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Ethnic Discord

Electronic Pony Express Handles Balkans Mail / Nonprofit on-line service keeps war-weary residents in touch with each other and the world.


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina- In Los Angeles, Nalini Lasiewicz sent New Year's greetings to all: "May 1995 bring a conclusion to the war in Bosnia and the beginning of reconstruction throughout the country."

Zoran Kajmakovic messaged from San Francisco seeking "information on my go÷d, good friend from childhood, Veda-da Seremeta."

And from Purdue University came an offer of information on post-traumatic stress disorder.

These are typical "'letters" carried on Sarajevo's equivalent of the Pony Express, an electronic mail network that connects the enemy-encircled capital with the rest of the former Yugoslav federation and the world.

ZaMir Transnational Net offers access to a city that has no regular mail service, limited telephone service and, for most people, no escape. Even when the roads in and out of Sarajevo are closed by Serbs, the information highway is open.

"I am a Computer engineer without electricity or a telephone," said network user Haris Hadzialic on a recent afternoon in ZaMir's cramped Sarajevo office. "I come here once a week to communicate with my friends in the ex-Yugoslavia, in Belgrade and Zagreb, and with my brother in Sweden who left here a few days before the war started."

For the neighboring state of Croatia, ZaMir provides a Communication link between its capital of Zagreb and Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. The Croatian government cut telephone Communications with Serbia in 1992 at the beginning of Zagreb's war with Croatian Serbs, who were backed by Belgrade.

The nonprofit network was founded by American and German peace activists in July, 1992, primarily for their colleagues in Zagreb and Belgrade who needed to send and receive uncensored information about the political Situation. ZaMir means "for peace" in Serbo-Croatian.

In 1994, Sarajevo was added to the network, along with the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana and Kosovo's capital, Pristina. Eric Bachman, one of ZaMir's founders, said he hopes to have the Bosnian towns of Tuzla and Mostar on line this year.

The System is funded by the Soros Foundation and the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy.

In Sarajevo, which is surrounded by rebel Serbs and the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim-dominated government, the network operates with one Computer and a telephone line serving about 550 users. Those fortunate few with their own terminals, modems and functioning telephones may dial their messages into the ZaMir Computer on a local call. The ZaMir line is often busy, but with persistence, a connection can be made.

Otherwise, users may drop off a disk at the smoke-filled office or stop to write their messages directly on ZaMir's computer, housed iri a building of internation -al aid agencies. The structure is powered by an electric generator, allowing for operation when most of the city is dark.

Telephone connections are far more dependable from Zagreb to Sarajevo than the reverse, so ZaMir's computer in Zagreb telephones its Sarajevo counterpart four limes a day to collect the mail.

"The computer is programmed to dial 20 times and then to wait for 20 minutes," said Srdjan Dvornik, a member of the Zagreb support learn. "It usually gets through."

Dvornik said the system can transmit about three lt four pages of text per second. The mail is relayed to the Zerberus computer network in Bielefeld, Germany, which then distributes it throughout the world. A computer letter from Sarajevo to Belgrade or Sweden may arrive in a matter of hours.

"The main thing is that we make contact between people," said Mladen Rifelj, who works for ZaMir in Sarajevo. "Between ordinary people and connections between people here and businessmen around the world, as well as contact with mass media, humanitarian groups and student organizations."

As Rifelj spoke he scrolled through a list of articles on Bosnia from Time magazine, the New York Times and other major publications that generally are unavailable in Sarajevo except through the computer network.

"I worked at the post office in telecommunications for 20 years," said his colleague, Meho Klico. "I know what communication means to people."

In war-ravaged Sarajevo, the computer service is free for the asking. In other cities there may be a minimal charge, but e-mail is far cheaper than regular mail or a long-distance telephone call.

"I think it is more or less clear that the main function of ZaMir is not communication between Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo, but with other countries," said Dvornik of the Zagreb team.

Dvornik said peace and human rights activists used the network to rally international support in the fall of 1993 when the Croatian government arrested 10 opposition politicians in Dalmatia. The prisoners were accused of being terrorists and were to be tried by a military court on charges of bombing their own offices.

Messages went out to human rights groups around the world, asserting that the explosives were planted and that the politicians were innocent. Eventually they were released.

That is the only time the Croatian government-or any government-has reacted negatively to the computer net work, Dvornik said.

"One evening on the television news, they remarked that even an electronic network was .being used for propaganda against the Croatian state. It was a .Communist-style accusation," he said.

Peace activists, journalists, business, people and other professionals, who are already familiar with computers, tend to dominate the network. Most people here still find e-mail difficult to understand.

But the traffic is increasing, and with it come many messages to people who arc not on line. That means that ZaMir's handful of employees are often asked to telephone or hand-deliver mail to thost who have no e-mail address.

In Sarajevo, the two part-time employees say they barely have time to do their job maintaining the system, let alone deliver the mail. ZaMir is looking for volunteers to help.

In Zagreb, where movement is unrestricted and telephone communications are better, Dvornik has more time.

"People see my name on e-mail and write to me with letters for their family. I print them out without reading them and put them in an envelope with a note that it was received through an electronic mail network. Then I either call or send it through the regular 'snail mail,' " he said.

That makes Dvornik an e-mailman.

© WWW-Administration, 08 Mar 06

© WWW-Administration, 21 Jan 03