Innkeeper's log chronicles ebb and flow of Iraq war

Baghdad's Johara Hotel, which was once a meeting place for foreign journalists and aid workers, is now filled to capacity with Iraqis who still can't go home.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Johara Hotel: Osama Johara, the manager of the Johara Hotel, says his motel was once full of foreigners. Now it's filled up with Iraqis who are among the country's 2.7 million internally displaced.
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The Johara Hotel was a backpacker's delight. Rooms were just $12 at the tiny, 10-room inn that was part youth hostel and part rooming house. European, Asian, and American tourists stayed there, even as embargoes tightened on Iraq ahead of the invasion.

When war came, the Johara was the unofficial residence for freelance reporters, aid workers, and activists. But eventually they checked out – or left Iraq altogether – as Baghdad grew more dangerous.

Osama Johara has been forced to close his hotel twice during the war. Today, however, he has a full roster of guests. All of them are Iraqis, however, who for one reason or another have been driven from their homes and are still unable to return.

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In many ways, Mr. Johara's hotel registry tells the story of the war. When the insurgency terrorized the city, guests vanished and the Johara closed. Now that car bombings and kidnappings are scarcer, he faces one of Iraq's biggest unresolved issues: What to do with its refugees from the war.

Located in the heart of downtown Baghdad, just a short walk from Firdos Square – home to the Saddam Hussein statue that US Marines toppled in 2003 – the inn has become a high-end refugee camp.

In early 2007 guests began arriving regularly again after Johara shut his doors in mid-2005. With virtually all foreigners staying in major hotels with large security budgets or private compounds, only some of Iraq's 2.7 million internally displaced people were willing to stay in Johara's inn in the city's Karada district.

"Although sectarian violence spread across the country, people thought that Karada was safe," says Johara. "Some people didn't want to go to Syria or another country, so they came to Karada and our business came back to life."

The refugees, predominately from different neighborhoods within Baghdad that are less stable than Karada, represent Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd. Johara says he's never had a problem with ethnic tensions among his guests.

His major concern about the refugees is whether they'll continue to make rent every month. While he usually manages to collect, he occasionally has to reduce rates by the equivalent of a few dollars per night.

"We lose with these Iraqis, because they don't pay their rent, so I've had to lower prices," he says.

Like millions of Iraqis, the innkeeper has been hostage to the ebb and flow of violence in Iraq, which has been anything but consistent.

"When the Americans entered Iraq, we closed up the hotel and left it because there was a war and there was no one in the building," he says. "I expected it would take at least a year before I could reopen."

But, when signs of calm began to appear only several months after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, Johara saw a new group of potential foreign clients arriving: journalists and aid workers.

Initially, most gravitated to the country's two landmark hotels, the Sheraton and the Palestine Hotel, the most secure accommodations available at the time. But at roughly $80 a night, it wasn't long before a number of freelance journalists and aid workers on a budget needed something more affordable.

Soon the Johara Hotel was once again an international mixing place.

"When I saw foreigners coming back, I hoped it was going to be a sign that the situation was improving in a big way, but the opposite happened," says Johara.

Although he wanted to make improvements to the hotel in the wake of the war just keeping it running took all his energy. For example, city power was too irregular to rely on, so he had to start using his generator more, which meant doing daily maintenance on it and buying more fuel. Purchasing more fuel meant possibly spending the night in gas station lines or taking his chances with black market gasoline.

"We never raised our rates, because we didn't want to drive away customers," he says. But when he had to hire two guards for the hotel, it forced him to increase prices by $4 a night.

It wasn't until guests began having run-ins with insurgents, though, that Johara's business began to suffer. Militants abducted three Australian aid workers who lived in his hotel when they made a trip to Fallujah. Fortunately, the insurgents released them unharmed, but unfortunately for Johara within two weeks they'd checked out of the hotel and left Iraq all together.

Several weeks later, a Korean checked in. Within two days he'd been kidnapped and beheaded by the insurgents.

"I was afraid the insurgents would come after me," says Johara. "I thought they might accuse me of being his [the Korean's] translator or question me about why I let foreigners live in my building. I was afraid they would try to kill me."

Soon there was only one Westerner left in the hotel, a French aid worker, but in mid-2005 the French embassy forcibly evacuated. Shortly after that all the Iraqi guests checked out as well.

In the interim, until the refugees began checking in in 2007, he supported himself by working as a generator repairman, occasionally opening the hotel in case anyone came.

Although he's not certain when his international customers will come back, Johara looks forward to their return.

"Life is a circle," he says. "Iraq is still open for everyone, and the Iraqis still welcome anyone who comes here.… Now I'm just like a farmer waiting for my crops to sprout."

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