First-hand Account of the Serena Hotel Bombing in Kabul

Last Monday, the 14th, the Taliban launched a four-prong attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul, Afganistan. Three suicide bombers detonated their explosives, and one militant stormed the hotel and, according to an article in Time Magazine, “rampaged through the marble halls, spraying bullets until he reached his destination, the gym.”

Eight people died.

Shortly after the bombing, a friend of mine received an e-mail from a woman he had known since childhood. She was working for some organization over there, and had been in the hotel when it was attacked. Since then, the message she sent out to her friends has been reproduced on other sites, and she is apparently due to make an appearance on NPR to talk about what she witnessed. I’ve asked to reproduce it here.

Here is the text of what my friend sent out at 5:19pm on Monday:

The hotel bombing in Kabul … my friend was there. She is someone I have known since I was 11. Here is her letter. It arrived in my Inbox at 5:08, so this is as close to real-time as we can get.

Hi all,

An hour ago I was rescued from the basement of the Serena Hotel in Kabul by ISAF forces. I’m a member of the gym there and had gone to work out. I’d just gone into the reception area to ask for an internet access card when several blasts shook the building and I and the only other person in the reception, a woman from the Phillipines who worked in the hotel spa, heard gunfire and grenades. A young man who also works for the hotel ran in screaming that there was someone shooting people in the hotel lobby. He ran into a back room and I ducked behind a desk as the sounds got louder, and the shooting more rapid. I peered out from the side of the desk as a man, dressed as a member of the Afghan security forces with a long beard came from the men’s locker area, firing an AK-47. He turned his head, saw me crouched behind the desk, looked directly at me and then fired into the chest of the other woman. She fell to the ground and he ran out, stepping over her body. As I sit here now, I still don’t know why he didn’t shoot me. I heard more gunshots and someone screaming in agony as he ran down the hall.

Hiding under the desk, I noticed a list of hotel phone extensions and I pulled the phone down and tried to call for help, but no one answered. If no one was answering any major extension, it had to mean that something major had happened in another part of the hotel. The gunfire continued and bits of the plaster from the ceiling started to come down. I was at one completely present and totally outside of the situation. At one point, I looked down at my hand to see if it was shaking, but it was rock steady. Feeling too exposed, I crawled along the floor to the back room where the young man had run. Inside were a series of other doors, and on the other side of one I could hear people speaking English. I pounded and yelled for help. A voice yelled back that someone on the other side had been shot and they were administering CPR, but that he would try to break down the door to get to me. Unlike in the movies, doors with steel locks are a bit harder to break and he couldn’t get through. Just as he was making a last attempt, a back elevator door opened, and the young man who had run through reception before called to me to get in. I did, and we went down to hide in a freezing dark storage room in the basement of the hotel.

As soon as we had concealed ourselves there, I realized that my phone, which has in it all of my emergency contacts was still up in the gym. I told the young man, Ahmet, to stay hidden and took the elevator back up. Two men in flack jackets marked “press” were in the reception area standing over the body, taking photos. “She’s gone.” one told me, and I sprinted into the gym area, grabbed my phone and ran back to ask what was going on. One of the journalists told me that there had been a suicicde bombing at the hotel and that gunmen were on the loose inside the building. They told me that the area had not been secured, and that they had no other information. So, I made a decision that was to save my life for a second time tonight, and retreated to the basement. From there, I called ANSO, the group that provides security assitance to NGO workers in Afghanistan and told them where I was hiding. They told me not to worry, that the bomber had detonated outside the hotel and that everything was under control. “I just saw a gunman shoot a woman right in front of me and there is gunfire in the hotel!” “Are you sure?” one of them asked. I hung up. After that, I started texting my friends in different organizations to ask for help. Overhead, we heard shooting, screams and footsteps but couldn’t make out exactly what was happening.

