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Documentary : Checking in at Somalia's Hotel Hell : Bring your own soap. Tarantulas, roaches and tropical diseases are gratis. And the room is $85 a night.

December 22, 1992|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOGADISHU, Somalia — There's no charge for the tarantula, Mohammed Jirdeh assured. It comes with the closet. The two-inch flying roaches are free. And so are the meals--camel meat, mostly, or the occasional mysterious entree we call "today's road kill."

There is running water a few hours a day, but rarely before midnight. There's electricity, thanks to the thundering generator in the courtyard. And there are towels, sheets and floor mattresses; this is perhaps the only commercial structure in Somalia that has them. But no room service. No brooms. No soap. No toilet tissue. No maid.

There are a dozen satellite dishes and telephones on the roof that, for a mere $46 a minute, can connect you with any country in the world--except Somalia. There are virtually no other phones left in Somalia to be connected to.

All this, for just $85 a night.

Welcome to the Hotel Sahafi--Arabic for journalist --where the receipts advertise "Comfort, Safety, Luxury for Business or Discreet Weekends . "

The hotel is the brainchild of prominent Somali businessman Jirdeh, a towering and worldly figure who, on the eve of the U.S. Marine landing in a city where almost every structure has been gutted or leveled in two years of punishing civil war, transformed this 58-room shell into, well, a modified 58-room shell. In the heart of anarchy, he didn't have much to work with, but he has provided security and made the hotel a relative oasis of safety.

It is from here that much of the world press--including Times photographer Bob Carey, fellow Times correspondent Scott Kraft and I--has been covering the United Nations' extraordinary experiment called Restore Hope, a U.S.-led military intervention that is employing an overwhelming armed force to save a desperate nation from itself.

In many ways, the rawness of the Hotel Sahafi has been an asset for the Western and Asian correspondents descending on Mogadishu, most accustomed to tactical retreats from urban battlefields to the nearest five-star hotels. Jirdeh unwittingly has brought the press corps closer to the roots of the Somali tragedy, the despair, brutality and extortion that have held nearly 1 million Somalis hostage in this capital for two years.

The hotel is an excellent contact point for the diseases that are now more deadly than hunger for a famine-weakened nation. At any moment, half its guests are down with diarrhea, bacterial infections and the early symptoms of malaria.

Just a few feet outside, a Somali woman suspected of cavorting with French Foreign Legion troops was stripped naked and beaten.

Starving children sit empty-eyed every morning in a refugee camp of straw hovels across the street. Preteens mad from war demand cigarettes in the street with the poke of a finger and a gun.

Indeed, several journalists have had their pockets picked or been robbed at gunpoint right outside the hotel gate. Others have been threatened. And all have had to shell out thousands of dollars for free-lance "technicals," the armed jeeps and pickup trucks that provide a semblance of protection in a city with no law.

Clearly, the madness, mayhem and misery of Mogadishu already have left a profound and lasting personal imprint on the Western media dispatched to record it all. Many of us are veterans of world disasters both natural and man-made, while others are first-timers. Times photographer Bob Carey, for example, who spent the last two weeks tirelessly navigating the guns and framing the pain of both Mogadishu and the starving Somali countryside after a career confined largely to Southern California, had this reaction:

"I will never, ever take civilization for granted again."

It is, in fact, the totality of the tragedy that makes Somalia so painful. Through a decade of reporting in Africa and Asia, Kraft and I have seen worse one-shot horrors: thousands of Indians gassed to death by a leak at the Union Carbide Corp. plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984; massacres in township violence in South Africa; tens of thousands of bloated bodies floating in Bangladesh's flood-swollen waters, and Afghanistan's rapid descent into bloody anarchy when shell-shocked Kabul was carved up by warring rebel factions.

But Somalia offers bits of the worst of all of it on the broadest possible scale--a nation that has destroyed itself piece by piece on every conceivable level. And, after two weeks in a nation where armed thugs had stolen or broken even the last light bulb, wire or vital morsel of grain, where there's just no line between the guns that guard you and those that will kill, there is the constant sense of living the surreal in a cinematic slice of hell.

"This place," a CBS-TV producer concluded on a satellite call to New York after a day of death threats and disasters, "is just far too weird for words."

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