Eddie Maalouf had a lot on his mind Sunday as he tended his satellite dish atop a hotel in Port Au Prince, Haiti -- including a French TV cameraman covering the Caribbean rebellion who had ducked just in time to avoid decapitation by a machete-swinging thug.
For the past week Maalouf has been on the roof of the three-story, 50-room El Rancho Hotel feeding taped news footage of the Haiti rebellion to European and North American networks. He operated the one-ton dish flown in late last week from Sacramento -- just before the Port Au Prince airport closed because of the brewing violence in the poverty-strafed country.
After a chaotic week and a half, he plans to fly home Saturday unless fighting erupts again.
Maalouf works for Sacramento-based PACSAT, hired 11 days ago by Eurovision Americas Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based news exchange network which makes TV news footage available by satellite. Eurovision used PACSAT's uplink to feed breaking news footage from Haiti to networks in Europe and North America.
On Monday and Tuesday, Maalouf used his satellite phone to give his boss Steve Mallory and the Business Journal updates of the jagged-edge scenes around him in Port Au Prince.
Mallory, himself a veteran bullet-dodger who covered strife in Beirut, Lebanon, for NBC in the early '80s, knows the adrenaline ebb and flow of working in a war zone -- times of heart-stopping fear, floods of relief and long bouts of boredom. It's a great ride if you live to tell about it.
But even Mallory gets the willies when he hears Maalouf's accounts of conditions in Haiti. "This may just be one of the most dangerous situations Eddie has been in," he said last week, as the uprising against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide gained momentum. "It's unpredictable. This is one story I would never want to go to."
Maalouf, 44, was in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in the early '90s, and a little more than two years ago braved a treacherous eight-day truck drive toting PACSAT gear over an Afghan mountain range. He and a CNN technician drove on donkey trails and regularly faced heavily armed, bribe-hungry warlords. But he persevered and set up a satellite dish in Kabul for CNN's coverage of U.S. bombing raids.
Last year he set up PACSAT's uplink in Amman, Jordan, to cover the Iraq war.
Because of his experience in war zones, he's Mallory's go-to guy when news agencies hire PACSAT to feed video from global hot spots, but he doesn't always have to worry about catching a bullet. Maalouf also manned the dish when the pope visited Guatemala, and from a Bahamian golf tournament.
Hey, we need Eddie: Bill Dunlop, president of Eurovision Americas, had been using Mexico-based TV Azteca's satellite uplink for the first week of covering the Haiti uprising.
"The story was simmering along, but it was getting to the point of blowing up," said Dunlop. The Mexican dish had one channel, and he wanted two. He got on the phone. He called a Panamabased dish operator, and one in Colombia. The Panama guy only had a single channel; the Colombia guy had visa problems and couldn't make it.
"We knew Eddie and we knew PACSAT, so I called," said Dunlop, who worked with Maalouf in Guatemala. "They had a two-path uplink which had just been refurbished."
On Feb. 24, Maalouf and the satellite gear were out the door and on a plane to Miami in two hours. While Maalouf flew on to Haiti, there wasn't enough cargo room to get the 20 cases of disassembled satellite gear through until the next day.
"It got in just in time," said Dunlop. Then the airport closed.
Dunlop wants someone on the ground at dangerous sites with enough experience to safely navigate the gear to its temporary home. "It's extremely important to have a person like Eddie," he said. "He's worked in all kinds of dangerous environments."
Greasing skids, dodging looters: Maalouf arrived at a chaotic Port Au Prince airport at 11 a.m. Feb. 25. The hotel sits in the hills about 10 miles from the airport, but he quickly learned that if he tried the direct route, he'd be waylaid by up to 15 roadblocks of armed men demanding "taxes" -- bribes -- to allow passage. The direct route would take three or four hours and a lot of cash.
He hired a taxi driver to take the back roads. "He took me through some strange neighborhoods and to the hotel in 40 minutes," said Maalouf.
