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Afghan Journey: The Harrowing Adventures Of SNG Crews

By | May 1, 2002

      To hell and back: when it comes to satellite news gathering (SNG) in Afghanistan, that phrase is an understatement.

      Yet the life-and-death risks run by SNG crews rarely make the headlines. In fact, most people watch the TV pictures these crews transmit at great personal risk, without a thought about who got them out.

      Well, it’s time to tell a few of their tales.

      The Long Truck Ride To Jabal Saraj

      The young Northern Alliance fighter on page 24 doesn’t look too dangerous. But he still shot a truck belonging to Pacsat RF Engineering Manager Eddie Maalouf.

      Despite his executive title, Maalouf is no desk jockey. In fact, whenever Pacsat needs a veteran SNG operator in the field, Eddie’s their man. After all, he survived Bosnia. Barely.

      So why not risk Afghanistan?

      Well, luck doesn’t last forever. Which is why, as Maalouf was driving towards Jabal Saraj last fall, he might have wondered if his luck had just run out.

      “There were four of us–CNN engineer Brad Simcox, a freelance cameraman, and a Russian SNG engineer who was going to man a second dish–heading down the road,” Maalouf explains. “I was in a Russian Jeep, following a five ton truck loaded with our equipment.

      “As we drove through the Panjshir Valley, we were often stopped by Northern Alliance fighters trying to hitch rides to the front lines,” he continues. “We didn’t want to accommodate them, since being seen with armed gunmen might have opened us to attack.

      “Well, in this case this fighter didn’t take kindly to being denied a lift. In fact, he opened fire on our truck!”

      Fortunately, Maalouf and his team managed to survive this attack. But it wasn’t the only occasion where their lives were in danger. “Another time, a Northern Alliance fighter levelled his machine gun at our driver,” Maalouf recalls. “I was sure he was going to shoot him, but somehow we managed to defuse that situation, and not give that gunman a ride either.”

      Welcome to the reality of SNG life in Afghanistan: about as desolate and dangerous a place as any satellite operator would ever want to be.

      For Maalouf, the job started when CNN hired Pacsat to establish an earth station in Afghanistan. Although the network had done exceedingly well with its 7E Communications’ “video suitcases”–streaming media units that connected to two satellite phones–CNN understandably wanted more than the jerky low resolution pictures that these units provide. “So in early October we took a 2.4 meter dish, terminal equipment, and all the spares we could find,” says Maalouf. “We landed first in Moscow, then flew to Tajikistan, the country closest to Afghanistan. Then we sat in Dushanbe for 10 days, hoping for a flight to take our equipment to Jabal Saraj. It’s a little village about 50 miles north of Kabul, where CNN and most other broadcast services were set up.”

      Unfortunately, a combination of bad weather, broken-down aircraft, and 15,000 foot mountains between Dushanbe and Jabal Saraj killed any notion of flying in. “So instead we had to put together a caravan of trucks, and head south,” says Maalouf. “Along the way, we had to obtain permission from various authorities–including the Russian army–to approach the border.”

      Usually, these permissions came with “taxes” attached. As a result, “we ended up paying a few thousand dollars just to travel 14 miles,” Maalouf says. “Then when we finally did get into Afghanistan, some very friendly armed men approached us, and insisted that we hire six government pickups and four jeeps to carry our equipment … even though one truck would have been enough.”

      It was the next day that Maalouf and his crew managed to get everything into the Russian five ton, to continue their journey, and to be shot at. As well, they were stopped and “taxed” at many more roadblocks, even though the road was little more than a rough dirt track.

      As for food and lodging? “We lived off the land,” he replies. “It was like a hard core camping trip: we washed in the river, ate out of cans, and slept where we could find space. One night, we ended up sleeping in a villager’s spare room–after they’d moved a donkey out of it.”

      Meanwhile, for protection “we taped ‘CNN’ on the truck’s roof, so that we wouldn’t get bombed by U.S. planes,” says Maalouf. “We also took GPS readings along the way, and sent them back to Atlanta, so that CNN could let the Department of Defense know where we were.”

