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As Much as Any Place in Asia, the Marriott in Islamabad Was Home -
Letter from South Asia
By Kim Barker, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

September, 22, 2008 - As much as any place in Asia, the Marriott in Islamabad was home.

Not just for me--for almost every foreigner in Pakistan's capital. And with its destruction and the killing of at least 53 people in a brazen suicide attack Saturday, the country will be a sadder place.

Many foreigners will likely give up and leave. The families and friends of those killed in the attack--many of whom worked at the hotel--will have to somehow heal. The government will have to convince the world that it can fight terrorism as the country seems to slowly slip into the abyss.

There have been bigger suicide bombs with higher death tolls in Pakistan, but this attack went to the heart of the capital, one of the few places people were supposed to feel safe. Pakistani families brought their children there. Businessmen held meetings there. Foreigners found an oasis there.

Pakistan has never been the kind of war zone that Afghanistan and Iraq were--at least not the capital, with its carefully groomed boulevards and sleepy night life.

But in the past 18 months, throughout the political turmoil that led to the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf and the election of President Asif Ali Zardari, throughout the deepening economic and power crises, throughout all the challenges this country has faced, the militants have gotten stronger. They have moved out of the tribal areas and now seem to be able to attack anywhere.

No one seems sure how to stop them. In recent weeks, under U.S. pressure, the Pakistani army has stepped up its offensive in the tribal areas. But at the same time, cross-border attacks by the United States have only angered average Pakistanis.

Everyone I talked to after the Marriott bombing sounded resigned.

"How should Pakistan respond?" asked a frustrated Talad Masood, a retired general and security analyst who has always said the country must fight militants. "What do we do? If we keep fighting, you see what happens. If we don't fight, you see what happens."

On Saturday, I was in India on assignment. But if I had been in Islamabad, I easily could have been at the Marriott. All foreigners in Islamabad ended up there, even though the hotel had been attacked twice before. After a popular Italian restaurant a couple of miles from the Marriott was bombed in March, after other restaurants closed for security fears, the Marriott remained.

I knew the security guards outside, who politely and repeatedly looked under the hood of every car and searched every trunk. I knew the men outside the front door, who always smiled as they rushed to open car doors. The women and men near the X-ray machine just inside, who always asked how everyone was. The women who worked in the gym.

I wonder how many of them are dead.

The Marriott was the first place I walked into on my first foreign assignment in January 2002. I used to stay there. After renting a house in Islamabad, I joined the hotel gym. I ate at hotel restaurants two or three times a week--the Japanese restaurant for lunch, the Thai restaurant for dinner.

The five-story hotel was a bit run-down, a bit grubby with its faded Soviet-style architecture. It was not as fancy as the capital's other five-star hotel, the Serena. But this Marriott was reliable, sturdy and familiar.

The bombers hit as Pakistanis were breaking their daily fast during Ramadan. It was an unthinkable time for such an attack--Ramadan is considered a time of reflection, not fighting. And to strike during this mealtime was seen as particularly heinous.

I can picture the guards and drivers outside--taking turns eating dates and samosas, smoking cigarettes and drinking water. And inside the hotel, in the huge banquet hall, the elite Pakistanis, seated around tables with white linens, piled with snacks. Laughing, eating, everyone's guard was down. Then the truck exploded, shattering any place or idea of sanctuary.

Kim Barker is the Tribune's South Asia correspondent.

kbarker@tribune.com

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