Thursday, September 25, 2008

The blast at Marriott

Everbody knows what happened at Islamabad's Marriott hotel on Saturday 20th September.

8 pm. I'd just finished writing up a report on Zardari's speech to parliament that afternoon, called my office, told them I'd sent it, and was preparing to shut down my computer in anticipation of a quiet weekend. That's the exact moment I heard it. A huge huge sound that shook my entire house in the f-8/3 sector of Islamabad. It was the loudest explosion I'd ever heard, like thunder magnified a thousand times.

(The crater caused by the blast. Dimensions: 25'ft deep and 59' across)

But my first irrational reaction in that second was --God, please let this be an earthquake. Or maybe not so irrational, because a natural disaster is not the same as a terrorist act. I mean earthquakes, tsunamis, floods happen, and they are preventable too to a certain extent, and the damage they cause can be controlled. But the are not a demonstration of the depths to which humans can sink to make a point of their hatred of other humans, governments or a system or anything else. Earthquakes are not someone's act of revenge against someone else. Well, I guess you can argue that it's earth's revenge against humans for all the stuff we do it. But still, I know you've got the point.

But of course, it was not an earthquake. It was just the biggest bomb to hit the country. I made a call to a reporter friend who told me it was at the Marriott -- it's two sectors away from where I live, which means four kms, but the explosion was so loud I was sure it had happened in the F-8 market just down the road. With a feeling of dread about the casualties, the blood and the gore, I took myself off to the spot with a friend who also wanted to go. Even from 300 mts away, the hotel still hidden from view behind a corner, we could tell this was no ordinary blast as we parked the car and walked towards it. Branches of trees were strewn all over the side road, there was building rubble, bricks and bits of glass long before we reached the main road in front of the Marriott.

There, an unforgettable sight: One end of the five-storeyed building on fire, the road itself in darkness, street lamps lying twisted on the road, some standing with only the trunks, the tops having got blown off, an entire row of cars on the opposite side of the road from the Marriott, completely wrecked and smashed and crumpled beyond recognitopon. On the road itself, a massive crater. I told my friend the last such crater I'd seen was from the LTTE's central bank bombing in Colombo, 1996. Actually, the whole scene reminded me of that incident, except the Colombo building was seven floors high, and this was one was flatter but spread out longer across.

( The fully ablaze hotel and the remains of its facade and car park)

That length was rapidly catching fire as I stood watching, as the first casualties were brought out, I couldn't even tell in the dark whether they were dead or alive. There was so much rubble on the road and the earth from the crater and huge bits of concrete chunks and twisted metal that it was one big obstacle course to get anywhere close to the hotel. I saw the first fire engine arrive five or 10 minutes after I got there and helplessly try to lay out a pipe to the fire in the corner, which was about a good 50 to 70 mts from where we were all standing.

I spoke to some hotel employees who were stumbling out, blood on their white waiter's jackets. They'd been serving at an iftaari. One said the ceiling fell in the banquet hall where he was waiting on an inftaar reception. They were all dazed, didn't know what had happened except that they'd seen a lot of people were lying on the ground, dead or injured.

Just that afternoon, I'd driven past the hotel while trying to get to the National Assembly where Zardari was to address a joint session of parliament. There was so much security on the road to the assembly that the cops refused to let us past the checkpost and diverted us to the marriott instead, and we drove past and around it. It was just so normal at that time, the usual comings and goings, the guards -- possibly the same ones who tried stopping the explosives-laden truck as it tried to enter -- at the gate, etc.

(The day after -- Pix Anees Jillani)

The fire brought up worries of people trapped in the rooms. As I picked my way up on the heaps of rubble, I thought about the possibility of people buried underneath. i thought about the sand coloured bomb-sniffing Labrador and its handler who used to stand at the gate with the guards and I wondered if they were dead or alive. But the friend with whom I went to the site said he did see the dog with a few of the guards at the gate who escaped.

(The day after -- Anees Jillani)

After about an hour of witnessing the confusion and the chaos, I came back to file my report with no confirmation about how many had died, how many were injured or even what had happened. When the deadlines were behind me, I sat back and thought about not having the reassuring sight of the Marriott itself, an oasis of cosmopolitanism (admitted, only for those with money) in the middle of Islamabad. It was an ugly building, but it had just grown on me in the two years I spent here. I thought about how the hotel maintained the central verge on the main road and how i always compared my winter flowers to theirs, always losing the competition. Just this past summer, I had asked my gardener why our zinnias looked so faded and the ones in marriott so red and big.