      Eventually, they made it to Jabal Saraj … and more trouble. This, even though they managed to get relatively “luxurious” lodgings–by local standards–in the house of assassinated Northern Alliance leader Mohammed Massood. “Although it was dirty and remote, it represented an oasis in the midst of the war,” he observes.

      To be specific, the problem was filth. Camped out with other SNG crews among a collection of dust-ridden huts, with no proper sanitation facilities to speak of, Maalouf and his crew were living in a germ-ridden resort. In fact, the chances for avoiding disease were about as good as getting Martha Stewart to decorate Taliban headquarters.

      “We all got sick,” says Maalouf. “Literally one of us was sick every day. Salmonella, dysentery, malaria: you name it, we got it.”

      Small wonder. To call the toilet facilities primitive was a compliment: go where you can. Meanwhile, “there was a single source of water which was used for everything from drinking to bathing,” Maalouf says. “Needless to say, it wasn’t clean.”

      Despite this, Maalouf and the other SNG crews soldiered on. In his case, he and Simcox set up a 2.4 meter dish and a generator, plus everything else that was required. “We had to make sure that we also had lots of redundant parts,” says Maalouf. “After all, you couldn’t call back to London, and have something sent in by FedEx next day.”

      To add to the misery, every so often the Taliban would turn up and pop off a few rounds.

      “At one point, I was in the field, microwaving video back to the house for uplinking,” says Simcox. “Suddenly shooting started off to my left; next, a tank drove past on my right hand side, and cut my ‘liveshot’ cable.”

      Good engineer that he is, Simcox didn’t just stand there. Instead, he dove on the severed cable and started splicing it together. After all, his camera position was on-air live at the time.

      “As this is going on, I’m watching the tracers flashing 20 feet past my equipment,” Simcox recalls. “I’m trying to put the cable together to get us back on air, and all the time I’m wondering if these bullets are going to cut me apart.”

      Simcox survived this firefight. But even he and Maalouf couldn’t defy the weather.

      With winter threatening to close up the Anjuman Pass–the only route out of Jabal Saraj–and the Taliban collapsing faster than Enron’s finances, they found themselves directed to Kabul. There, they set up shop on top of the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel.

      In the past, the Intercontinental had been a fine hotel, complete with pool and patio. No more: thanks to years of warfare, the once-great hotel was a wreck. “There was no running water and the toilets didn’t work,” says Maalouf, “while the windows were riddled with bullets.”

      However, with a commanding position on the hills of Kabul, the Intercontinental was an ideal location for both microwave and satellite antennas. So Maalouf and Simcox set up their trusty 2.4 meter dish on the roof, and got down to business. They stayed at this post, fighting dust and stray bullets, until their return Stateside some weeks later.

      This said, there’s one last piece of Maalouf’s Afghan adventure that bears mentioning. While searching through abandoned Al-Queda safe houses with reporter Christiane Amanpour, Maalouf found some of the notorious documents that detailed the terrorists’ plans.

      “I speak, read and write Arabic,” Maalouf says. “As a result, I was able to make sense of what these documents said. To say the least, their contents were disturbing. For instance, one was a letter from an Al-Queda member, explaining why he had to change his name and location due to events: especially ‘the mission in America,’ which was probably September 11th.”

      “We turned these documents–and my translations–over to the U.S. government,” Maalouf concludes. “As a result, I like to think that I not only did my job while in Afghanistan, but also participated in fighting terrorism.”

      We Need You In New York … And Afghanistan Too

      As engineer in charge for the NBC Networks news truck “Snowboy,” Tom Baer is a veteran who’s been at most major news events. (When we spoke to him, he’d just finished shooting U.S. gold medalist Sarah Hughes in Salt Lake City, after she chatted with the “Today Show.”)

      For Baer, his Afghan adventure began on September 11th. Based in Chicago, Baer was immediately dispatched along with Snowboy to New York. After an 11-hour drive to the various road blocks in the city, Baer got to the 59th Street Bridge. It links Queens to Manhattan.

