A Howland native details how he barely survived a deadly Kabul hotel attack

On March 20, four gunmen smuggled weapons past multiple security checkpoints and opened fire on those inside the Serena Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan. Nine people were killed. Howland native Rokey Suleman said he should have been the 10th victim.

“Dumb luck and the help of three different individuals helped me get through that,” he said.

Two of those individuals didn’t survive the night.

The job

Suleman, who was deputy director of the Trumbull County Board of Elections from 2004 to 2008, was in Afghanistan working for the National Democratic Institute, an international organization with the mission to promote openness and accountability in government.

Since 2005 Suleman, 45, has traveled to Kazakhstan, Belarus, Macedonia, Mongolia, Russia, Egypt, Nepal and the country of Georgia on short-term and long-term missions for NDI as well as the Carter Institute and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

He arrived in Afghanistan on Feb. 26 and expected to be there for 2 1/2 months for the country’s elections, which were held Saturday. Suleman said it was the first opportunity for the country to have a peaceful transition in its government decided by a vote of its citizens.

He was the only American on an international team of about 18 members.

“Each person had a different role,” he said. “My role was security analysis.”

In addition to ensuring the safety of voters, Suleman was investigating the integrity of the election itself, making sure the proper protocols were in place to prevent ballot stuffing and any other election tampering.

They traveled to meetings in armored SUVs with private, unarmed security forces.

“If you want armed security, you must hire the Afghan National Police Force, and a lot of people don’t trust them.”

The Serena Hotel

The international NDI workers stayed at the Serena Hotel in Kabul. It is located behind a protective wall. All the exterior windows have glass designed to withstand a bomb blast.

Guests were told that 60 armed guards patrolled the perimeter of the hotel at all times and another 30 guards were stationed inside. Any vehicle entering the complex had to go through four checkpoints, and all vehicles and passengers were searched for bombs and weapons.

“It met United Nations standards for security protection,” Suleman said. “It was considered the safest hotel in Kabul. That’s why we were staying there.”

His first day at the hotel, Suleman was briefed on security protocols and was shown how to access a “safe room” with steel doors located below the hotel kitchen in the basement.

“It was my first time in Afghanistan, and I felt safe. I felt it was a secure enough area,” Suleman said.

”We all expected any attack to be an external attack on the hotel, a suicide bomber, that kind of thing. No one saw an attack being perpetrated from inside of the hotel.”

However, NDI gave each of its international staff members a helmet and a flak jacket to keep in their rooms.

Rising tension

There were signs the Taliban was increasing its efforts to disrupt the upcoming elections.

In January, 21 people were killed by a suicide bomber and gunmen at Taverna du Liban, a popular restaurant with Westerners.

On March 11, a Swedish radio correspondent was gunned down on the streets of Kabul while interviewing people about the Taverna bombing.

“It was the first time when a civilian was targeted on the street, so things were changing,” Suleman said.

Among the precautionary measures taken by NDI, workers varied the time they left the Serena Hotel each morning to make the three- to four-mile drive to their offices so as not to follow a predictable routine.

And no one could travel without security.

“We weren’t allowed free travel at all in the country.”

Luis Duarte

One of the co-workers Suleman spent time with was Luis Maria Duarte, 33, a former diplomat from Paraguay on his third NDI mission in Afghanistan. Duarte played bass in a Beatles tribute band in Paraguay, and the two bonded over their mutual love of music.

“I told him I had 36,000 songs on my iPod and computer,” Suleman said. “Music is an important part of my life. Music is what brings me comfort and joy, and it was nice to find a kindred spirit over there who loved his music as much as I did.”

Along with music, the two would talk politics – Duarte had dreams of being president of Paraguay and Suleman joked that one day he would go to his homeland and help run his campaign – and he would tease him about his girlfriend, especially after Duarte shaved off his scruffy beard when his girlfriend objected to his appearance following a Skype conversation.

March 20

Nothing out of the ordinary happened that day at work. Suleman met with the minister of the interior and the Afghan police, and worked on reports before they made the trip back to the Serena Hotel around 4:30 p.m. Because Afghanistan is a Muslim country and Friday is a holy day, the work week runs Sunday through Thursday.

Suleman was working out in the hotel gym when he got a text from Duarte. Some of their co-workers were going to the U.N. compound, but others decided to stay at the hotel and celebrate the Persian New Year. Duarte invited him to meet them in the coffee shop. Suleman took a shower and headed downstairs.

“One thing I did do that I’m really thankful for is I had dress shoes on with jeans. I thought, ‘It’s the weekend. I’m putting my Chuck Taylors (tennis shoes) on (instead).'”

There was no alcohol at the hotel, so they “celebrated” the new year with milkshakes, but the group enjoyed a quiet night off work and even took a photograph together to remember the occasion.

