Iconic war hotels

The al-Nasr in Tripoli, like other famous war hotels, has been linked to public perceptions of the conflict.

Tripoli's opulent Rixos Hotel caught fire on June 9, 2011, forcing journalists to evacuate [EPA]
Tripoli's opulent Rixos Hotel caught fire on June 9, 2011, forcing journalists to evacuate [EPA]

In early February this year I was one of a small group of journalists invited to stay at the five-star Hotel al-Nasr in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. We were perhaps the last to do so before the rebel uprising put the emergency brakes on the country’s fledgling tourist industry.

It had all looked so promising. After many years in the tourism doldrums, and following the lifting of Western sanctions in 2004, visitors had begun to return to Libya. They were attracted by world-class Roman ruins such as Leptis Magna, oasis cities like as Ghadames, and Sahara Desert adventures.

In Tripoli the Turkish-owned Rixos Group was keen that its new acquisition, the al-Nasr, should benefit from the tourism revival and organised our press trip with the help of a local tour operator in the hope of some media coverage for the hotel.

Despite its opulence, the al-Nasr in February was virtually empty, and we three journalists had it almost to ourselves. We rattled around its deserted corridors and cavernous conference rooms, and ogled the sumptuous suites where, we were informed, princes and presidents had slept.

Just one week after we returned from Tripoli, the uprisings that had first engulfed neighbouring Tunisia, then Egypt, erupted in Libya. The al-Nasr fell under Gaddafi’s control, and the hotel soon emerged as the temporary home of the world’s media.

The press were treated to regular appearances by Gaddafi’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, and on special occasions by the Colonel himself who, it was rumoured, had direct access to the hotel’s underground conference rooms via tunnels from his nearby compound at Bab al-Aziziya.

Nearing rebels

By the time the rebel forces reached Tripoli some six months later the hotel had become, for a few tense days, the virtual prison of the media personnel within. And by the time they were released “the Rixos”, as it was now simply known, was famed throughout the world.

This perhaps wasn’t the coverage Rixos had been planning when we journalists were invited in February, and to this day my innocent travel article on Tripoli – and the Rixos – remains unpublished. But the media exposure the hotel subsequently received was far greater than we could ever have provided.

The iconic Holiday Inn in Beirut, was a relic of the Lebanese civil war [GALLO/GETTY]

It seems that every war over the past few decades has thrown up a hotel whose name is inseparably linked in the public perception with that conflict. This may be due to the character of contemporary warfare, where large buildings such as hotels have taken the place of medieval castles as strategic strongholds.

But it’s also down to the nature of modern media coverage, where journalists are often “embedded” on one side of the conflict, corralled together under the watchful eye of their minders with occasional, carefully orchestrated forays into the outside world to inspect the damage inflicted by the opposition.

If hotels are the new castles, then the incarcerated journalists are the new armies: Kitted out in helmets and flak jackets, they are drip-fed propaganda from the inside, besieged from the outside. Thankfully, the Rixos journalists spent only a few of days in genuine fear for their safety before being set free.

Veteran foreign correspondent Janine di Giovanni, author of a recent memoir of her experiences covering some of the late 20th century’s most notorious conflicts, was holed up at Baghdad’s al-Rasheed hotel for three months leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

She remembers the sense of paranoia and claustrophobia during her stay, which she describes as a “jail sentence”, with Western journalists kept under constant surveillance. “I gather they still have my file,” she says. “They were filming me, so I undressed in the bathroom with the lights off.”

Di Giovanni has never been to the al-Rasheed, even though she left her “best winter coat” there. But she has been back to Sarajevo, where she was trapped in the Holiday Inn during the siege of 1993. Situated on the infamous “Sniper Alley”, the hotel’s resident journalists lived without water and food for weeks.

It was at the Holiday Inn that she met her husband, French cameraman Bruno Girodon (who, coincidentally, was also trapped at the Rixos). “I’ve returned many times to look for the ghost of my old self,” she tells me. “I never found her, only tears for what happened there. I learned there what it means to watch others suffer and not be able to help.”

Originally built for the 1984 Winter Olympics, the hotel again hosts ordinary travellers, its sunshine-yellow facade showing few scars of its turbulent past. And while it doesn’t publicise its role in the hostilities, the hotel is a destination on city excursions, catering to the growing phenomenon of “war tourism”.

Like a medieval citadel, it was occupied by warring militias.

Beirut’s Holiday Inn, also synonymous with violent conflict, has not fared so well. Not far from the “Green Line” that bisected the city during the 1975-1991 civil war, the 26-floor hotel was the epitome of 1970s modernist glamour, and one of the city’s most conspicuous landmarks.

But during the war the hotel’s height and prominence became its downfall. Like a medieval citadel, it was occupied by warring militias and although there have been proposals to rebuild it, when I was in Beirut last December its pock-marked skeleton remained unaltered – and a firm favourite on the city’s tourist trail.

Beirut resident and tour guide Dana Nasr explains the hotel’s seemingly iconic status to visitors. “When I first started working as a guide, tourists always asked me to show them the Holiday Inn. As a person who lived through the war I was really surprised by their interest in seeing this place.”

Nasr finds the hotel’s fascination perplexing. “For us Lebanese the Holiday Inn is just another memory of the war,” she says. “It’s an example of how ugly war can be and reminds us how much this city and this country suffered – for nothing.”

Certainly, my own impression was that the hotel had become more than just an attraction for war tourists, almost achieving the status of a monument to the dead. But why does Dana Nasr think it has not been rebuilt, like Beirut’s other war-damaged hotels?

“Maybe because it’s so big, it would cost a fortune to restore,” she speculates. “Maybe they want to keep it as a memorial to the civil war, or maybe they want to demolish it but can’t. It seems that we have more questions than answers about this building!”

Hotel Libertas

Yet Rixos may now take the place of the Holiday Inn as the hotel chain most associated with conflict. In the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, the old Hotel Libertas is now under Rixos’ ownership, but during the Balkan wars it offered refuge for local people fleeing the Serbo-Montenegrin forces.

Roberta Simunovic, the hotel’s current PR manager and a Dubrovnik native, remembers how the Libertas, once one of the Communist bloc’s most glamourous hotels, became a sanctuary for Croatia’s most desperate citizens.

“Refugees came to the Libertas because it was a secure place,” she recalls. “People weren’t even safe in their own houses, as the Serbs were burning them down. The hotel had a basement, so they could shelter there. We were shelled from land and sea but only lost six citizens, who were outside when they were killed.”

A decade after the war the Libertas was rebuilt to the standard of Tripoli’s five-star sibling, and by the time I stayed there this spring there was no sign of the war’s devastation. The only hint of the hotel’s past lay 20 metres from the entrance, with the memorial stone to the six killed on December 6, 1991.

Yet the war lives on in the memory of Dubrovnik’s civilian population and the hotel’s current personnel, including Roberta Simunovic. “Every day on December 6 we lay flowers here to remember those who died that day,” she says.

Gail Simmons is a journalist and travel writer.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source : Al Jazeera


More from Features
Most Read