(The day after: Anees Jillani)

I wrote something about Marriott as a landmark for the newspaper the next day. If you want you can read it at:

I discovered later there were other international journalists who were more depressed than me about the hotel.

Here's what The Australian's Bruce Loudon wrote:

by BRUCE LOUDON, South Asia correspondent It was my home away from home – a place where I was one of the first guests to check in when it opened its doors way back in 1977, and then spent long months living there, covering the trial and execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

In the past couple of years, I’ve spent more time in Islamabad’s Marriott hotel (and in its previous incarnation as the Islamabad Holiday Inn) than I have at what is nominally my home in New Delhi, always in the same room 352, right in front of the main gate where the devastating weekend suicide bomb went off.

More than once I’d been warned that for security reasons it was the wrong place to stay. The Marriott, I was told, was a prime target for the jihadi terrorists. And insisting on staying in a room on the front of the hotel, directly across from the heavily-guarded main gate, I was warned, was the wrong place to be.

But I was deeply attached to the place. Having checked in during the first week when it opened 31 years ago, I didn’t want to stay elsewhere. My association with it went back further than that of anyone on the staff. Before I checked out the last time, just a few days ago, the management did a search.

No-one else, they concluded, had been there right at the start, as I had. Now so many of the people I have known so well are among the victims of this sickening attack – staff members and regular guests innocently torn apart, their lives destroyed in this evil outrage.

People I know well. People I would see every day, week in and week out. People who were my friends. People, some of whose numbers are in my mobile, so well did I know them, but who are now not responding as I frantically try to call to see if they are alright. People for whom I weep, for they became so much part of my life as I spent long months in Islamabad covering, most recently, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the country’s democratic election last February, the enforced resignation of General Musharraf, and the installation in power of president Asif Ali Zardari.

Just about all of that coverage was done from my base in room 352 – the room overlooking the main entrance which was described to me by one eyewitness last night as looking as if it had been “hit by a meteorite” such was the impact of the blast. A room that I liked because in addition to allowing me to watch who was coming in and out of the hotel (ahead of any other pub in Islamabad, the Marriott was the place where all the political intriguers and the schemers and plotters met), it also allowed me to constantly look at the beautiful, serene and peaceful Margalla Hills that provide such a glorious, verdant backdrop to Islamabad.

My room is no more, I’m told. Along with much of the rest of the hotel, it has been blown away. It’s gone. It took the full brunt of the blast from the suicide bomb blast in front of the gate. Looking at the television pictures, I see it enveloped in flames together with most of the rest of the hotel. And just as I weep for my many friends on the staff of the hotel and among the regular guests who were killed or injured, so, too, do I mourn the destruction of a room that has been so central to The Australian’s coverage of Pakistan over the past couple of years. (Pix: Cars totalled on the opposite side of the road. By Anees Jillani)

It was, in effect, our office in Islamabad; the place where we based ourselves to report the series of epic events that have unfolded in the deeply troubled nation. It was, for example, in 352 where, on a Sunday morning just before she was assassinated, Benazir Bhutto called me for what was to be our last conversation after a friendship going back 33 years – a long conversation, one I’ll never forget, one that still preys constantly on my mind.

A curious conversation between two friends that was less about politics than about BB’s feelings as she prepared to resume leadership of a nation so vital to the war on terror – one that recalled old times together before her father was hanged, the attempt to kill her in Karachi six weeks earlier, her mother’s Alzheimers, Asif Ali Zardari, her kids.

It’s eerie now: just as I frantically and unsuccessfully try to call the numbers of friends I knew who worked or stayed regularly in the Marriott, so, too, does Benazir’s private mobile number keep appearing in my mobile phone’s list of contacts. I haven’t had the heart to erase it.

I still mourn the loss of my friend to the terrorists. And so, too, my home away from home, too, is now no more. I think back to the days in 1987 when a handful of us were the first guests to stay there. Of discovering that the then military dictatorship’s intelligence agency had planted bugs in my room. Of the dramatic time when I was based in the hotel covering the trial and the eventual hanging of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto on that awful morning in the prison in nearby Rawalpindi. Of returning to the hotel to file my account of the hanging – an event that was every bit as outrageous and evil as the massive suicide bomb attack on the Marriott, and which set in train the dreadful events that have led to the sort of Baghdad-style destruction now being seen in a country so pivotal to the war on terror. The destruction of the Marriott was Pakistan’s 9/11. The repercussions from the blast are incalculable.

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