Letter From Kabul: Goodbye Hotel Spinzar

You can't expect much from a hotel in Kabul, even the city's second best, but the bloodstains on the pillowcases at the Hotel Spinzar were tough to take. We had only arrived in the capital last weekend and already we had one correspondent down with savage gastroenteritis, attached to a saline drip hung from a nail on the wall; two others freezing under dirt-encrusted blankets (their sleeping bags were left behind to lighten the travel load); and two photographers who needed a working toilet and a safe place to put their cameras, not necessarily in that order.

Contract photographer Gary Knight hit the streets and after a hard two-hour search found a place that has now become home to our mini NEWSWEEK staff, for however long this goes on: House 7, Street X, in the Wazir Akhbar Khan diplomatic quarter. It was, everyone agreed, a fabulous find. The previous tenants, Arab Afghans, possibly even Al Qaeda partisans, had left it in reasonably good shape. Still, anywhere else and this would have been classed as a tenement dwelling, not a diplomatic residence. Its once-garish decor has now faded, with tattered carpets, wall-to-wall grime, and furnishings that emitted clouds of dust.

Across the street is the home of Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance's foreign minister, so the neighborhood is at least secure. Best of all, the rooms all face south, toward the Inmarsat and Thuraya satellites. Our little square dishes were up in a flash, pointing over the mountains above the empty swimming pool in the compound next door.

There was also a generator, especially important because Kabul had been two days without electricity, and all of our batteries were on their last legs. No sooner did we fire it up, though, than it blew out one satphone and one computer. In our haste to file we hadn't taken the time to find back-ups and surge protectors, and this old Chinese genny was well past its prime.

We sent our Afghan interpreter and colleague Sami Yousafzai out to scour the town for a new one--with strict instructions that we wouldn't pay until the thing had been running three hours successfully. On the first attempt the buyers were in far too much of a hurry to get away, and we discovered what we had was a generator that talked a good game--it turned over like a healthy little Vespa--but just couldn't put out electricity worth a damn. Our would-be swindlers left in a huff. Three hours and $1,400 later, we had a new 4 Kilowatt Honda and just to make sure we didn't go dead again, two massive truck batteries, assorted inverters, transformers, and a web of wiring. (Considering that we're in a destroyed city in a country mostly at war for the last couple decades, it's amazing what you can get in bazaars made of mud huts and truck containers converted into shops.)

All wired up, the electricity, of course, promptly returned to the city--but now we'll be ready for the next failure. Solving some of our personnel problems may not be so easy. Between the border of Pakistan and our arrival in House 7, the six of us have acquired a support staff of 12, from cooks and cleaners to drivers and interpreters. They're a great crew, and a mixture of ethnic groups that are so far getting along just fine under the tensions and pressures of the Ramadan fast--when no one may eat from dawn to dusk, and tempers get prickly by late in the afternoon. The problems range from the mundane to the perilous. On our first night, we discovered that the cook had left before dinner, so he could bicycle the one hour home in time for his dinner, and left us without food. More seriously, someone else took the key to the closet that houses the water main valve, so although power has returned, we can't open the valve to get the water running. And more serious still: our driver Nadar and interpreter Zainullah are Pashtuns who we picked up in Jalalabad, and living in fear of their lives here in Kabul. They won't go anywhere without bringing one of us along. They have reason to be worried; the Pashtun Taliban left a strong aftertaste of hate here, especially with the newly arriving alliance fighters. Nor can we just send Zainullah and Nadar back to Jalalabad, after four of our colleagues were so recently killed on the only road there from here. Instead, we bought them some clean clothes, and gave them our old rooms at the Spinzar.

These will be among the problems great and small that we'll need to find time to solve in House 7 during the busy days and weeks ahead. It's not exactly journalism, putting it all together, but it's how journalism gets done in war zones.