Out of Cambodia: A 'Q' turns up with gadgets of peace

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The Independent Online
PHNOM PENH - There are many problems in Cambodia, and the 20,000 people working for the UN peace-keeping operation are only starting to realise how many they must overcome. The Khmer Rouge are trying to dictate terms in the planned elections; Phnom Penh government officials are lining their pockets as fast as they can; the murder rate in Phnom Penh has soared, with people being shot in the streets for their motorbikes; and epidemics of malaria and cholera are raging.

But in a marshy field in Takeo, about 40 miles south of Phnom Penh, Richard Hradsky-Fisher had a problem of a different nature. 'I suspect my polarisation is not perfect,' he shouted down a telephone, wiping sweat from his forehead. 'I'm fixing on Singapore, and I think they might have a cross-pole problem.'

He made an odd picture. Tall, bearded, his white shirt buttoned at the wrists, he was leaning against the doorway of a tiny shack built beside a few coconut trees. Inside, the floor was littered with empty beer-cans, tins of spaghetti with meatballs, tea-bags and packets of custard creams.

It was like a bedsit in Camden with tropical posters stuck over the windows. But behind him were 10 gleaming aluminium cases crammed with electronic equipment, and to the rear of the hut were four satellite dishes, pointing up into the ether. Like 'Q', the eccentric inventor who turns up in improbable locations in James Bond films to give 007 his latest gadgets, Mr Hradsky-Fisher seemed oblivious to the incongruity of the situation.

'I can give you one more DRB, but then you are on maximum power,' he shouted down the telephone again, holding a finger in his free ear to block out the sound of the diesel generator. On a low wooden platform in front of the hut, two Cambodian soldiers dozed in the afternoon heat, their AK-47 rifles hanging on a nail in the wall. They turned out to be the guards he had hired to protect his equipment - pounds 250,000-worth of television satellite-broadcasting hardware, installed in the middle of nowhere.

Mr Hradsky-Fisher works for Bright Star, a British company which supplies satellite links for TV companies 'anywhere in the world'. He had come to Cambodia under a two-week contract with a network in Japan, so that Japanese viewers could get live pictures of their troops arriving in Takeo, eating their first meal and settling into their tents.

Japan is very interested in these details, because it will be the first time in nearly 50 years that its soldiers have been stationed outside their own country, their last venture having left them with a major public relations problem. So several hundred Japanese journalists have arrived to cover this momentous event, and they are sparing no expense.

Mr Hradsky-Fisher would not be precise, but said his two-week contract was costing the network 'hundreds of thousands of pounds - it's not a cheap operation'. As well as the TV satellite link, he had a satellite telephone to co-ordinate the operation.

At the moment, he explained with his hand over the telephone receiver, he was trying to sort out an alignment problem with Tokyo, and the reference signal from Singapore seemed to be giving trouble. So was the English-language ability of his interlocutor in Tokyo. 'What do you mean by 'what is my situation'? Do you want latitude and longitude?' he asked, rolling his eyes in despair. 'Oh, you want to know what the weather is . . .'

Mr Hradsky-Fisher is the technical co-ordinator for the broadcasting link. He had brought an engineer with him from London as well. 'I do the exotic, or special trips,' he said. 'If something goes down here and I can't fix it, the whole thing is useless.'

'Boost carrier,' he said to his engineer as the latter fiddled with some nobs. Outside, a couple of water buffalo were stretching their necks over a rope around the satellite dishes, trying to sniff at the strange new additions to the scenery. They were shooed away. 'How do you receive me now?'

Near by, a few tents had already been put up by an advance team of Japanese soldiers. The main body arrives on Thursday, and Mr Hradsky-Fisher has to have the system working perfectly by then. 'This is the only way of getting pics out of the middle of nowhere fast,' he said.

A Japanese TV producer, wearing full combat fatigues and looking more battle-ready than the timid Japanese soldiers, appeared from nowhere and started asking about the satellite link. Mr Hradsky-Fisher was still talking to Tokyo about DRBs. There are many problems in Cambodia.