Ahmet’s brother works for the Iraqi military and was with the ISAF forces that entered the building. Using my phone, he described our location. Over the next two and a half hours, we got periodic updates from ANSO, my friends gathering information from the news, the U.S. Embassy and various Afghan ministries, and Ahmet’s brother. They all offered the same advice. “Stay put and out of sight until the building is secured and then ISAF will come to get you.” A few times we heard people in the corridors nearby, but no one came to our location and we turned our phones to silent and hid in the back of the room. The basement got increasingly cold, and Ahmet started to worry about his co-workers. He tried to reach his supervisor on the phone, but couldn’t get through. “She is a very nice woman,” he told me. “She comes from the Phillipines.” I confirmed the physical description and that she had been standing in the reception area when he first came through, yelling about the shooter. Then I had to tell him that she was dead.

Every few minutes, one of us would try to text someone on the outside, either to get information or let them know that we were ok. Ahmet also called his brother at regular intervals, and though he received reassurances that help was on the way, we sat in the basement for several hours. Finally, a call came, and we stepped out into the hall. Two rag-tag looking Afghan soldiers, a hotel employee, and a heavily armed U.S. solider who identified himself as being with the F.B.I. came towards us, weapons drawn. They were clearly on edge, and there seemed to be some disagreement as to where to take us. The American took charge and calmly asked me for my name, contact details and a brief overview of what had happened. I confirmed that I was a U.S. citizen and he led me through basement tunnels until we reached a staircase that led to the lobby of the hotel.

The lobby was swarming with ISAF forces, all heavily armed. The windows of the hotel were shattered and there was glass everywhere. Behind the reception desk, I noticed three large blood stains soaking through towels on the floor. The corridor ahead that led back to the gym was splattered with large red streaks and blood was congealing in ugly pools on the floor. Still dressed in my gym clothes, I started shivering and was given a jacket and asked to give a statement to security personnel from the U.S. Embassy who were on the scene. As I talked to a solider with a notebook, others began bringing bodies in, along with frightened looking Afghan employees who had been found hiding in parts of the hotel. I explained that my passport, credit cards and computer were all still inthe gym and asked if someone could escort me back when it was secured. After another half hour, a U.S. soldier took me back.

When I walked into the recepetion area, I stopped, stunned. The body of the woman I had seen die was gone, but the rest of the room was riddled with bullet holes and there were several large pools of blood all around the room. “You had two shooters,” I said, “or the guy came back.” Over the next hour, I walked two other ISAF soldiers through the scene and explained that the seond round of killings (apparently the gunman came though the men’s locker room again and killed several people just after I had returned to the basement for the second time) had happened after the the women had died. Then I watched the grainy surveilance footage from the security cameras and was at least able to confirm that the guy on tape shooting up the hotel lobby looked very similar to the one I had seen shoot the woman in the gym’s reception area.

The hotel was under lockdown and for a while there seemed to be no way out. Then some ambulance workers came and handed me their cell phone. They were subcontractors for the security firm that works for my friends organization and they had come to retrieve one of their own employees. My friend had convineced them to take me as well, and so I walked out to where the bomb had detonated outside the front of the hotel, past dozens of ISAF tanks, and into an ambulance that brought me back to my friend’s guest house, where I am now.

Tonight was the closest I have ever come to death, and the longest I have ever had to consider the real posibility that my death might be imminent. I didn’t have a religious awakening, and I can find no good reason why I am alive, and so many others who went to that same hotel and same gym are dead. But I am terribly terribly glad to be here. And so I wanted to reach out to all of you, and remind you to make the most of your lives and to enjoy the people you hold dear. And I wanted to extend a thanks, though words fail me a bit here, to those who called and texted while I was in that basement, and who gave me encouragement and tried to help get me out.

Tonight, I have decided to take a job with an organization here that has a security profile much like the one of the organization I worked for in Iraq — a fortified compound, armed guards, minimal travel and movement. It means a completely different way of living, and of interacting with the world. Still, I hope that it will allow me to make a needed difference in this place. I hope that this country will not go the way of Iraq, but I’m sure that I’m not the only one here who sees this as a dramatic event that will shift the security situation on the ground. This tragedy will have broader-reaching implication, not only for me, but for the country of Afghanistan. I wanted to reach out to you all tonight to make the events here seem a bit more real, to tell you my story, and to let you know that I am alive and thinking of my friends and family around the world.

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