F E A T U R E S    Issue 2.01 - February 1996

Wired Bosnia

By Rick E. Bruner

Bosnia is the first war to have had Internet access. Last summer, when Croat troops staged major offensives to regain territories long held by rebel Serbs in the Krajina, reporters from Croat state television uploaded photos and text to the World Wide Web only hours after battles were fought. When NATO launched an airstrike, or when Serbian troops shelled a market town, Bosnians and Serbs alike reach for a keyboard to send distant relatives e-mail to reassure them that, this time at least, they have survived unscathed. The few rights and many wrongs of the war have been argued out on Usenet newsgroups and mailing lists as well as in newspaper leader columns. When a peace treaty was signed by representatives of the warring factions on November 21, 1995, discussion on the Internet fleshed out the maps and the compromises for broadcast on television.

A ragtag collection of peace activists believe that better communication just might help stop the killing. These activists have wired Bosnia's war. The ZaMir Transnational Net has six nodes in four countries of the former Yugoslavia, including the embattled Bos-nian cities of Sarajevo and Tuzla; Zagreb, Croatia; Belgrade, Serbia; Prisstina, Kosovo, Serbia; and Ljubljana, Slovenia. The 3-year-old, nonprofit network presently serves more than 2,000 members, mostly organisations which provide access for individuals. And it has saved both lives and minds.

There are no longer any postal or telephone services between the warring fragments of the former Yugoslavia. So for many, ZaMir has been the only way to find loved ones lost in the war or to summon help for the wounded. Its Pony Express e-mail-to-real-mail campaign uses volunteers - both inside Bosnia and outside - to help exiles reach family and friends by printing and delivering messages sent via ZaMir. ZaMir also provides simple reassurance that normal life still exists somewhere on the planet. The Sarajevo Pipeline is a website where netizens can send messages of hope and goodwill to Bosnia's beleagured inhabitants. ZaMir has worked minor miracles: it gets messages through, it provides news and it coordinates peace protests. But the major miracle eludes it.

ZaMir, "for peace" in Serbo-Croatian, did not stop the war. Not even close. For all its myriad achievements, ZaMir is still caught in the war's suspicions and hatreds. Usenet newsgroups on the region blaze with flame wars of genocidal proportions. Conspiracy theories of government-sponsored online propaganda campaigns abound and the threat of state electronic censorship looms. On ZaMir conferences, where strong antiwar sentiments prevail, political discussions are notably - and noticeably - absent.

"It's an illusion to think people will speak directly, as if they like each other, when someone has relatives in one town that was just bombed by another party," says Vedran Vuscic, a program director at the Soros Foundation - the philanthropic trust of Hungarian-American financier George Soros - in Serbia. Robert Horvitz, who coordinates funding for ZaMir through the Internet Program of the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute in Prague, shares Vuscic's view. "People have learned not to speak too openly with people they don't know well. There's a lot of fear about a person's words being taken out of context. There is a lot of deliberate disinformation in the former Yugoslavia, and I really understand their anxieties. You put something online and you lose control over who has a copy of it. It's much easier to forge electronic text than paper text."

In a land where information has generally been synonymous with propaganda, where generations imbibed lies and historical revisionism with their mother's milk, where people lived 46 years in "brotherhood and unity" yet never dared to speak their minds, the former Yugoslavia may provide the greatest test of the positive powers of openness and communication on the Net. NATO air strikes have come and gone. In late November, as Wired went to press, hopes were high for the peace settlement brokered by the US Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Holbrooke. But the process of rebuilding basic trust and communication among peoples in the region will take a long time, regardless of the medium. That makes ZaMir's mission all the more important.

Nation shall e-mail unto nation

ZaMir's history is a testimony to idealism. A band of hippies and cyber-cowboys strung the network together almost four years ago in order to arm the former Yugoslavia's embattled citizens with the means to speak and decide for themselves. The Soros Foundation, the US-government backed National Endowment for Democracy, and numerous smaller donors provide funding. A low-paid and volunteer staff of about a dozen manages the network.

"It actually started as a hobby," says Eric Bachman, the network's founder. Speaking by phone from Germany, where he lives, the 46-year-old American sounds like the quiet, soft-spoken type. But his modesty belies a taste for adventure. A career pacifist, he has lived much of his life in war zones. ZaMir is the crowning achievement of a lifetime dedicated to guerilla peacefare.