Then he looked for government officials at the hotel to get approval for the satellite gear. "Aristide's people had started leaving the city, they were hard to find," he said. He spent his first day negotiating with some low-level government officials he found, then bribed them to OK the dish.
The next day the gear arrived on the last flight before the airport closed. Maalouf hired drivers of two pickup trucks to haul it via the bribe-free route to the hotel. "While we were starting to load the equipment, across the street a pickup truck pulled up and rammed the door down of an autoparts store." The heavily armed men "grabbed everything they could and drove away."
When he hires help in a war zone, Maalouf uses his gut to gauge trustworthiness. "Just like everywhere, there's always lots of hardworking, honest people who want to work and do good things. Then there are a lot of bad people. I suppose I call on my instincts to hire these people. You pay well, in dollars."
Back at the hotel, he hired porters to help him lug the cases to the roof. Roofs are best because the dish can get a good look at the satellite from there, but there are safety reasons, too.
"Even if (thugs) rush the hotel, the roof is the last place they'd look."
Watch your back: On the phone Monday Maalouf described Port Au Prince on the day before, when Aristide fled. Numbing fear had edged into his stomach as gunfire erupted in the streets outside. The violence came after President Aristide bowed to mounting pressure from rebels -and, he said, from the United States -- fleeing to central Africa on a private jet.
At 9 that morning, an armed gang tried to loot a home near Maalouf's hotel.
"It was a group of about 20 youths with machetes and some handguns and old rifles," he says. "They tried to take over a house 100 yards from us. They were repelled by a couple of guards. We thought they would try to run to the hotel."
They didn't, but there still was danger.
"It was chaotic all through the city." A French TV crew Maalouf met had been cornered by a handful of machete-wielding teens, with one cameraman ducking a machete swung at his head. It nicked his scalp, but the crew managed to run to safety -- without their cameras.
"They're still collecting bodies today," Maalouf said Monday. "There's all kinds of shooting and score-settling."
In Haiti, he said, there are only "the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor. When things happen, the poor try to take from the rich." The rich, he added, usually have guns themselves, or at least well-armed guards.
Poor slum dwellers beg for money and food from the hotel guests; water and electricity are scarce, and garbage is put in piles and burned each week. "They chop up bodies and throw them in the garbage and dogs go after them," said Maalouf. "Life has absolutely no, or nearly no, value. The preferred weapon is the machete."
Monday, Maalouf had no intention of venturing out of the hotel, not until things cooled down. Even in Sarajevo it wasn't this nasty, he recalled. There, despite the violent skirmishes, media crews could go out in the city to safely eat at restaurants.
Sunday night about 200 French and U.S. troops flew in. Maalouf said they drove around the city and went back to the airport. "It may have had a psychological calming effect, more than anything."
Sunday's mayhem prompted the most TV and news coverage. Maalouf fed about 55 tapes of fresh footage up to the satellite. He was working 16-hour days, passing out, then waking to work again. He ate pasta Creole until the hotel ran out, then tapped the canned tuna and sardines he bought on arrival as backup rations.
Pow-wow in lobby, wind-down: On Monday, rebel leader Guy Philippe showed up at the hotel lobby and began negotiating with opposition party leaders. By Tuesday, U.S. and French troops had restored order, and were taking down the barricades gangs had built. The chaos that reigned two days before had been "99 percent calmed down," said Maalouf.
While Haiti's Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexander was named interim president Sunday after Aristide's departure, leadership of the country is still up in the air. "There still seem to be unresolved things," said Maalouf. "Everybody here feels it'll all explode in three months if they don't come up with a solution."
There are a lot of Colombians in Haiti, he's found. "There's lots of drug traffic that goes through here, a lot of money being exchanged. Whoever is in power will have to deal with these folks."
His last feeds on the satellite were scheduled for yesterday, when the airport was scheduled to reopen for commercial service and most of the global press planned to leave, barring new upheaval.
Maalouf planned to break down the satellite gear today and fly back to Sacramento Saturday. All in all, an action packed 10 days for Eddie Maalouf.
"It's fun," he said. "It pays the bills."