      “As it turned out, the cop guarding the bridge was someone I knew from doing local news in New York City,” says Baer. “He looked at me and said, ‘Baer, I’m sorry, but I can’t let you into Manhattan.’

      “I then begged, pleaded, and promised only to take my truck to the Command Center and no further. Eventually, he relented and let me in on my word.”

      Baer being Baer, he drove Snowboy directly to the NYPD Command Center as promised. Then, Baer was redirected to the Bellevue Hospital on East 19th Street. “It had been set up as a morgue,” he recalls. “We spent a week there along with other network SNG crews, watching distraught families coming and going.”

      While there, Snowboy and the other SNG trailers became ad hoc billboards for hundreds of ‘Have you seen this person?’ posters. “When I had to move my truck, I went as slowly as possible, to make sure none of them blew off,” Baer says.

      On the 19th, “my boss, Stacy Brady, put out a call for volunteers to go to Afghanistan,” Baer adds. “Given the uncertainty of the situation, and serious doubts about the trustworthiness of the Northern Alliance, not many came forward. But I had been to Baghdad during the 1998 bombing, and so I decided to chance it.”

      Ironically, NBC responded by assigning Baer to Baghdad once more. So they sent him to London, and told him to await further instructions.

      Sure enough, Baer’s cell phone rang. “The voice on the end of the phone told me to go to Stansted airport [outside of London] fast,” he recalls. “So I went.”

      When he arrived, Baer had a nasty shock: a Russian-built Antonov was waiting for him, with an SNG flyaway already tucked inside. Basically a warhorse from the old Soviet years, this twin engine turboprop had definitely seen better days. “In fact, this was the scariest looking aircraft I’d ever seen, and I’m a pilot,” Baer says. “You could even see gaffer tape wrapped around the hydraulic lines. I’m amazed the aircraft could still fly.”

      Despite his shock, Baer got onboard. The plane was packed with six tons of satellite equipment, plus every kind of supply imaginable. “Officially, we were going to Tajikistan,” he says. “But I knew in my gut that my journey would end in Afghanistan instead.”

      It took 18 hours for the Bulgarian-owned turboprop to fly to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, after stops for fuel in Sofia and Azerbaijan. “We sat in Dushanbe for a week, waiting for our visas,” Baer recalls. “After NBC Bureau Chief Thomas Bonisteel pulled some strings, we got the visas, loaded up our trucks, and drove down to the border.

      “The first time we got to the border, which is at the Panche river, we were turned back by Russian border guards,” he continues. “So we drove back to Dushanbe, and did it all again the next day. This time, they let us across.”

      To get across, Baer and his crew had to drive through a minefield. They were warned not to turn off the road, and also not to stop and get out of their cars, “because the border guards would shoot you.” By the way, the time was 2:00 a.m., and the sky was pitch black.

      Armed with this wonderful advice, Baer’s truck drove down to the river, where they were loaded onto a barge. The barge was then drawn across the water, courtesy of a steel cable attached to a tractor on the Afghan side. The time: 3:00 a.m.

      “We were trying to be as quiet as possible, so that the Taliban wouldn’t shoot at us,” Baer says. “Despite this, we still came under small arms fire. Thankfully, we were out of range; that’s why the barge crossed where it did.”

      On the other side, Baer and his crew had to offload their equipment onto a Muhjahadeen truck. They did this by themselves, since “the Muhjahadeen refused to help, on the grounds that they weren’t Sherpas,” Baer laughs. Then, with their 2.4 meter dish, HPAs, and a complete transmission rack on board, the NBC SNG crew set off “through 40 miles of the most horrendous, barbaric terrain I’ve ever seen.”

      Eventually, Baer and the NBC crew set up shop in the not-so-idyllic village of Khudja Bahoudin. Thanks to the adept negotiations of NBC correspondent Dana Lewis, they also got space in one of Massood’s houses. He’d been killed there nine days earlier, by a bunch of suicide bombers posing as Belgian journalists.