Shortly before NATO renewed air assaults against Bosnian Serb military targets in the autumn of 1995, Bachman was in Sarajevo delivering masses of computer hardware to the capital and rescu-ing the city's ZaMir node after the building that housed it was destroyed by a 500-pound bomb. Getting into the city' was especially difficult with only one mountainous land route open. Driving along the most vulnerable stretch of road, completely exposed to Bosnian Serb artillery, Bachman met a UN convoy coming the other way and was forced to drive its length at a snail's pace. "We were lucky," he says. "It was foggy."

Bachman came to Europe 25 years ago to avoid service in the Vietnam War, and has since then made a living teaching nonviolent conflict resolution. In 1991, he was doing a booming business in Zagreb and Belgrade when he got sucked into efforts to help those stricken by the growing conflict. "At that time, war had just broken out," Bachman says. "People would ask for help: 'Can you take this letter across the border?'"

He first used fax machines to link peace groups in the two warring capitals. Direct telephone lines had just been cut, so the fax transmissions had to be routed through Britain and the Neth-erlands. Bachman found equipment and donors to cover phone costs, and a communication channel was born. The fax network developed and spread, but it had its limitations. "Some people who were farsighted could see a use for e-mail," Bachman says.

Wam Kat is one such visionary. Thirty-eight years old and officially unemployed, this extraordinary Dutchman has always gone all out for his causes. In 1978, he spent four months in solitary confine-ment in a Czechoslovak prison for posting large stickers renaming Prague's Red Brigade Square as Jan Palach Square, after the protester who in 1968 set himself on fire there during Prague Spring. While representing Holland's Socialist/Pacifist Youth Association, he climbed a factory chimney in Karl Marxstad, East Germany, which he sat atop holding a Greenpeace banner for five days waiting for the western press to show up. Though Greenpeace had notified them, they never did.

Kat, a hacker from way back, is largely responsible for introducing modems to Bachman's network. Kat got his first taste of the Internet in 1977, when a friend showed him how to hitchhike e-mail messages on the Arpanet while it was still a US military experiment.

"That night, we went home and smoked a few joints and speculated what would happen to the world if computers became portable," he says. Soon afterwards he wrote his graduate dissertation on that very topic, finishing it in prison as a criminal, for refusing military service. The PC industry developed pretty much as he had predicted, "but in three to four years, instead of 30," he says.

Kat and Bachman have known each other for a decade. "We met while blockading whatever it was we happened to be blockading at the time," says Kat. When they reunited in Zagreb in late 1991, Kat was carrying his own laptop and modem, and he started feeding dispatches about the war onto the Internet via GreenNet, Britain's nonprofit alternative-movements network.

Kat recalls one of his first reports in early 1992, when he and Bachman were visiting the recently liberated city of Osijek. In a bombed-out apartment, Kat spent a full hour combing though a tangle of wires in a corner till he found two that produced a dial tone, and he promptly logged into a real-time conference. "I was there typing as fast as I could on this old Sanyo laptop with no hard disk, only a floppy drive, and not even a half meg of RAM. These were the first reports coming from the former Yugoslavia. I'm typing, 'Whoa, that last grenade landed pretty close,' and some readers start complaining that I'm not using a spell checker."

New media, old arguments

In fact, Kat probably exaggerates. It is unlikely that his posts were the first coming out of the war onto the Internet. While ZaMir is breaking new ground in bringing e-mail to ordinary people, the region's hackers and academics have been online for a long time.

Take Adnan Messalic, for example, a 17-year-old resident of the Bosnian city of Tuzla, which has been a battleground since this war began. Messalic works as an apprentice at a Novell distributorship there. He has written his own wireless e-mail software. Most impressive, Messalic has had a mail gateway to the Internet since he was 15.

"I had e-mail through packet radio two years ago," he writes via ZaMir. "I was receiving messages from Australia and places like that. The Bosnian army was at war with the Croats, and Tuzla had no supplies whatsoever, telephones didn't work, people were starving. And at that time, I would call some person here and tell him, 'You have message from Australia.' I mean, he can't phone his neigh-bour, and I'm receiving messages from Australia. People then and now, when the situation is much better, do not believe in e-mail."

Connectivity is not quite so dire in the region today - at least not in most places. Of the former Yugoslav territories, only in Bosnia and Kosovo is ZaMir the sole link to the Net. In Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, whose peaceful Alpine streets may as well be in Austria for their proximity to the worries of war, full Internet access is widely available. Croatia and Macedonia also offer full Internet access through their universities. But a healthy dose of Balkan realpolitik and suspicion still stands in the way of the Internet dream: allowing all the region's voices to speak freely.

