endless wandering I used to do, or how lonely I got for months on end. I don’t miss the stress of spending all day trying to find a bottle of water to drink or brush my teeth with, or the hell of filing a story on a satellite telephone for 50 dollars a minute. But I do miss being part of history being written—or, as Christiane Amanpour once said, “shining a light on the darkest corners of the world.” Those messages from Benghazi, Tripoli, and beyond did stir something in me, and for a moment, I wanted desperately to be part of the pack again.

Janine di Giovanni’s memoir, Ghosts by Daylight, is due out from Knopf in September.

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