Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Kabul : The hotel on the hill
Taliban suicide bombers staged a dramatic attack on Kabul’s landmark Intercontinental hotel late on Tuesday. Here is a piece by two Reuters journalists reminiscing about the imposing hotel on the hill.
By Robert Evans and Tom Heneghan
The foreign military gunship hovered low above the hotel and a group of bearded men in flat felt caps on a nearby hill brandished fists and apparently ancient rifles at it. The pilot obviously saw the men and their weapons, but instead of shooting at them he simply swooped off over their heads — forcing them to dive flat — and flew down over central Kabul in the direction of the airport.
Foreign journalists and some Afghan staff in the forecourt and on balconies of the 6-storey hotel on the north-western edge of the Afghan capital cheered and applauded — their haven of peace had been spared a nearby firefight.
The scene was in February 1980, nearly two months after Soviet forces swept into Afghanistan to prop up a communist government by eliminating a hardline ideologue president and putting a leftist reformer in power.
The hotel was the Intercontinental, now all but wrecked after an attack by Taliban insurgents and a blasting from a NATO helicopter on Tuesday. Then it was the local headquarters of the global media corps. From the first days of the Soviet invasion in the last week of 1979, the Interconti — as it was widely known — became home for dozens of foreign reporters and cameramen and, for some, “a nest of spies.”
US AMBASSADOR KILLED
The Kabul, the only other hotel with claim to even a single star, had been off-bounds since February 1979 when the U.S. ambassador was kidnapped and died in one of its rooms in a shoot-out between his abductors and would-be rescuers. With magnificent views over the city, the Interconti’s balconies offered a quick check for early-rising reporters on the situation in Kabul, and on a fortress within easy sight that had been taken over as a base by the Soviet army.
A Reuters correspondent woke one morning to hear a Western radio station reporting that there was fierce fighting across the capital involving Soviet helicopters and anti-government Islamic insurgents. Kabul stretched silent before his gaze.
But at night the balconies provided a royal-box seat as thousands of Kabulis chanted “Allah-u-Akbar” (God is greatest) from their flat rooftops in a sign of opposition to the Soviets and the “godless” ruling People’s Democratic Party, the PDPA.
Spies? Propagandists? They were not that obvious, or they were so obvious they were laughed out of the lobby — as was one American who would predict daily that the whole country was about to rise in revolt. Indian diplomats — whose sympathies lay with the Soviets whom they saw as a barrier to a takeover in Afghanistan by Islamic insurgents aligned with powerful elements in Pakistan — would drop by to argue that Moscow had no wider ambitions.
An occasional East European “journalist” came by with a similar message, in retrospect and in the light of since revealed Soviet archives shown to be correct.
But Soviet diplomats and officials themselves kept well away from the Interconti, and if the KGB and GRU intelligence services patrolled the corridors, listened to conversations at the bar or bugged the rooms, they kept under very deep cover.
More clearly present were the PDPA informers planted among the hotel employees. They scared the staff — but not to the extent that a clerk would not sometimes help a reporter get a banned phone call out when a party spook was not around.
Information exchanges did take place — in the security, one hoped, of the basement sauna. One Reuters scoop at the time was provided by the Libyan ambassador encountered by chance in the cool room, a towel wrapped round his waist.
A luxury establishment on its opening in happier times in 1969 when the country had a free-wheeling monarchy, by the end of 1979 it had a tired feel, with its magnificent pool closed and its once vaunted cuisine distinctly undistinguished.
Owned for a decade by the Intercontinental chain, it was taken over by the Afghan state in 1980. The bloodless ouster of the king in 1972 by his cousin Mohammed Daoud, who declared a republic and himself president, had briefly stemmed the visitor flow, but it was almost halted by the PDPA coup and killing of Daoud in April 1978.
Interconti staff welcomed the journalists after the Soviet intervention. “If it takes an invasion to get some guests, we can live with that,” said a turbaned doorman with scuffed leather shoes to one of the first wave of reporters.
But it did not last long. For the Afghan authorities, perhaps less for the Soviet command, foreign journalists were a bother. Just a few weeks after the post-intervention press invasion, the Interconti residents were shut in the hotel.
Gathered together in the lobby by an Afghan foreign ministry official — or that’s what he said he was — after days of heel-kicking and desultory attempts to escape round the security barriers, they were told to pack up and leave.
A Reuters reporter arriving there six years later found the hotel so empty that he had to scurry round to find someone to check him in. In the restaurant, half a dozen bored waiters fluttered around, happy to have someone to serve.
Having read that Italian engineers had in the 1920s started a vineyard on the hill where the hotel was built, he asked if the wine was still made, and minutes later a water returned proudly bearing a bottle of “Vino Castellino.” ”It tasted like turpentine,” he recalls.
A year later, another Reuters journalist checked in to a still somnolent Interconti. On a hook on the door to his room he found a 12-month-old laundry bill in the name of his predecessor, apparently hopefully awaiting his return.