Surprisingly, no one was killed in Belfast’s Europa, Europe’s most bombed hotel – The Irish Times
My life as a journalist intersects with chapters four, five and six of the book War Hotels, by Professor Kenneth Morrison and Lebanese filmmaker Abdallah El Binni.
I have had direct experience of hotels being an integral part of the conflicts that tore Beirut, Baghdad and Sarajevo apart. And although I did not work as a journalist in Saigon, Phnom Penh or Belfast (chapters one to three), they inhabit the collective imagination of journalists of my generation.
The evening news and Life magazine made Vietnam the first “living room war”. From the 1960s, the war hotel established itself as a journalistic institution. In Saigon, the press gathers in the Continental and Caravelle hotels. In Phnom Penh, at the Hotel Le Royale. A stone memorial there commemorates 37 journalists killed during the Cambodian war.
The war hotels shared many characteristics. The illusory relief we felt coming from the street or the battlefield. The camaraderie we enjoyed in the evening after dropping off our stories. A sense of intrigue in places often frequented by diplomats, humanitarians, spies and mercenaries as well as journalists. Not to mention the celebrities. . . Joan Baez and Susan Sontag visited Vietnam and Sarajevo. Sean Penn gave a press conference in Baghdad before the 2003 invasion, long before the great and the good flocked to Kyiv.
Cameramen and television photographers recorded the 1975 evacuation of the United States Embassy in Saigon from the rooftop of the Hotel Caravelle. They watched Israel bomb Muslim West Beirut from the rooftop of the Commodore Hotel in 1982. In 2003, the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad provided the perfect vantage point to watch cruise missiles crash into the palaces of Saddam Hussein.
The Vietnam War ended the same month the Lebanon War began, April 1975. War correspondents emigrated en masse from Vietnam to Beirut. From October 1975 to March 1976, the fiercest fighting between Lebanese militias took place in the beachfront hotel district, with the Maronite Phalanx housed in the 26-story Holiday Inn and the Sunni Muslim Mourabitoun in the tower Murr unfinished.
The great war photographer Don McCullin recalled seeing Phalangist gunmen “pouring fire into West Beirut” from the Holiday Inn on New Year’s Day 1976. He saw his first female fighter, “a a strikingly beautiful woman ‘called Jocelyne Khoueiry’ throwing hand grenades and strapped dynamite into the nearby Phenicia Hotel’. In one of the most memorable images of the Lebanon war, a masked gunman put his assault rifle on a grand piano while playing classical music at the Holiday Inn.
Saleh Rifai, whom I would later know as the photo editor of the Beirut bureau of the Associated Press (AP), was with the Mourabitouns when they stormed the Holiday Inn on March 22, 1976. He recounted how a sniper on the roof had been caught and thrown into the void. His body was then dragged by a car through the streets of the hotel district.
I arrived in Beirut for the first time by sea, at dawn one morning in December 1987, with the late British journalist Robert Fisk. The white Holiday Inn, full of shells and emptied, towered over us like a monolith of destruction and barbarism.
During the last two years of the Lebanese civil war, I often worked from the sandbagged PA office across a narrow street from the Commodore, who had recently been sacked in the militia war. . During six months of artillery fighting in 1989, we often slept in the PA office because it was less exposed to shellfire than our seaside apartment. The Syrian soldiers quartered in the Commodore ruin were like familiar neighbors seen making tea, playing backgammon and smoking.
By the time I arrived in Beirut, most members of the press had fled to Cyprus for fear of being kidnapped. Fisk, Bolivian correspondent Juan Carlos Gumucio, Commodore manager Fouad Saleh, and Ahmed Shebaro, a former assistant manager who acted as our travel agent, told me about the Commodore’s glory days.
The Commodore’s secret to success had been providing everything a reporter needed: reliable communications, a copy of the news agency, food and drink. When Beirut airport was closed, a group of correspondents let Saleh know that they would arrive by boat. Could he meet them? Saleh waited on the shore with champagne and freshly squeezed orange juice.
