BIELEFELD, Germany (Reuter) - A colorful mix of human rights activists, avant-garde artists and computer hackers is ensuring that besieged Sarajevo stays connected to the global village -- through Internet.
The connection does more than simply bypass the Serb blockade of the Bosnian capital. It also links the six former Yugoslav republics and bridges ethnic hatreds that
have plunged the region into more than three years of war.
Set up just over two years ago in a dimly-lit basement in the north German city of Bielefeld, ``ZaMir'' -- Serbo-Croat for ``towards peace'' -- is a computerized collection point and forwards messages to and from former Yugoslavia.
Two Bielefeld artists, Rena Tangens and her partner who calls himself Padeluun, tend 2.6 gigabytes of computer mailbox power that provides a gateway to the war zone where rebel Serbs are pitted against Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Tangens says 500 to 1,000 users are now regularly connected via nodes in Sarajevo, Zagreb, Skopje, Belgrade, Ljubljana and Pristina to the worldwide web of computer users and the network is expanding rapidly.
The electronic messages they trade are blind to the bullets and ethnic divides that have seen Sarajevo pass its 1,000th day of siege and caused thousands to die in the name of ``ethnic cleansing.''
Muslims E-mail Croats, Serbs contact Macedonians, Slovenians chat to ethnic Albanians in Serbia's Kosovo region -- computers do not recognize nationalities or faith, just users. ``On a computer, you can discuss anything without ever getting physical,'' says Tangens. ``It sounds crazy to send a message from Serbia to Bielefeld in order to contact someone in Croatia,'' she concedes. But with neighbors once less than an hour's drive apart now divided by battle lines and severed telephone cables, it is for many the only way to communicate. Mail is no alternative. In Bosnia the postal service has broken down, between Serbia and Croatia it is extinct.
``What we have created is the most reliable communication link with and within the former Yugoslavia,'' Tangens says.
Through ZaMir, Bosnian refugees in San Francisco have E-mailed contacts back home and traced lost relatives. One computer may serve a whole street in a Yugoslav town. Some American entrepreneurs once sent a query asking whether raspberries were still being planted in former Yugoslavia because they wanted to get back into business. And a Sarajevan who pleaded, ``Please send Doom (a computer game),'' was bombarded with software from around the world.
For the originators of ZaMir however the network has a more long-reaching significance. Eric Bachman, a U.S. human rights activist who helped Tangens and Padeluun set up the Bielefeld connection and who has spent the past two years in former Yugoslavia building up that side of the operation, argues that only the Internet, uncensored and uncontrollable, can trade unadulterated information. ``The media (in former Yugoslavia) were used to turn people against each other,'' Bachman told Germany's Die Zeit newspaper. ``We are building up a medium that brings people together.'' Aid organizations, especially in besieged Sarajevo where the ZaMir node runs off its own generator to circumvent regular electricity cuts, are also flocking to the network to organize supply convoys and trade information. For users in the republics contacting Indonesia, Sweden or anywhere else in the world costs no more than the price of a local telephone call to the nearest node, which stores the message until it is collected by the Bielefeld nerve-center.
The several-thousand-dollar monthly bill that Bielefeld clocks up dialing the nodes automatically every hour is picked up by the London-based Soros Foundation, set up by Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
ZaMir is a window onto the minds and lives of the Balkans. Public and personal messages travel the globe on the Internet superhighway, winding from mailbox to mailbox and computer to computer in what Clancy Sigal, an American writer, called ``CyberBosnia'' in a recent New York Times article. One such message is a diary by Dutchman Wam Kat, another ZaMir pioneer who is now an aid worker in Zagreb. Kat noticed on New Year's Eve that the mood had distinctly changed after the Bosnian Serbs and Muslims signed a fragile four-month cease-fire on Dec. 31. It seemed, he wrote, that 1995 might be greeted with less gunfire and ``more of the old stuff - fireworks!.'' But reflecting the skepticism of seasoned Balkan watchers who have seen cease-fires come and go, Kat added: ``Mind you, there is a lot of mist about and we probably just couldn't see the tracers in the sky.''