About 8:30 p.m., the women decided to go back to their hotel rooms. Suleman said he wanted to get something to eat in the restaurant. Duarte said he’d go with him.

The attack

Suleman and Duarte were eating and talking about the music of Harry Nilsson and his connection to The Beatles when they heard shouting and what sounded like plates breaking.

“I looked over my shoulder and saw a guy, and it looked like he was flipping over a table, and I heard popping sounds. I thought there was a fight breaking out.”

Then they saw what appeared to be a body on the ground and realized the popping sounds were gunshots.

The two scrambled for safety. Duarte hid behind a dessert station at the buffet.

“I looked to my right and there was a family huddled around a table. I looked over, and the man motioned for me to come over where they were. I scrambled on my hands and knees to get over and huddle with the family.”

The man was Sardar Ahmed, a well-known Afghan journalist who was there with his wife and three children, ages 6, 5 and 2.

The two gunmen started walking up to the people in the restaurant and shooting them at point-blank range.

“There was no emotion in these guys’ faces. No joy, no dread, no sadness. Completely emotionless eyes. Just walking around. Pop, pop. Shoot twice. Shoot twice, then stop to reload.”

He saw one of the men walk up to where Duarte was and fire. He couldn’t see him behind the dessert island, but Suleman thought his friend was shot.

Seconds later, Duarte got up and ran into the kitchen.

Then one of the gunmen approached the table where Suleman and Ahmed’s family were.

“At that moment, the journalist says something. I don’t know what he said But it made the gunman walking directly to the table pause, turn and shoot two other people. These were the two Canadian women who were killed.

“Then he had to reload. At the time both were reloading, I had the most clear thought I’ve ever had in my life: I’m not going to die here today. And I ran.”

Suleman dashed to the kitchen. A cook pointed to his right. Suleman felt someone grab him, and he took a swing at him. It was another kitchen worker, who led Suleman down the hallway to the safe room.

Duarte wasn’t there. He apparently ran through the kitchen to the lobby, where the other two gunmen were looking for people.

Only one other person made it out of the restaurant and into the safe room, Suleman said. But it soon started to fill with other hotel employees, and they spent four hours there while the Afghan Army and Norwegian Special Forces looked for the shooters, who were killed at the scene.

“It got a little nerve-wracking. There had been reports of stolen military uniforms and police uniforms to be used by suicide bombers for attacks. When the guys started coming in, I got really paranoid. It was hard to trust anything going on in the first hour of the attack.”

When they finally exited the safe room, the floors of the lobby were smeared with blood where the shooters’ bodies had been dragged across the floor to be hauled away.

“One of the terrorists was lying dead in the parking lot waiting for another ambulance.”

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack. Nine people were killed, including Duarte, Ahmed, his wife and two of their children. His 2-year-old son Abuzar suffered four gunshot wounds but survived.

“I’m assuming it happened directly after I ran. They didn’t run. They were huddled under the table seeking protection. The first reaction was to hide from that. When Luis ran, it cleared my head.”

Duarte running, Ahmed’s words and the kitchen worker’s assistance are the only reasons he survived, Suleman said.

The aftermath

NDI immediately evacuated the international workers from Afghanistan. They were flown to Istanbul on March 22, and Suleman was back in Washington, D.C., on March 25.

NDI still has Afghan citizens working on the mission, and the international workers are using Skype and email to keep gathering information and writing reports.

“They don’t get to win,” Suleman said. “We’re still going to complete the mission.”

Two days after returning to D.C., Suleman was back on an airplane, this time to Paraguay for Duarte’s funeral, where he met Duarte’s family, friends and his girlfriend.

“I told them about the mission, what we were doing and how we spent our last night. Until the last moments, we were laughing and joking and having a good time I needed to say goodbye after that incident.”

The only physical injury Suleman suffered in the attack was a banged-up knee from scrambling on the floor.

“I’m glad I had my Chucks on. If I’d had my dress shoes on, I would have been slipping and sliding all through the restaurant.”

Emotionally, Suleman said, “I’m doing as well as anyone can be expected who’s gone through an event like this Each day it’s a little easier.

”There’s no way to prepare yourself as a civilian for this type of event. Guys in the military deal with PTSD all the time, guys in the military train for these types of events. We don’t train for this.”

When he lived in Trumbull County, Suleman worked as a Red Cross volunteer on local emergencies and went to Oxford, Miss., to help people displaced after Hurricane Katrina in 2007. He believes the training he received to help others in a crisis situation is helping him now.

But earlier last week, Suleman was with a friend in a bar in D.C., when a group of people watching a soccer game on TV cheered when someone scored a goal. The noise made Suleman jump.

“Then I laughed. OK, this is what my life is going to be like for a while.”

He’s already thinking about returning overseas with NDI.

“There are a couple upcoming opportunities to go on another mission in the next month or so. I enjoy the work and I do believe the work is important. I’m honored to be among an incredible group of folks.”