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Bombing at supposedly safe Afghan hotel shakes all of us internationals to the core

U.S. soldiers keep watch near the Serena Hotel following a Jan. 14 suicide bomb attack that killed eight in Kabul, Afghanistan.
REUTERS/Ahmad Masood
U.S. soldiers keep watch near the Serena Hotel following a Jan. 14 suicide bomb attack that killed eight in Kabul, Afghanistan.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The Serena Hotel, which opened here in 2005, was a symbol of a reconstructed Afghanistan.

It was rebuilt from the ruins of an earlier structure with funds from the Aga Khan Development Foundation on the premise that business executives, entrepreneurs, and foreign dignitaries needed a safe and comfortable place to stay if they were to do business in Kabul. Its website touts its location in the center of the city surrounded by embassies and government offices. On Jan. 14, the hotel was the site of a suicide bomb attack in which eight people lost their lives.  

Suicide bombings are nothing new in Kabul. In late December, warnings about attacks, or possible attacks, were being broadcast several times a day by the security agencies that serve the international community. Steve, who has been here awhile, has stopped reading them. I, a relative newcomer, am obsessed.

Bombing exploded our feelings of security
But the bombing at the Serena Hotel was different from these other events. Explosions, like the one that rattled my office in mid-December, were physically close but emotionally distant. We internationals placated one another, observing that these attacks were not directed at us, but at military and government targets.  So long as we frequented safe places attended primarily by internationals such as ourselves, kept our distance from military convoys and police stations and stayed off the streets, we would be OK.  

The Serena Hotel was one of those safe places. Whenever I entered its garden, I felt my blood pressure drop.  The courtyard contains mature trees. There are a fountain and a rose garden.  In nice weather, the swimming pool draws a crowd.  The marble-and-teak lobby is decorated with Afghan carpets, divans and art objects.  The tea room is dark and cozy; the restaurant, which is said to have excellent food, is bright with fresh flowers on each table.

In other places, this would just be a nice hotel. In Kabul, The Serena was a destination. It is a place where people came to chat with a friend, to do a little business over a glass of tea or to use the well-equipped gym.  People sauntered here. They sat to chat. The place communicated a sense of comfort, calm, and safety.

Security appeared very satisfactory. Armed guards protected the entrances, and every guest went through a metal detector to enter the building.  The Serena was built to serve people like us. In the eyes of Afghans, it is a place intended for foreigners. In 2006, the Serena was the target of riots because of a mistaken belief by Afghans that the hotel served alcohol, an activity that is constitutionally forbidden to Muslims.  

By attacking The Serena, the Taliban is saying that internationals providing development assistance are vulnerable. They are saying that that assistance is unwanted. They promise to hit additional spaces used by the international community. We are pretty certain that they mean it.  They are also capturing international attention in a way that bombing another police station or blowing up a military convoy does not.  

Human malice, not human error, to blame
Like the collapse of the I-35W bridge, the Serena attack makes us all thank our lucky stars that it wasn’t us who cowered for hours in the basement waiting to be rescued or who died in the shooting. It is only chance that prevented me or Steve from being at The Serena that night. But while the bridge collapse might have resulted from human error, it was not the result of human malice. The deaths in The Serena were the result of just that.   


The international community in Kabul is large and disorganized, but its members are interconnected. People know people who know people. I imagine that every international in Kabul knew someone who was at The Serena that night – or at least knew someone who knew someone. In my case, housemate Wali’s girlfriend was there using the gym.  A woman I met casually at Thanksgiving was also there and has been much quoted in the international press.  My office mate was on good terms with the Filipina spa worker who was killed in the attack.  

The inevitable response among both organizations and individuals is to become increasingly vigilant. For some, Kabul’s handful of international restaurants is officially off-limits.  Unofficially, many of the rest of us will simply stay home. This has the effect of making time in Kabul seem like house arrest.

 I had planned to walk the half-block from my house to the medical clinic today to get a flu shot but have decided that the flu affords less risk than the walk. Not everyone reacts in the same way, of course. One of my housemates bristles at the idea that she should change her behavior and will continue on as she has in the past.  But I want to be at my daughter’s wedding in Minnesota in August and so will take precautions.  

At dinner the night of the explosion, the talk was of little else. We worried aloud about Wali’s friend and wondered who else might be at The Serena.  We talked about how things are getting worse. We sought out both local and international news sources, hoping to keep up with developments. We put on brave faces on behalf of a couple of short-timers here for a matter of weeks or days. Actually, the brave faces were probably for one another. We consumed a fair amount of wine.

No one speaks openly about leaving, but everyone must be trying to figure the risk. I know that we are. Steve and I both pride ourselves in following through on our commitments, and we are contractually committed to remain in Afghanistan until the end of summer. But we read in the American press that conditions in Afghanistan are “deteriorating.” If so, is our work here justified?  Can a society be rebuilt if the safety of the architects, engineers, and construction workers can’t be guaranteed?  And if one of the most visible symbols of that reconstruction is attacked, does it undermine the significance of the enterprise? 

We are not packing our bags. But, we know where they are.

Meg Swanson and Steve Swanson currently are working on rule-of-law projects in Kabul, Afghanistan. Meg is on leave from her position as a professor of theater at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Steve is a retired Hennepin County District Court judge.


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