Conflict & Justice

The Kabul Serena’s dark history


The five star Kabul Serena Hotel opened in November 2005.


John Moore

This should have been a happy holiday weekend in Kabul, as residents mark the feast of Nawroz, the start of the new Muslim year. It is now 1393.

Normally on these days the streets are mobbed with gaily dressed families going to visit their relatives, where they eat an assortment of nuts and raisins, accompanied by cakes and cookies, all washed down by endless cups of green tea.

Not this year.

According to a friend in Kabul, the streets are strangely empty. Instead of joyful cries of “Sal-e-Naw Mubarak!” (Happy New Year) there is a deep sadness and a simmering anger.

Thursday night gunmen infiltrated the Serena Hotel, a luxury establishment in Kabul that advertises itself as “an oasis of serenity in the heart of the city.”

According to press accounts, the militants waited until the restaurant filled with patrons celebrating the holiday in the elegant dining room, then opened fire. By the time police had subdued them, at least nine people were dead, besides the four gunmen.

The victims included Sardar Ahmad, an Afghan journalist who worked for Agence France-Presse, along with his wife and two of their three children, all shot at point-blank range. A third child, not even 2 years old, is seriously injured and in a coma.

In addition to the Ahmad family, four internationals died — two Canadians, a New Zealander and a citizen of Paraguay.

The Serena was a popular destination with Kabul’s expat community, because it was considered to be secure. Just a stone’s throw from the presidential palace, it’s in a heavily fortified section of the city. Even the notoriously risk-averse US Embassy used to allow their personnel to visit the Serena.

It was also one of the few swanky international spots that Afghans had ready access to, because it did not serve alcohol. It’s illegal for restaurants in Afghanistan to serve liquor to Afghans, and proprietors can be heavily penalized if they let local residents through the door.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the assault, and most analysts see the attack as part of the militants’ stated aim of disrupting the Afghan presidential election, which is now just two weeks away.

The election, if successful, would mark the first peaceful transfer of power in Afghanistan history — but it is hard to talk about success when people are dying.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) is fielding observers for the election — or was, until one of them was killed in Thursday’s massacre. NDI is withdrawing its international election workers, according to press reports.

Afghan journalists have retaliated for the murder of one of their own by declaring a two-week moratorium on reporting on Taliban activities, to deny the militants a podium for “projecting terror among Afghan civilians.”

It is all too grimly familiar — there’s quite possibly no piece of Kabul real estate that has so frequently seen death and killing than the Serena, touted as “the safest hotel in Kabul.”

Back in 1979 it witnessed the murder of Adolph Dubs, the American ambassador to Kabul. He had been kidnapped by militants and was killed during a botched rescue attempt.

In 2008 attackers stormed the gates and burst into the hotel, shooting foreigners. At least six people died, although persistent rumors insisted that the death toll was much higher.

Thursday’s was the worst attack there so far. Death and violence seem mixed into the very walls of the Kabul Serena.

“That place is cursed,” said an Afghan friend.

I know the Serena well. When I lived in Kabul it was my home away from home, my respite from the dust, violence, and danger around me. War reporting is not all bad — when I was not dodging the Taliban in Helmand, or braving avalanches in the Salang Pass, I worked out in the well-appointed gym every morning, gathered with friends for the sumptuous Friday brunch, sat by the pool on summer afternoons and spent many relaxing hours at the spa.

The masseuse was a wonderful woman from the Philippines named Zeenia. She had magic hands that could work the Kabul kinks out of my neck, and her infectious smile could brighten even the gloomiest Afghan day.

That is, until that day in January 2008 when Zeenia was gunned down at point-blank range by the Taliban in the spa’s reception area.

That attack closed the Serena down for several months as the hotel management made repairs to the wall and gates and installed a new security system to prevent future attacks.

After that it took much longer to get into the Serena — there were two layers of checkpoints, complete with metal detectors and X-ray machines for bags and packages.

Visitors also had to undergo a pat down in order to get through the final door into the courtyard.

How the attackers managed to sneak their guns through the multiple layers of security is a mystery — unless, as Daily Beast journalist Sami Yousafzai tweeted, the metal detectors were just for show.

From the 2008 attack until Thursday night, there had been no major problems at the Serena.

Not that all was calm. In October 2009 a rocket struck the hotel, shattering a glass wall in the lobby and ruining my morning workout. I was in the shower when an attendant rushed in, screaming for me to get dressed and get into the bunker.

I spent hours in an underground safe room with dozens of other expats and men with guns, wondering whether history was about to repeat itself.

It did not, until Thursday.

This long and frightful war is drawing to a close now for the United States and its allies.

But, as the grieving faces in Kabul these days might tell you, for the Afghans it is far from over.

Journalist Jean MacKenzie worked as a reporter in Afghanistan from October 2004 to December 2011, first as the head of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, then as a senior correspondent for GlobalPost.