The War Hotels: Bangladesh


BOSTON — In Dacca in 1971, during the painful birth of Bangladesh, the Intercontinental Hotel was where journalists chose to stay. In August of that year the Pakistani army was trying to suppress an armed separatist movement backed by India. When I went down to the lobby one day to buy some smokes, a terrorist bomb blew up in the lobby, giving me a severe concussion. A redoubtable old British warhorse, Clare Hollingworth, who had seen more then her share of such events, urged hotel guests to leave quickly. "There's always a second bomb," she said. "I remember the King David in '47."

Indeed, she had been a war correspondent in Palestine just before Israeli independence when the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, then housing British headquarters, was bombed by the Irgun. The militant Zionist group that sought to terrorize the British occupying forces was led by Menachem Begin, who would later become Israel's Prime Minister and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize along with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for the peace deal they signed.

When Dacca’s Intercontinental was bombed, Hollingworth wrote: "Smoke and dust filled the air as the flying glass settles … Fire bells sounded, adding to the panic of the guests. I made my way down the emergency staircase to find water pouring from where the bookshop had been. The injured lay trapped in the staff quarters screaming."

Hollingworth, who had covered World War II in North Africa, had known some of the Pakistani and Indian generals when they were young officers in the British Indian Army. She rightly predicted that India would not invade until December, when the rivers had shrunk and armor could better be deployed. In a flood, she said, the Brahmaputra River could be “as wide as the English Channel.”

When India did invade that December to dismember Pakistan, the International Red Cross turned the hotel into a neutral zone. Diplomats and other foreigners awaiting evacuation moved in, along with journalists covering the conflict. There were dog fights between Indian and Pakistani jets over the city, and each day the hotel management used a magnet fishing pole to remove shrapnel from the swimming pool, recalled Jim Sterba, who was there for the New York Times.

"The word 'blackout' and 'curfew' may sound ominous to editors back home," Sterba said, "but they are music to the ears of seasoned war reporters — euphemisms for 'ante-up' and 'who's deal.' The Bangladesh war was one of the great poker wars. One night there came a loud knock at the door. The hotel management had gotten an urgent call. He was told that a 155 millimeter howitzer was aimed at the light leaking out of our window ... The light went out but we had a problem. We were in the middle of a tense game of seven-card hi-lo with one-eyed jacks wild, and the table was piled high with cash, now in total darkness."

Duct tape came to the rescue, and the game continued by candle light.

Editor's note: From the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s to today's conflict in Iraq, it seems that in most wars a hotel provides a stage set for a cast of characters trying to cope with the tragedy outside. You can read about some of them in this series:

The War Hotels: Introduction

Vietnam: the Continental Palace

Cambodia: Le Phnom

Bangladesh: The Intercontinental in Dacca

Lebanon: Beirut's Commodore

Iraq: The Palestine Hotel in Baghdad

Afghanistan: Kabul's Gandamack Lodge

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