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The Guardian Thursday March 28 1996

Bosnia calling

Terry Slavin tells how Eric Bachman kept war-torn Bosnia online : and how he is using the same technology to reunite refugees today

IS THERE anybody out there? Can you hear my song? This is Tuzla. So write before I get killed.

This was an electronic maishotl read around the world, 19 words sent via e-mail from the devastation of Bosnia to subscribers of the ZaMir Transnational Network..

That any of the voices of Bosnia were being heard is a miracle of the information age, made possible by the peace groups that run ZaMir Transnational Network, which has provided a communications link for the people of the former Yugoslavia and the test of the world throughout the war. ZaMir is the brainchild of Eric Bachman, a 47-year-old from rural Pennsylvania who left the US during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector and settled in Germany. He stayed on in Europe working for peace groups, and when war broke out In Croatia in 1991, making travel and telephone communications between Croatian and Serbian peace groups almost impossible, he began a project to relay faxes across enemy lines.

In Zagreb he discovered that some telephone lines, were working, though extremely overloaded. This meant that e-mail, end a bulletin boardnetwork linking the countries of Conner Yugoslavia lo each other and the world was possible.

That is the information age miracle bit. Turning that possibility into ZaMir, which means "to peace" in Russian, is where the hard work came in.

"When we first started in Zagreb in June 1993, we used a computer borrowed from a Dutch volunteer and a fax line which we were able to use for. a couple of hours after midnight," said Bachman m London last week. Still desperately short of funds. ZaMir now has computers in Zagreb and Belgrade, established within a week of each other, and, since 1994, in Ljubljana, Sarajevo; and Pristina. It installed a computer in Tuzla last year, giving people in the Muslim-controlled part of Bosnia access to e-mail for the first time. Only in Zagreb and Belgrade are users charged for the service.

ZaMir has been used by independent newspapers to publish without censorship, hospitals to appeal for crucial medical equipment, agencies such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to communicate, peace groups from all sides of the conflict to work together, and displaced refugees to find each other.

This latter function has been so successful that officials in a refugee camp in the Netherlands ordered the camp's one computer off the premises fearing they would be swamped with refugees as relatives were located.

Bachman says the tracing of refugees has grown out of ZaMir's letters project, whereby volunteers relay print-outs of e-mail messages to those without access to computers. In Sarajevo, where there are 1,100 users, four or five times as many use the network indirectly, with volunteers walking miles across the city to deliver messages.

"In Tuzla, a man got a reply back from a relative in a prisoner of war camp," says Bachman. "As the message came off the printer he read it with tears in his eyes. It was really incredible because we don't have the resources of the Red Cross. It made me realise that a lot of human help is possible with a little investment and work."

With few funds at his disposal - much of what is available given by the George Soros Foundation - and donated modems and computers, the investment may have been little. But the same cannot be said of the work.

When Eric reached Sarajevo in February 1994, outgoing telephone calls were almost impossible. Within three weeks he managed to get a server running, with ZaMir's server in Geneva dialling through once a day to pick up e-mail messages. These could be sent elsewhere in the network and, through GreenNet in London, worldwide.

By 1995, there was often no electricity, and ZaMir shared the emergency generator of the International Rescue Committee, located near the government offices, which came under frequent shelling. When the IRC's offices were destroyed by a 500lb bomb that flattened the government building next door, ZaMir lost its access to a generator, and Bachman had to make a perilous nighttime journey over Mount Igman to get a pair of lorry batteries to power the computers.

ZaMir does not yet have full Internet connectivity, or a Web site, but Bachman has helped the Soros Foundation set up Bosnia's first Internet connection at the University of Sarajevo, where 10 computers will soon have access to the Internet via a satellite link.

Bachman says Soros has bought the equipment in order to set up an Internet server for the entire country, but the problem, as ever, is lack of telephone lines.

ZaMir is co-operating with Peacenet, a US-based organisation, in setting up a searchable database of refugees from ex-Yugoslavia called the People Finder Service. Peacenet's Ed Agro describes Bachman as "one of the unsung heroes of the Balkan wars".

"One has only to consider how Slobodan Milosevic and his gang laid the groundwork for the wars by taking control of the media to realise that alternative media, and alternative transnational communications, will be of utmost importance in the coming months," he says.

Information about ZaMir and Peacenet's People Finder Service can be found at http://www.

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