War hotels: Kabul's Gandamack Lodge


Editor's note: This is the latest in an occasional series about hotels in war zones.

KABUL, Afghanistan — In Kabul, journalists often seek out guest houses, avoiding the larger, high-profile hotels that could be, and have been, targets for Taliban attacks. A popular guest house among journalists is The Gandamack Lodge in the center of town, across the street from the Iranian Embassy. There is no obvious entryway or sign, just a large metal door in the wall off the street.

You knock to be let in, and you find yourself in a courtyard with armed guards sitting about talking and smoking. You are shown to another door, which admits you into a metal chamber. The door clicks behind you, locked, and the door in front of you won’t open. If you are a suicide bomber you are trapped, and you can only set off your explosive vest like a firecracker in a mail box. But you are being watched through a narrow slit, and if you pass inspection you are buzzed through the second door.

There you find yourself in a bigger courtyard, a large house in front of you, with a 19th-century cannon in front. The founder, British journalist Peter Jouvenal, was smitten by the fictional adventures of Harry Flashman, the Victorian rake and soldier, written up in several novels by George Macdonald Fraser.

There is a bit of gallows humor in the name Gandamack, as that was the place where, in 1842, during the disastrous retreat from Kabul, the survivors of the British 44th Regiment of Foot stood back-to-back before they were slaughtered by the Afghans to the last man.

On the outside wall is a plaque with an appropriate quote from Flashman. “Kabul might not be Hyde Park, but at least it was safe for the present. ”

Inside the front hall are some of Jouvenal’s extensive weapons collection, old fire arms and swords from 19th-century wars, and even a Soviet-era machine gun, chained to the wall. Inside comfortable rooms, some of them on a pleasant, tree studded interior courtyard with tables set out for meals in the warm season, are the war reporter’s home away from home.

In the dining room, place mats portray other British campaigns, with other battle pictures and the odd sword hung on the wall. In Afghanistan it is illegal only for Muslims to drink, so if you are an infidel you can buy wine, and in the cellar is a popular and atmospheric pub, where foreigners and expats regularly gather. The restaurant has steak and kidney pies that no pub in Britain can match.

Like other parts of Kabul, power outages are common, but a generator usually — although not always — immediately kicks in. Unlike the typewriter days, modern journalists can not go for long without electric power.

Even in the worst of times, Kabul has never been as dangerous as Baghdad was in the middle of last decade, but over the years a sense of siege has settled over dusty Kabul in its spectacular setting in the foot hills of the Hindu Kush. In the early days of the American war, you could drive from Pakistan up to Kabul, and go out of town for picnics outside of town. No longer. By the end of 2010 no foreigner in his right mind would risk a country picnic, and trying to drive down to the Khyber Pass would be suicidal.

So at this writing, Flashman’s description fits Kabul just about right, but the name Gandamack carries its own prophecies and warnings.

Editor's note: From the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s to today's conflict in Iraq, war hotels provide 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