Street fighting, sieges and kidnappings were all part of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, witnessed by the iconic hotel.
Filmmaker: Abdallah El Binni
After the fighting in the Lebanese Civil War had led to the destruction of several of Beirut‘s famous luxury hotels like the Holiday Inn, Phoenicia, St Georges, the Commodore became the news media’s hotel of choice. Located deep in West Beirut, it was tucked between taller buildings that usually took the brunt of shell and mortar fire.
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When the war broke out in 1975 between right-wing Christian parties supported by Israel and the United States fighting left-wing Muslim groups allied with Yasser Arafat‘s Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), Beirut’s hotel district became a war zone. The warring factions vied to establish a foothold in the district’s high-rise hotels which often offered snipers a vantage point and other fighters strategic positions to launch attacks.
As fighting intensified and each group claimed more territory, many international journalists covering the war ventured out from the Commodore to other parts of the city to report on the action. They’d return to the Commodore to file their stories using facilities made available by millionaire hotelier Yousef Nazzal.
Hailed as the ‘godfather’ of the international press, Nazzal’s astute action and international connections allowed Beirut’s Commodore to become a global centre for news and information.
If the Commodore had not been there, the Israeli invasion would not have been so well reported.
“Yousef Nazzal was a young man then, and he seemed to have an extraordinary uncanny ability to know what journalists wanted and he realised quickly and brilliantly that journalists would need first of all, above all good communications,” according to former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn, one of the Commodore’s many patrons.
Nazzal already had lines and telex machines from his existing businesses but got hold of extra lines to accommodate reporters’ demands. As the war spread and militias took control of different neighbourhoods, the challenge for the Commodore was to keep the hotel safe for its media guests.
“The Commodore Hotel was safe. And so you could be there and it’s quite bizarre, you could be in a safe enclave and then you went out into a very grave civil war,” says Jonathan Dimbleby, who went to Beirut as a young correspondent for ITV.
But life for the journalists staying at the Commodore was tough, especially under the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the 70-day siege of Beirut in 1982.
They, like others in West Beirut, were subject to Israel’s indiscriminate shelling. But “if the Commodore had not been there, the Israeli invasion would not have been so well reported,” according to Robert Fisk, former Times Middle East correspondent, now with The Independent. He and other foreign journalists were able to get the real story out.
“The Beirut siege was an eye-opener for many correspondents who had only eaten the Israeli story until then.”
The Commodore provided easier access to the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps and so journalists were able to witness first-hand the mass killing in the camps, perpetrated by Christian Phalangists and supported by Israel. Their reports caused a public relations nightmare for the then Israeli Minister of Defence Ariel Sharon.
Following the Israeli withdrawal from Beirut in 1982, Christian and Muslim militias tussled for control of different Beirut districts, with the Commodore in the middle of the mayhem. Its safe haven status for journalists began to fall away, especially when the kidnappings began.
“The fear of kidnapping started around ’84,” says Fisk. “I had an attempt of kidnapping me at Madame Curie street, very close to the Commodore. I certainly realised that it was the first time I started getting really frightened. And then of course not long afterwards Terry Anderson was kidnapped, the longest-held hostage for almost seven years, and then we all realised that we are in trouble.”
Terry Anderson was the senior Associated Press correspondent who was kidnapped on January 16, 1985 on his way to the Commodore Hotel.
By April 1986, 30 foreign nationals had been kidnapped in Lebanon, including Terry Waite, the special envoy to the British Archbishop of Canterbury, who was ironically on a mission to negotiate the release of hostages.
By the mid-1980s, most foreign reporters had pulled out of Beirut and the Commodore became yet another victim of the war.
While the hotel has since been refurbished and revived, some will miss the old Commodore and the intrepid cast of characters that called it home.