A Few Bytes Go a Long Way in Bosnia
BERLIN — 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 messages from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, 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 since war broke out in 1992. Lines were already dead between Croatia and the remainder of Yugoslavia. ''There were all kinds of wildness, misunderstandings, and propaganda ,because there was no independent ... communication,'' until the ZaMir (For Peace) network was put together, says Srdjan Dvornik, a peace activist in Croatia's capital, Zagreb.
The ZaMir network, unique in the former Yugoslavia, has given independent journalists a voice, helped aid workers get relief to isolated enclaves, and enabled human rights activists to spread word of abuses quickly. The equivalent of 400 pages of data a day flows into ZaMir's year-old Sarajevo system. Some 500 users clog its single phone line, some dialing in from isolated enclaves such as Tuzla, Zenica, and Mostar.
ZaMir was the idea of Eric Bachman of Pennsylvania, a Vietnam War conscientious objector. In 1991, he set up a fax service in Croatia. Soon he began distributing computer modems.
Mr. Bachman is now working to get Internet links in Zagreb and Ljubljana. Financier George Soros and the United States National Endowment for Democracy cover ZaMir's costs, less than $300,000 last year.
ZaMir recently began offering walk-in service.
''People bring letters and some short messages and we type them in,'' says Aleksandar Olujic at the Belgrade office. Incoming messages are distributed by volunteers -- by phone, mail, or foot.
''Any communication to them is like pure oxygen,'' says Clancy Sigal, a University of Southern California journalism professor who keeps in regular e-mail contact with the Sarajevans.