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Former luxury hotel home to thousands of squatters

By Amy Fallon and Mark Tutton for CNN
  • Grande Hotel, in Beira, Mozambique, once one of the most luxurious in Africa
  • Abandoned by its owners in the 60s, it's now home to between 2,000 and 3,000 people
  • Residents live in rooms, corridors and phone booths, without water or electricity
  • New documentary "Grande Hotel" tells the story of the building and its residents

(CNN) -- It's the hotel where many guests have lived all their lives and some may never check out.

Once one of the most luxurious hotels in southern Africa, the Grande Hotel, in Beira, Mozambique, was abandoned by its original owners five decades ago.

It's now home to between 2,000 and 3,000 people who live in squalid conditions, without running water or electricity. Yet for these people the crumbling building is a self-contained community where they sleep, eat and work.

The once-luxurious lodging is the subject of a movie by Belgian filmmaker Lotte Stoops, which has just had its world premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

Stoops stayed near the Grande Hotel during a month-long trip to Mozambique six years ago and was fascinated by what she saw.

"It was like a village within a village," she said. "It looked like the perfect social housing project."

Stoops returned to Beira two years ago to begin making her first documentary-length film, titled "Grande Hotel."

Officially opened in 1955, when Mozambique was still a Portuguese colony, the Grande closed its doors as a working hotel in the mid 60s.

By 1992, when the country's 16-year civil war ended, the building was accommodating refugees from all over Mozambique.

The telephone booths have been cut off and made into a room, the corridor is a room.
--Lotte Stoops, director "Grande Hotel"
  • Mozambique
  • Africa
  • Movies

There were originally 110 guest rooms, but Stoops says every bit of space in the building is now used as a living area.

"The telephone booths have been cut off and made into a room, the corridor is a room," said Stoops, who estimates there are currently about 350 families living there.

There is little inside the hotel to hint at its former splendor. Glass has been taken from its windows and sold, while wood from the interior has been used to build fires, said Stoops.

Farisai Gamariel is an English teacher in Beira, but at weekends he works as a tour guide, showing cruise ship passengers around the city. One of the stops on his tour is the Grande Hotel.

"Tourists come from England, Germany, Austria," he said. "They are quite curious to go and see what it's like.

"Some actually refuse, they think it's not a good place to go, they are scared. But it's not really scary, it's just like a community."

Like any community, it is organized. It is headed by a "secretary" whose job it is to resolve residents' problems, and some residents act as security, said Gamariel.

Some of the building's original squatters have claimed rooms as their own and now act as landlords, letting them to others.

Although there is no electricity, running water or sewage system, the residents are expert improvisers. Some access electricity by connecting to external cables, while one or two have solar panels, said Gamariel. The hotel's outdoor swimming pool is now used to wash laundry, while the pool changing room is used as a mosque.

Despite the best efforts of its residents, it's a difficult place to live.

Piles of rubbish fill the building with a pungent smell and attract rats, said Gamariel. Trees grow from the roof of the hotel, their roots penetrating the top floors, causing alarming cracks to develop in the walls. And while Gamariel said it was safe to visit during the day, he advised against going at night.

Gamariel said a local Muslim community group has successfully re-housed some residents in new homes on the outskirts of the city. But he added that for every family that moves out, another replaces it.

Nevertheless, some residents don't want to leave. For some, as well as being their home, the Grande Hotel provides their livelihoods. Its corridors act as market places, with traders selling everything from sugar to toiletries. Others sell fruit and vegetables in front of the hotel entrance.

"If you remove them to outside of Beira they won't get their income," said Gamariel. "People aren't very rich -- they can't pay for transport to get into the city of Beira, so some people resist moving out of there."

During her month-long filming, Stoops, 35, met two generations of the same family living at the Grande Hotel.

"There are people who have lived their whole life there," she said.

Stoops has said that the movie is her "attempt at understanding the inner life of a proud shell," and that she wanted to tell the stories of the hotel's residents.

"There were stories of murders," she said. "But I also wanted to show the positive parts and focus on the survival stories."