"I doubt you could create a website and promote opinions on it that the government doesn't like," says Damir Murathodszic, a Bosnian student exiled in Slovenia, where he lives in a refugee camp. "I don't think these new technologies can change anything. They're just new media for the government to control," says Murathodszic. What might pass for paranoia in other parts of the world merely seems like common sense in the Balkans. One gains a certain amount of respect for conspiracy theories after considering how effectively the place has been controlled for decades, even centuries, by conspiracies.

Bachman says he always expects some government to try and close down ZaMir. But aside from Croatian television once reporting that an electronic network fitting ZaMir's general description was feeding antistate propaganda abroad, "they've pretty much ignored us." Governments have not ignored all network providers, however. In 1993, after Croatian hackers flooded the Net with prank messages bearing the return e-mail address of President Clinton, Croatian Net administrators deliberately spread a rumour among users that the country's connection to the Internet would be severed. Meanwhile, in Kosovo - a region of Serbia populated largely by ethnic Albanians, where conspiracy theories run high even by Balkan standards - ZaMir users are quite sure the Serb authorities will be monitoring their e-mail communication soon, if they are not already. Just look, they say, at the recent trial of 72 Albanian ex-police officers, all found guilty and now in jail for allegedly plotting an antistate uprising. The majority of the prosecution's evidence came from bugged phone conversations.

In 1992, when the UN applied economic sanctions against the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), Austrian authorities refused to allow transmission across its territory of messages bearing the ".yu" domain - and thereby severed Serbia and Montenegro's access to the Internet. Serbia nonetheless has a flourishing domestic TCP/IP network of its own, complete with webpage, but its only gateway to the greater Internet is a 9600 bps e-mail exchange, which forwards messages four times a day via Greece.

Nikola Markovic, president of present-day Yugoslavia's Institute for Informatics and the ultimate authority for the republic's academic network, says he is universally ignored by the various international committees charged with administering the Internet. "I can't say anyone in the Internet hierarchy has decided not to allow '.yu' online, but there is a silence," he says. "As you know, on the Internet there is no word 'no' from anyone, but there is just silence."

The Soros Foundation's Vuscic, who identifies his own mix of ethnicities only as "rock 'n' roller," isn't waiting for anyone to give him permission to reconnect Serbia to the Internet. With the spending power and determination of the Soros Foundation behind him, he vows to have the technical solutions worked out by December 1995.

"UN sanctions are a big obstacle for enabling the peace process," he says. "I think the sanctions should at least be selective. Sanctions on weapons, the militarisation of society, yes. But sanctions on supporting cultural exchange and peace activities, no.... You know, the big hall of the UN general assembly doesn't have any win-dows. They're not only closed in that way, but many different ways. All kinds of institutions are naturally inclined to be closed, to make instruments of action much more rigid, purely mechanical."


Simple connectivity, however, is the least daunting problem facing those who would create an electronic dialogue in the form-er Yugoslavia. The real problems are suspicion and hate, and the propaganda that promotes them. "How would you like to meet someone who is listed as a war criminal just because of what he wrote by e-mail?" asks Dejan Veselinovic.

A Belgrade hardware guru, journalist, and self-avowed Serb nationalist, Veselinovic claims to have been placed on a Croatian list of war criminals solely due to his online ravings. Like so many "facts" in the region, however, his claim proves impossible to verify; Croatian foreign ministry officials disavow knowledge of any such list. "Of course the government wouldn't admit to having it," Veselinovic retorts, predictably.

Whether plots against him are real or imagined, however, his withering personal intensity makes it easy to believe others could find him a frightening force online. Among his several hobbies is researching human rights atrocities committed by nonSerb participants in the various Balkan wars throughout history. His obsessive ability to pound out "120K per day" of well-argued propaganda and post it to the Internet does not make him especially popular in certain circles, he says. Like many a determined Serb hacker, he finds it little trouble to navigate around the embargoed Internet gateway with the help of apolitical service providers abroad.

Veselinovic does not share the American, cyberromantic view that computer communication will unleash the truth and set people free. For him, it is simply another way of getting things done - for good or ill. Veselinovic believes that governments will soon be able to erase personal identities with the push of a button, a sort of 21st century "ethnic cleansing." "A computer is like a hammer," he says. "You can use a hammer to put in a nail or pull it out, to crack a nut, build a house, or kill a man. It's just a tool."

