Monday, September 22, 2008

The Marriott Hotel

A subtle difference between the old hands here in Islamabad and the newbies was made clear last Saturday night. During a barbecue party at a private residence in the city there was a flash that lit up the night sky, a tremendous bang of an explosion and the ground shook momentarily. The new folks all looked up and said, "What was that?!" Three or four of us who have been here a while were already calling our sections and heading for vehicles to get us back to the Embassy. If you live in Islamabad long enough, you recognize bombs when you hear them.

I've been here through four bombings:

Luna Caprese Restaurant. Four FBI agents were seriously injured and a Turkish woman was killed when a man ran up an alley next to the outdoor restaurant and threw a satchel bomb over the wall. This relatively small explosive device, thrown into a confined area, could only be heard in the immediate vicinity of the restaurant. It was determined, after the Luna Caprese bombing, that we were at greater risk in the markets on Saturdays because of the crowds, so Saturday shopping was added to the list of security restrictions.

Danish Embassy. A suicide bomber drove a small car down the street and detonated his bomb in front of the Danish Embassy, killing several guards and a young boy who just happened to walk down the wrong street at the wrong time. No Danes were injured in the attack, although their building suffered some damage. The Danish Embassy is on the street just behind my house and the blast blew out all my windows and doors and small pieces of the bomber's vehicle were found in my yard. Seven other Embassy houses were damaged to one degree or another, but mine was the worst. The advantage of that was that the houses were repaired in order of severity of damage, so mine got fixed first! This blast could be heard as far away as the Diplomatic Enclave. Security reminders were sent out and all our Motor Pool drivers were put through a refresher course covering their particular security responsibilities.

Red Mosque 2. A suicide bomber wearing an explosives laden vest walked into a group of policemen and killed twenty of them. The police were there to maintain crowd control during demonstrations on the anniversary of the storming of the Red Mosque. Although my house is well over a mile from where the explosion took place, I heard this blast quite clearly. While this explosion caused no injuries to Embassy personnel or damage to our properties, it served as a very clear reminder of why our security measures are in place.

Marriott Hotel. A truck carrying approximately one ton of explosives attempted to crash the security barrier at the Marriott Hotel. The guards at the barrier shot out his tires and prevented him from pulling up alongside the hotel before he detonated. When he triggered his bomb, he destroyed the hotel and left a crater in the road that measures forty feet across and twenty-five feet deep. His truck, a very large and colorfully painted dump truck, completely disappeared. After the blast, no piece of this massive machine was found that couldn't be held in the palm of your hand. Thirty-six Embassy houses in the area were damaged with the usual broken windows and blown out doors. I was more than two miles away and felt the concussion.

So, the Marriott is gone, destroyed by the explosion and the fire that followed it. The death toll is still being tallied as the wreckage of the building is searched for staff and guests who were killed in the fire. Three American diplomats, many other foreigners and the Czech Ambassador to Pakistan are among the fatalities. Our men were here TDY, which means on temporary duty. They had only just arrived. Similarly, the Czech Ambassador had also just arrived in Islamabad to begin his new assignment. As usual, the people who bore the brunt of this attack were working class Pakistanis. The guards at the barrier, the doormen, the bell-hops and concierge at the front door, and the front desk personnel in the lobby were all killed.

There were several very good restaurants in the Marriott and we were allowed to eat in them. The restaurants in the Marriott and Serena hotels and the Monal Restaurant in the Margalla Hills were all approved for Americans even though security concerns prevented us from eating in any of the other restaurants in town after the Luna Caprese bombing. People from the Embassy who were dining in the various restaurants in the Marriott on Saturday night tell of the waiters and waitresses who calmly led their guests out through the kitchens to safety after the explosion. Although many of these people, guests and staff alike, were bleeding and in shock there wasn't any panic in the smoke and chaos and most made it to safety.

For the time being, we aren't allowed to do anything any more. That includes all of the small freedoms we used to enjoy, such as going to the grocery store on weekdays or hiking on the one approved trail in the Margalla Hills or day trips to Taxila in armored vehicles. None of these activities are inherently more dangerous, or safer, than they were before the Marriott bombing but they are now prohibited. In this day and age, it is far better to be overly restrictive than to make a mistake. Right now our every focus is on ensuring the security and safety of our people.

The Czech ambassador was killed in the Marriott explosion and, because they don't have support staff here, the Germans offered to help repatriate his remains. They contacted us to see if we could give them a coffin. Coffins must be lead lined to be carried on airplanes and we have a small supply of them in our warehouse. We explained that we would have to charge the German Embassy for the coffin because it was an 'accountable' item in our inventory and the cost would be approximately $1,000. The Germans said they'd get back to us. Later I received a call from the French Embassy asking me if I knew of any local vendors who might sell them a lead lined coffin. They were flying the Czech ambassador home and needed a coffin. I told them that the Germans had already called about the coffin and I asked if they wanted it instead. They said, "the Germans, apparently, want to shop around". Ahh, Pakistan, everything is negotiable.

I made several attempts to get close to the Marriott to take a few pictures of the building and the crater in front of it but the police kept chasing me away. Not being one to let a couple of hundred angry nervous heavily armed Pakistani policemen deter me, I had Basharat (my driver) circle around to different approaches to the building. We were able to talk our way past the first two roadblocks and then I tried to walk in from there. Unfortunately, the police made it abundantly clear that if I didn't return to my vehicle and leave immediately, I would be given the right to remain silent, etc. The thought of having to phone the Ambassador to ask her for bail money helped me realize that I wouldn't be getting any pictures of the Marriott any time soon.

Virtually everyone here has a little countdown meter on their computer that shows how many days he or she has left on their tour. Even though I like it here and am not chomping at the bit to leave, I check my meter every once in a while like everyone else. A notable day in the timeline is the day you go into double digits and folks wander around announcing, "Ninety-nine to go!" The real countdown begins at sixty days when your official check-out list is issued and you start to mark things off. Once you hit the thirty day mark, you become a "double digit midget" and people begin asking you if you have room in your allotment for them to send stuff back with you. I'm under forty days now and have begun the rather formal process of getting my orders cut to return to Washington. I'm still trying to figure out how I'll get back because both British Airways and Lufthansa pulled out of Pakistan this week.

I was in Pakistan for the declaration of Martial Law and the ensuing riots, the attempted assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Karachi and the ensuing riots, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi and the ensuing riots, the relatively peaceful and democratic elections that returned two convicted felons to office, the steady and progressive escalation of the fundamentalist insurgency in the FATA, the targeted attack on the Principal Officer in our Consulate in Peshawar and the four above-mentioned bombings. It's been an extraordinarily interesting year and an experience that I'll never forget. We are reminded on a daily basis that Pakistan is the front line in the war on terrorism and that we are working under unique and exceptional conditions. I often am amazed that I've been given this opportunity especially at this stage of my life.

I feel like I've come full circle now. When I first arrived at Post, I walked around and didn't know any of the people I saw. Now, because this is a one year post and our turnover season is the late Summer and early Fall, I walk around and don't know any of the people I see. It's time for me to think about going home and letting the new guys have all the fun. In no time at all they'll look over at the even newer arrivals and say, "Oh, that's a bomb and now here's what we do..."

These are pictures of the Government building that was down the street a little way from the Marriott Hotel. The blast killed six men who were working late in this building.