Alcohol was flowing in the Commodore’s bar, which Saleh moved to a discreet upstairs room to appease the angry militiamen. It was, a veteran correspondent told me recently, like a summer camp. Men felt freed from the boredom of everyday life, from responsibility for women and children. For those so inclined, sex and drugs were easy to come by.
Some brought souvenirs from Belfast’s Europa Hotel to Beirut. The Europa was to be “a shining example of Belfast’s contemporary ‘urban renaissance'” in the 1970s, write Morrison and Binni. Instead, it became a prime target for the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), who bombed the Europa 33 times in just over 20 years, making it the most bombed hotel in ‘Europe.
Surprisingly, no one was killed in the Europa, because the IRA usually gave warnings over the phone and because the sleek, mustachioed hotel manager, Harper Brown, evacuated guests at high speed. In October 1971, he rewarded British Army sappers who defused two bombs with champagne. Harper and his wife Sally, who oversaw housekeeping, lived in a hotel suite.
The Holiday Inn in Sarajevo was arguably the most dangerous of the war hotels, located inside the city’s siege lines on “Sniper Alley”, near the front line between Serbs and Bosnians. The BBC’s Martin Bell called it “the ultimate war hotel” where “you didn’t go to war; war has come to you”.
When I stayed at the Holiday Inn in September 1992, we kept our room curtains always drawn, turned off the lights, and exited the hotel through the underground parking lot. Our driver was stepping on the accelerator and accelerating to escape the snipers. Bulletproof vests and helmets were required. Dinners in a windowless dining room with other reporters and staff from the nearby hospital offered the only respite from the cold, gloom and din of shells and bullets.
Baghdad housed the last war hotels for journalists: al Rashid, Palestine and al Hamra. During the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s henchmen forced all journalists to stay at al-Rashid. Although I covered this war from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, I discovered al Rashid soon after the war ended. It was made of polished granite and looked like a mausoleum. The Mukhabarat – Iraqi intelligence agents – kept one under constant surveillance. The rooms were bugged and the journalists knew how to throw a blanket over the television set to blind the camera hidden behind the screen.
During the 2003 war, we were ordered to stay at the Palestine Hotel. I got a lot of exercise going up the stairs to my room on the eighth floor when the elevators stopped working. When there was tap water, I kept it in empty mineral water bottles and in the bathtub, a trick I had learned during the war in Lebanon.
On April 8, 2003, an American tank stationed on the Jumhuriya Bridge in central Baghdad fired a shell at the Palestine, hitting the 14th and 15th floors of the hotel. I was driving through town and as I approached the hotel, I heard the explosion and saw smoke. Two colleagues rushed to the front door, carrying Spanish cameraman José Couso in a blood-soaked sheet. His stomach had been torn apart by shrapnel. He died that night in hospital.
Taras Protsyuk, Ukrainian cameraman for Reuters, was killed instantly. Samia Nakhoul, whom I knew well from Reuters in Beirut, had suffered a head injury and made the brave decision to risk brain surgery that night in a hospital in Baghdad.
It was my worst experience in a war hotel, a reminder that for all the excitement and adventure, journalists were also in danger. The Pentagon knew that Palestine was inhabited by hundreds of journalists, but the crew of the tank that fired the shell had not been informed.
Over the past decade, the journalists’ war hotel has all but disappeared. Digital technology allows journalists to archive copies and photographs via any telephone network, without telex or satellite dish. Media bosses have made massive budget cuts and few can afford to deploy journalists to war zones for long periods of time.
“Citizen journalists” posting videos and images taken with smartphones on social media have eroded the role of traditional media. The hotels of the war princes were replaced by independent paupers. Journalists in war zones like Ukraine tend to work alone and spread across many hotels, even Airbnbs. War hotels lasted half a century but are largely a thing of the past, remembered with nostalgia by the ancients.
War Hotels, by Kenneth Morrison and Abdallah El Binni, is published by Merrion Press.