Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Saturday, 16 May 2009 12:04 UK

Ghosts of Amman bring back memories

Many reporters stayed at the Marriott hotel in the Jordanian capital Amman on the way in or out of Baghdad, particularly in the run-up to the first Gulf War. When Jeremy Bowen revisited the place recently he realised it was full of ghosts.

Jeremy Bowen reporting from Kosovo, 1992
A younger Jeremy covering another dark story - the war in Kosovo

I am staying in a haunted hotel. My room is on the third floor, 321 to be precise, but the ghosts are not just here.

They are by the front door, in the car park, in the lobby, the restaurants, the lifts and corridors.

Of course I cannot see them - but I can feel them. I am pretty certain that the other people staying here cannot.

That is because they are ghosts from a particular time, a special time, when those other guests were not here.

How could they have been? Then the place was full of journalists, waiting to go to a war.

Now there are some Germans, academics by the look of them, at a conference about the Middle East.

American tourists dressed in crumpled khaki, and middle-aged couples, silent in the lift on their way to their rooms at the hour when I used to think it was time to wonder about dinner and a few more beers.

Excitement and fear

My ghost life in this hotel is stuck in the winter of 1990-91.

It was cold. Sometimes it snowed, and outside my window the grey concrete of Amman rolled away to the east, to the desert highway that led to Baghdad.

It was the biggest break, the biggest story and the biggest adventure he had ever had

My ghosts are not frightening. They are the people who were here, in this hotel, 19 years ago. Lots of them were friends of mine.

There was a big party just before we left for Baghdad. Drinking and dancing. Tension, excitement and fear.

We were young, the war was on and the road was being bombed, and we were going to drive down it.

In the lobby I can see Brian Hulls, a brilliant cameraman. As his visa had not come through he filmed us leaving for Baghdad, and joked the video was for our obituaries.

He died from cancer in 1996. Was that a better way to go than another news cameraman - a legend really - Rory Peck?

He was shot dead during a gun battle at the main TV station in Moscow in 1993, two years after he and I and my great BBC friend Allan Little said goodbye to Brian and drove into Baghdad.

Most of my ghosts are not dead though. They now have other lives somewhere else.

But the way we all were haunts this building, and my mind.

'Horribly fresh'

There are plenty of hotels around the world in places that were once trouble spots.

The remains of Iraqi soldiers killed during different wars are made ready for burial close to Basra  (file photo)
The Gulf War had a devastating effect on Iraq’s economy and society

Or like Amman, jumping-off points on the way to trouble which were full of journalists and which went back to their old ways when the war ended and the news circus left town.

I have passed back through a few of them, but they have never had the ghost population that this place has this week.

I have been in Amman dozens of times since 1991 - it is a Middle Eastern crossroads. But this is the first time back to this hotel.

I have been staying in the newer ones, which are not haunted.

Perhaps the reason why the ghosts here feel so close is because of the time it was - that winter of 1990-91 - when the world that we live in now was being created.

The old world that stretched back to World War II had ended the year before with the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

No Cold War meant no mutually-assured nuclear destruction, so that freed the winners up for action that they probably would not have taken a few years earlier.

The war that was starting in Iraq has never finished, just changed shape and eaten up another generation.

And these days there is no novelty about troops from Britain going to a major war a long way from home.

But in 1990 it was horribly fresh. The Falklands War, in 1982, transfixed and divided the country, but it was over fairly quickly and it seemed like a throwback to the time of empire.

Troubled new world

In 1990, Britain was frantically ordering desert camouflage uniforms. After the withdrawal from east of Suez in the late 1960s they had stopped making them, and even sold the surplus ones to Iraq.

And all my colleagues who were in this hotel then, and who I can feel now, were trying to make sense of the time that we were in.

map

We realised that something new was beginning, but of course we could not have known how the world was going to change.

This hotel's haunted corridors make me think about all the dead people I saw at the other end of the highway in Baghdad that winter and spring, and all the others since.

In the backs of ambulances and in stinking hospital corridors, on battlefields and in mortuaries, dead in the troubled new world that I have spent the years since then reporting.

And there is another ghost I keep sensing in this hotel. It is a young journalist, excited and quite scared about the prospect of driving to Baghdad on a road that was being attacked by the Americans.

He had a birthday here, his 31st, just a few days before he set out, and wondered whether it would be his last, and wrote letters he left in a bag with his running shoes, for his family in case he was killed.

Nothing would have stopped him going though. It was the biggest break, the biggest story and the biggest adventure he had ever had.

That ghost is me.

How to listen to: From our own Correspondent



SEE ALSO
Country profile: Jordan
18 Oct 11 |  Country profiles


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