Liberian Hotelier Survives War With Cunning, CNN

Mamba Point's manager appeases fighters with food, his shoes, even hot-wired cars

'How's the lobster?" manager Imad Aoun asks a table of clients as he strolls through the dining room of the Mamba Point Hotel.

They smile and lift their glasses in approval. Outside, five of Liberia's ragtag militia groups are pounding each other in yet another round of the worst fighting in the capital, Monrovia, since the civil war began in late 1989.

The looting that comes with the fighting has stripped clean virtually every home and business here. But through savvy and a bit of diplomacy, Mr. Aoun's hotel so far has remained an odd oasis.

The first time the fighters came to the hotel, they demanded the shoes off Aoun's feet. Then it was jewelry. Then they wanted the cars in the hotel parking lot, most of which had been left without their keys by fleeing owners.

"We became professionals," hotel owner Chawki Besaibes says. "Every day we would break into two cars to prepare them. When the looters came back, we would show them how to start the cars, and they would take them."

Some of the teenage thieves didn't actually know how to drive, so Mr. Besaibes put the cars on the road for them.

Throughout town, the evidence of the looters' lack of driving skill is splayed on roadsides, and hospitals are treating larger than usual numbers of traffic-accident victims.

When the hotel parking lot was emptied, Besaibes and Aoun cut another deal. Now the fighters are paid each day - the amount depends on the number of guests - and they get leftovers from the most well-stocked kitchen in town outside the United States Embassy.

They also get an occasional ego boost. After one nasty clash in front of the hotel, several T-shirted soldiers came inside to watch themselves on CNN.

On the front porch, a few guard-fighters sit on laid-back duty. One sleeps all day on a foam mattress, a bandage around his arm. Victor Slobor sits shirtless in blue jeans. At age 19, he is a veteran, having left school to fight six years ago.

"I have to fight, because I was born to fight," he says with a serious look. "I want to be a complete military man."

Besaibes's Liberian employees now sleep on the floor of the hotel. They worry what will happen to them if the fighting keeps up and the foreign clients leave. Their next-best refuge is across from the US Embassy, where about 10,000 Liberians camp on a muddy hillside.

Aoun and Besaibes are Lebanese. There used to be thousands of Lebanese in Monrovia, hardy entrepreneurs who left their own war-torn country only to find themselves stuck in another one. Most of them evacuated. If they don't return, Monrovia will have lost much of its economic backbone.

Liberia has already lost all of its international relief workers. Supplies of medicine and food are dwindling.

Even the bountiful menu at the Mamba Point Hotel gets smaller each day. Aoun hopes someone will figure out a way to ship in food before his stocks run out in a couple of weeks.

Meantime, every burst of gunfire brings a curious group of hotel residents to the building's front windows. The sounds of shells send them scurrying back against the bar. When it quiets again, Besaibes shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head with a comforting smile.

"I'm always optimistic. That's my problem," Besaibes says, laughing. "I keep saying it can't get worse than it is, but it keeps getting worse."

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