The war in Ukraine has brought into the homes of a watching world the devastating impact and visceral images of destruction and human misery that have accompanied the Russian invasion. It has received significant media attention, with blanket coverage of developments on many international news channels and a large number of correspondents reporting from the ground. And, once again, hotels have proved a vital component in the media infrastructure in the field.
As the war entered its third week, the book, War Hotels, written by myself and the Lebanese journalist and filmmaker Abdallah El Binni, was published. Building on the research we conducted for the Al Jazeera documentary series of the same name, it provides a detailed account of wartime life within some of those iconic hotels that became bases for the international media, hotels such as the Continental Palace and the Caravelle in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), the Hôtel Le Royale/Le Phnom in Phnom Penh, the Europa in Belfast, the Commodore in Beirut, the Al Rasheed and the Palestine in Baghdad and Sarajevo’s “front line hotel”, the Holiday Inn, described by the former BBC foreign correspondent Martin Bell as “the ultimate war hotel”. These hotels, and many others, were part of the vital infrastructure that allowed journalists to function in the cities and countries they were reporting from.
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It is well documented that hotels are often repurposed in times of war. They can be militarised as “strategic assets”, be used as prisons or detention centres, serve as spaces where negotiations are undertaken, as operational bases for the media or as shelters for refugees or internally displaced people. They can also be soft targets for armed groups. The sort of hotels we have documented in the book, those utilised by the media during wartime, have become less commonplace in the last decade, for myriad reasons. The media operations conducted from, for example, the Caravelle, the Commodore or the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo, continued for sustained periods and often because hotels were the only places that could provide for the needs of journalists or the necessary spaces to host press bureaux.
However, advances in digital and satellite technology allowed journalists to operate more independently without having to locate large steel boxes containing heavy satellite phones or editing machines in hotels. Nor did they necessarily require access to telex machines or international dial phone lines, vital in the pre-digital era, that hotels could often provide. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that hotels are a redundant part of the journalistic infrastructure, though they may be utilised for shorter periods. Indeed, the war in Ukraine, though less than a month old, has not only generated endless stories of human suffering and misery but demonstrated how important the hotel is as part of the infrastructure required to report from warzones and to bear witness to war crimes.
Hotels, then, still provide vital services to journalists, photojournalists and television crews operating in conflict environments: a semblance – but only a semblance – of security, electricity which can, if the normal supply is cut off, be supported by backup generators; water, heat, food, reasonably reliable WiFi, a place to share information with colleagues and to broadcast from – in essence, a vital working and communications hub. The basements of hotels, in normal times used primarily for storage, are repurposed as underground shelters during times of intense shelling or air raids.
The coverage of the war in Ukraine has far exceeded that of other recent conflicts such as those in Syria or Yemen, both places that were extremely dangerous for foreign reporters to cover. In Ukraine, a significant number of correspondents were in situ weeks before the Russian invasion began. Their numbers have increased since. The majority, though by no means all, were based in Lviv, Kyiv or Dnipro and hotels there have served as important bases. In Kyiv, the Radisson Blu, the Hyatt, the Premier Palace, the Kozatskiy, the Senator, the Khreschatyk, the Intercontinental, and many other smaller hotels have subsequently been utilised as bases for journalists where they can send live reports using portable “Aviwest”, “Dejero Live” or “Live U” broadcasting systems that use Ukraine’s 4G infrastructure – comprising six mobile networks. A smaller number use the ‘Inmarsat BGAN’ portable satellite system, though it is more susceptible to jamming by the military. Some correspondents are not accompanied by a cameraman and instead use their mobile phones to film, edit or stream.
They are compelled, however, to return to their hotels before the 8pm-to-7am curfew imposed by the Ukrainian government and enforced by hotel security teams. From there, journalists can edit footage and send their despatches via “media shuttle” apps, broadcast live from hotel lobbies, rooms or balconies and shelter from shelling in the dark of night in the basement, if necessary.
The embattled staff and management of hotels, probably lesser in number than in peacetime, will endeavour throughout to ensure that the hotel can meet the needs of its guests. Journalists rely on the staff and strong bonds are often forged with them. Indeed, one recurrent theme in the research for the War Hotels book was the sense journalists felt of having abandoned people they had come to know well to their fate without whatever protection, if any, the presence of journalists might have afforded when they were forced to leave a city that was about to fall.
In the current context of the war in Ukraine, the correspondents who decide to remain in barely operational hotels may be subject to similar privations experienced by the journalists who stayed in the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo, during the nearly four-year siege of the city by the Bosnian Serb army during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The hotel was not just located within siege lines but directly on the most dangerous part of the main artery through the city (which became known as “Sniper Alley”) and about 500 metres from an active front line. Though staying in the Holiday Inn was not without privations, it was not comparable to that of Sarajevo’s citizens. Nevertheless, guests were subject to daily sniper fire and shelling and some rooms were more exposed than others. The hotel “functioned” but there was often no water, a limited supply of food and no heating, which was particularly problematic during the harsh Sarajevo winters.
Of course, hotels are part of the journalistic infrastructure only when their services are required. As the Russian advance slowly grinds westward, air raids, such as that on the Yavoriv International Peacekeeping Centre near the Polish border, and as the encirclement and possible siege of Kyiv creeps ever closer, many journalists and the organisations they work for have decided that the time has come to reluctantly withdraw to more secure parts of Ukraine, assessing that a possible siege of Kyiv may be akin to that of Mariupol or even Grozny during the second Chechen war.
The deaths of Evgeny Sakun, who was killed during an attack on a Kyiv television tower and Viktor Dudar, a Ukrainian reporter killed close to Mykolaiv, marked the first casualties among the press corps. These were soon followed by the American journalist and filmmaker, Brent Renaud, shot dead in Irpin outside Kyiv while on assignment for Time magazine, the Fox News cameraman, Pierre Zakrzewski, producer Oleksandra Kuvshynova, and the wounding of their colleague, Benjamin Hall, are stark reminders of the acute dangers faced by journalists reporting on the ground, particularly when doing so in a conflict in which, while they can move around relatively freely, there are no clear frontlines and where nervous Ukrainian soldiers are on high alert due to fears of Russian saboteurs or incoming fire.
Those journalists who opt to stay in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, and in the hotels that have become their operational bases, may face the same challenges that their older peers experienced elsewhere in hotels in besieged cities, like Sarajevo, or encircled and close to falling, like Phnom Penh: significant exposure to danger, limited or intermittent access to food, water, electricity, heat, internet or fuel and none of the comforts normally associated with hotels.