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In Communication-Starved Balkans, a Few Bytes Go a Long Way

April 3, 1995

BERLIN (AP) _ Four times a day, a computer in Croatia dials Bosnia’s capital to pick up and deliver the mail. Not much of the news is good.

Messages are terse: ``Sejo Alimanovic has died from the grenade that landed near our electric station a few days after New Year’s.″

Dozens of electronic mail messages from Sarajevo reach Bosnian refugees around the world every week, relayed by a computer system built by peace activists and connected to the global Internet through a computer in Germany.

Telephone service has been cut between Sarajevo and Belgrade, capital of the Yugoslav federation, since war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina over independence from Yugoslavia in 1992. Lines were already dead between Croatia, another secessionist state, and the Serb-dominated remainder of Yugoslavia.

``There was all kinds of wildness, misunderstandings and propaganda because there was no independent area of communication,″ said Srdjan Dvornik, a peace activist in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb.

Until the ``ZaMir″ (For Peace) computer network was put together.

With cheap technology and hard work, Dvornik and the rest of the ZaMir team bridged the telecommunications blockade, relaying electronic mail over telephone lines throughout the Balkans.

Their network, unique in former Yugoslavia, has given independent journalists a voice, helped aid workers get relief to isolated enclaves, enabled human rights activists to quickly spread word of abuses.

ZaMir’s systems _ in Zagreb, Belgrade and the Slovene capital of Ljubljana _ are telephoned daily by their hub, a computer in Bielefeld, Germany. Zagreb, in turn, dials Sarajevo, and Belgrade calls the fifth ZaMir system in Pristina, capital of Serbia’s troubled Kosovo province.

Sarajevo has Bosnia’s only international telephone lines and phoning out is nearly impossible for all but a select few.

The equivalent of 400 pages of data flows daily into ZaMir’s year-old Sarajevo system. Some 500 users clog its single phone line, some dialing in from isolated enclaves like Tuzla, Zenica and Mostar.

The screech and whine of modems making computer connections is pure joy for ZaMir computer jockeys in Sarajevo, who can see Serb sniper positions a stone’s throw from the cracked and taped window of their office.

``Any communication to them is like pure oxygen,″ said Clancy Sigal, a University of Southern California journalism professor who keeps in regular e-mail contact with the Sarajevans.

ZaMir was the brainchild of Eric Bachman of Pennsylvania, a 46-year-old Vietnam War conscientious objector. In 1991, he set up a fax service in Croatia. Soon he was sowing modems like a latter-day Johnny Appleseed.

``I don’t drive through the front lines, needless to say,″ Bachman said in a telephone interview. But he said he has had to explain to suspicious men with guns what he was doing carrying around electronic devices.

Bachman is now working to get Internet links in Zagreb and Ljubljana. The chances are better in the latter because Slovenia has independent Internet service providers while access in Croatia is controlled by the government.

Financier George Soros and the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy cover ZaMir’s costs, less than $300,000 last year.

In addition to relaying private e-mail messages, each ZaMir system has electronic forums where journalists, peace activists and aid workers exchange information. Much of it gets to the Internet via the connection in Bielefeld.

Some ZaMir accomplishments:

_When Serbian authorities imposed their own directors on the Belgrade newspaper Borba in December, ousted journalists gave the world their side of the story.

_In desperate need of antibiotics last year, Kosevo Hospital in Sarajevo issued an appeal via the network. Operation Rescue got medicine through.

_When 10 opposition activists from Split were arrested by Croatian authorities and beaten in prison in 1993, supporters sent out daily reports. The beatings stopped.

ZaMir recently began offering walk-in service.

``People bring letters and some short messages and we type them in,″ said Aleksandar Olujic at the Belgrade office. Incoming messages are distributed by ZaMir volunteers _ by phone, mail or foot.

Olujic, 19, knows where users live in Sarajevo, which he fled in April 1992. He tries to route messages to the user nearest the addressee.

In a city under fire, the shorter the distance the better.

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