A similarly pragmatic and determined personality lurks behind the handle doctorb@ix.netcom.com. Frequently spotted on the former Yugoslavia Internet newsgroups, the mysterious Dr. B makes his most frequent appearances on the ZaMir-Chat mailing list. Due to the technical limitations of ZaMir's e-mail gateways, the chat list is the only public forum where ZaMir's users can interact with netizens at large. And thanks to Dr. B's ability to post tomes of footnoted news excerpts and persuasively argued analyses, he presides over the list's discussion as if it were his own talk show. With a professorial command of historical data and seemingly limitless access to information resources, he is (she is? they are?) an impressive example of someone harnessing the omniscient powers of our communication age and wielding that white-hot intensity with the will of a god holding fire.

The disappointment is that Dr. B is, well, a bit one-sided. He chooses to apply his intellect and mastery of online resources to argue that the Republic of Croatia is a reborn fascist regime hellbent on exterminating all Serbs, that the Bosnian Muslims are heathen fanatics who, given the chance, would murder all Serbs, that the entire Serb nation is merely the innocent victim of history and a deadly German-US conspiracy, and that the Serbs have acted purely in totally justifiable self-defense.

At the end of an impassioned, 1,600-word rant in early September, reacting to the commencement of NATO airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs, Dr. B. writes:

"And what did Germany, 'comprised of fanatic supporters of Hitler and the Nazis ... transformed - by deliberate policy - into a nation permanently inoculated against the totalitarian virus,' DO on the 56th anni-versary of the beginning of WW II - i.e. September 1 - within weeks of their joint US-Croatian effort to cleanse Croatia of Serbs, where, in one concentration camp from that war lie the remains of 200,000 primarily Serbs but also Gypsies and Jews?

"What did they do?

"They bombed the Serbs!!"

Maybe some of what Dr. B raves about is actually "true" - a word which in a Balkan context, however, is meaningless. Certainly he is entitled to his opinions, and by the anarchistic rules of the Internet is as welcome to express them as anyone else. The sad fact is, though, due to the nondiscriminating nature of mailing lists as a medium, the combination of Dr. B and one seemingly addled American expat in Germany who has made it his own private mission to post every day his vapid personal musings about the war (invariably addressed "Dear President Clinton"), and the volumes of flames these two solicit, rational discourse on ZaMir Chat has been drowned out.

If nothing else, the sheer volume of the list and the underlying hostility in its atmosphere have all but silenced participation from within ZaMir's own low-tech network of users, for whom neither electricity nor reliable phone lines are always a given.

Building an environment within which to resume normal conversations - the return of which will both signal and promote peace in Bosnia - is still Vuscic's long-term goal. He pursues it through the ether message by message.

"From my perspective, servers, modems, computers, and phone lines, that is just the technical precondition," Vuscic says. "But educating people how to use, not misuse, computers, how to make concrete programs - artistic, cultural, information, media and so on - and then to enable users to have access to such programs, and to contribute to them on a highly participatory level, that's the crucial point. Programs which are designed to communicate well between, let's say, the authors of the programs and the end-users, and wherever possible to have end-users be authors as well, that's something which we really need, something which can be effective through wires. Otherwise, there's an important rule about computers: shit in, shit out."

While ZaMir has not managed to jump-start public dialogue in the war zone, it has nonetheless been remarkably effective at the quiet, thankless work of connecting one person to another. And from that growing network of connections, ZaMir's founders hope eventually to build the foundations of a lasting peace. "No peace movement in the world can stop a war," says Wam Kat. "We just have to be prepared for when the war is over. That's when the real work will start."

Until peace is firmly established, those networking for peace at ZaMir and elsewhere can merely fight a battle of attrition. In the face of despair, the hackers supply ordinary civilians with one precious commodity - hope.

Messalic, the 17-year-old in Tuzla, has found some for himself. He is looking for a scholarship abroad where he can apply his obvious gifts for computer engineering rather than face conscription, perhaps death, in the killing machine for which he has so much contempt. Perhaps cyberspace is the only place for Messalic to believe in a life other than the nightmare which has already consumed his adolescence.

While the war raged around him he wrote: "I hope to get the hell out of here for at least five months. Five months of peace - no shells, no deaths, no nothing. Just to sit and drink cola, and listen to the silence." Perhaps peace will bring Adnan's dream home - and then , perhaps, he will also remember people who helped to sustain him through the dark times, people of ZaMir. And those memories and friend-ships will perhaps help to build a lasting peace. Perhaps.

Rick E. Bruner (74774.2442@compuserve.com) lived five years in Central Europe and co-founded Hungary's first independent English-language newspaper, Budapest Week. He currently lives near San-Francisco, where he is writing a novel.