      “We were living in the front of the house; the back having been blown to bits by the bombing,” says Baer. “We were in the basement with no water and no power; our generator was our lifeline.” As it turned out, “we ended up supplying the entire compound with power,” he recalls. “The world–of foreign correspondents–was coming to us to recharge their devices.”

      In general, NBC was able to help out, except for the times that dirt-clogged gasoline plugged the filters. However, Baer had to draw the line when it came to tea.

      “Every morning, Ken Ludlow–a lovely gentleman from London–would come outside to plug in his kettle to make tea,” he explains. “Well, the minute the kettle’s heater clicked in, you would hear the generator start to die from the power drain. Next, you’d hear me come running outside, screaming, ‘No Kettles! No Kettles!’ Ludlow would then unplug his kettle, the generator would come to life, and everything would be fine … until the next morning.”

      Like Maalouf, Baer and his people suffered every disease imaginable. “The conditions were horrific, with water coming every three days, and being pumped into a 50 foot tower that was anything but sanitary,” says Baer. “Thank God for the people back at NBC and GE: they were amazing at keeping our supplies coming, no matter what the cost.”

      One interesting aspect of the encampment was the informal cooperation between networks. “We may have been competing on the news side, but when it came to supplies, everyone helped each other out,” Baer notes. “If ABC had a shipment coming in, they’d let NBC throw on some supplies, and vice versa.”

      Eventually, Baer came home from Afghanistan, only to return at Christmas time. “I came back to give the family guys a break,” he explains. “But this time, I ended up in Kabul.”

      In Kabul, Baer first stayed at the Intercontinental, then in two houses that NBC rented. “We moved our equipment on Christmas Eve,” he says. “The big one was the transmission base, with dishes on the roof. The small one is where we stayed.”

      After New Year’s Tom Baer left Afghanistan again, only to end up at Salt Lake City for the Olympics a few weeks later. His most striking Afghan memory? “The last night of Ramadan, the Intercontinental took a lot of hits,” Baer says. “By the next morning, the Sky News microwave dish looked like a feed horn attached to a piece of Swiss cheese!”

      If Someone Calls, I’m Not Home

      Officially, NBC News correspondent Kerry Sanders doesn’t qualify as an SNG operator. But his satellite-related exploits in Afghanistan justify his inclusion in this story.

      The location was “in the middle of nowhere,” says Sanders. The task was to do a live cut-in, using a 7e “Talking Head” video suitcase and two satellite phones. A third satellite phone was linked to MSNBC, displaying a streamed video version of the network feed from New Jersey.

      To power the equipment, plus a video camera, Sanders’ crew put the equipment on top of a mud hut. They then strung a power cable down to a Russian jeep. Its engine was left running, to keep everything up and alive.

      It was nighttime; that pitch blackness for which Afghanistan is renowned. “We were up on the roof, looking through a nightscope,” Sanders recalls. “We were hoping to catch some U.S. planes bombing the area, and to put it up over the satellite live.

      “However, all of a sudden people started shooting at us. Worse yet, the shots were coming from both sides!”

      Pinned down on the roof, with a network cut-in imminent, Sanders got down and then did his report. Then, one by one, Sanders and his crew rolled off the roof. Splayed in the dirt, they prayed that darkness and ground cover would hide them from the unseen snipers.

      At first, the danger seemed to be subsiding. But then more shots rang out, and so did a telephone. Specifically the satellite telephone, which was still on the rooftop. It was a producer calling from New Jersey. He wanted to know what was going on.

      Not surprisingly, “we all stayed down on the ground, whispering to each other, ‘I’m not answering that phone!'” says Sanders. “It took 20 to 25 rings for the battery to run down. All the while, as it rang, that phone made it a lot easier for the snipers to figure out where we were!”

      Not The Only Stories

      Are these the only SNG stories to come out of Afghanistan? Not by a long shot. In fact, once this article hits the newsstand, Via Satellite will likely get swamped with more.

      This said, all these stories will likely have one thing in common: they’ll be tales of the uncommon, unseen bravery of the SNG crews who get the news out to the world.

      No matter where it happens. No matter how dangerous the job.

      James Careless is a contributing writer to Via Satellite.

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