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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.

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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.

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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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