Frontline: Kabul International Hotel - Will the last guest turn out the lights...

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The Independent Online
THE VIEW from the Kabul International Hotel is still one of the best in Asia. From its balconies you look out, over the tops of pine trees, to see almost all of Afghanistan's capital laid out below. The ochre walls of the Bala Hissar fort - under which a British army camped more than 150 years ago - rise up from among the low, flat buildings, many of which are in ruins. In the distance are bleak, dusty hills that turn red at sundown.

The view has been part of Mohammed Ghaffar's life for 29 years, ever since he started work as a telephone operator at the hotel when it was opened by King Zahir Shah's prime minister on 2 September, 1969. In just under two weeks Ghaffar, now proud to be the front office manager, will mark the anniversary with a small prayer.

"It only seems fair," he said. "After all, the hotel and I have gone through a lot together."

However, the hotel shows its past in a way that Ghaffar, with his ready smile, creased brown skin, new turban and clean, pressed clothes, does not. Of the 300 rooms, less than a tenth are in working order and most of the windows, blown out by explosions, are covered in plastic sheeting. There is rarely more than a single guest.

And like an old woman who has not changed her wardrobe for 30 years, the hotel is like an apparition from another age. There can be few collectors of Seventies kitsch who would be prepared to trek this far, but if they did they would be richly rewarded.

The smoked glass globe lamps still hang above the plastic wood veneer tables in the Bamyan Brasserie - named after a nearby province that is currently the scene of heavy fighting. The swirls of the green and blue floral curtains still clash horrendously with the orange carpet in Le Cavalier lounge bar and the sign pointing the way to the defunct basement beauty salon, sauna and "businessman's center" is unchanged but for some scrawled graffiti reading: "Islamic Revolution, Long Live the Taliban". The only thing missing is the piped music.

Ghaffar remembers very different times. "When we opened we had a great big party", he said. "The hotel was absolutely packed. The ballroom was full to overflowing and there was drinking and dancing all night."

The hotel, Ghaffar said, was built by the American PanAm corporation and was known throughout central Asia as a place to have a good time.

"We had the Pamir roof-top restaurant with a swimming pool and a bar with Italian bar staff who knew how to make all the latest cocktails. We had a Sri Lankan jazz band up there playing every night until 2am and often the best bands from Russia or the Middle East would be hired for a week or so.

"The men would all wear suits and the women used to wear these miniskirts and they used to drink so much that sometimes we had to carry them back to their rooms."

Now, of course, things are very different in Kabul. The Taliban have banned all alcohol and ordered that women cover themselves from head to foot in the tent-like burqa when they leave their homes. Dancing and music are forbidden. Vicious police from the absurdly named Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue enforce the law with lashings, beatings and instant imprisonment.

It is a while since the hotel has seen any partying. The good times effectively finished when the Russians invaded in 1979, although the hotel - now run by Afghans - remained busy. Eastern Bloc diplomats and trade delegations from Marxist regimes all over the world joined Russian bureaucrats and generals in its slightly damp corridors. The Intourist posters still remain, peeling gently.

"But the Russians were different. They just liked to sit around and drink vodka and sing songs," Ghaffar said. "Business was still good, though. When the management was pleased with us we used to go off into the countryside for a picnic laid on for all the staff."

By 1992 the Russians had gone and the mujahedin had fought their way into Kabul. One former guest remembers barefoot soldiers sleeping on the floor in reception, their weapons spread around them and commanders, arriving in the capital after years in the hills, demanding lunch from flustered waiters.

As fighting between rival factions broke out, the situation deteriorated. There were no guests and the hotel's hill-top location attracted rockets instead of sightseers.

"I spent a lot of time in the basement," said Ghaffar, who thinks he is about 55. "A rocket destroyed the swimming pool and the roof-top restaurant and another killed three of my friends when it landed in the fountain outside the front door. It knocked down the flagposts as well.

"But what I am proudest of is that I have never left Kabul. Everyone else has gone for at least some time but I have been here through everything. The hotel and I have watched nine regimes come and go," he said, counting them off on his fingers.