In the trenches with the warriors fighting one of the nastiest information wars of the late 20th century.
By Masha Gessen
I arrive in Belgrade bearing a box of Pampers. A wizened man at the bus station in Zagreb talked me into taking it for his grandchild, whom he has never seen. In Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, we stood together in a small crowd milling around a bus that would ostensibly take me to Hungary; in fact, it would stop briefly late at night in the medieval central square of a tiny Hungarian town to meet up with a co-conspirator bus that would finish the trip to Belgrade. There is no direct route between the two hostile cities. The border between Croatia and Serbia has been closed to the general population since 1991. The phone lines have been cut as long. Having convinced me to take the Pampers on my 13-hour journey, the old man ran off, reappearing a few minutes later with a can of Diet Coke and a package of sweet wafers: my reward. "We leave Croatia and go to Slovenia to call Belgrade," he told me, opening his worn billfold to show photographs of his two daughters who live there.
That's exactly what e-mail is for, I thought, adopting the righteously enthusiastic tone of Eric Bachman, the founder of ZaMir Transnational Net. ZaMir means "for peace" in Serbo-Croatian, Transnational means "across the borders of post-Yugoslav countries," and Net is more like a fistful of tangled fishing line tossed out between cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, the rump Yugoslavia, and a server in Germany.
Bachman, a Vietnam-era conscientious objector who has been living in Germany since 1969, has the neatly trimmed look and ringing voice of a management consultant and the beard, plaid flannel shirt, and stupefyingly large belly of a European frontiersman gone to pot. For most of the last 26 years, the 47-year-old American has been teaching people the basics of what is known as nonviolent conflict resolution. He says things like "I was so angry when Chernobyl happened," and after a split-second pause collapses into a girlish laugh, as if to say, I do get emotional, don't I? Only someone with that much faith in individual agency could have thought up an electronic network that would keep the peoples of what used to be Yugoslavia virtually connected – in spite of war, international sanctions, and spiraling ethnic enmity.
When I appear in my friend Lepa's Belgrade doorway at six in the morning, Pampers in hand, she forces her eyes open to stare at me in blank disbelief. The e-mail message I sent from Zagreb to inform her I was coming has not arrived. But that doesn't surprise her, nor should it: the ZaMir system in Zagreb (ZaMir-zg) has been down for most of the last three days, and the Belgrade ZaMir (ZaMir-bg), in her experience, is down every Sunday, and I had the bad sense to arrive on a Monday, and my message won't arrive till that night (three days en route), and anyway, everything is relative where time, communication, and life near a war zone are concerned. Take dialing in, for example. I dial in to an account at the University of Belgrade, but after 77 attempts, my PowerBook grows utterly disoriented and begins emitting desperate busy-signal sounds, which continue ghostlike even after I'm sure I've disconnected the phone line. Lepa observes my distress with the sage tolerance of an older comrade. "I used to think eight attempts was a lot," she says, "then 12, then 30, and then I got a message from this man in Sarajevo saying he'd made 400 that day."
Lepa Mladjenovicá is the quintessential ZaMir user: a hyperactivist in the antiwar, feminist, and gay-and-lesbian movements who uses e-mail to organize joint actions with activists in Zagreb as well as to keep in touch with friends in Sarajevo and with acquaintances all over the world. I pass my evenings with her to the insistent accompaniment of dial tones emanating from her laptop; conversation comes to a reverent halt every time we hear a modem signal that just might result in a connection. (Fortunately, like a third of the 2,350 ZaMir users, Lepa uses off-line software that uploads and downloads messages automatically.)
Unlike the rest of the Eastern bloc, Yugoslavia as a whole was not separated from the world by an iron curtain. Belgrade residents shopped for clothes in Italy, young people from Zagreb took jobs in Germany, and alternatively minded Yugoslavs like the ZaMir set – Ljubljana rockers, Zagreb environmentalists – were members of corresponding communities centered in Western Europe. After the war began, these cosmopolitans, accustomed to crossing borders at will, suddenly found themselves cut off from comrades in other parts of what had once been their nation.
The idea behind ZaMir was to connect groups fighting against war in a country that was being ripped apart by it. The first two ZaMir centers began in June 1992 in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and the rump Yugoslavia. In early 1994, centers in Sarajevo, the besieged capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Ljubljana, the peaceful capital of Slovenia, were Wired. Recent additions include in November 1994 Pris tina, the capital of Kosovo, the majority-Albanian region under Serbian control within the borders of the rump Yugoslavia; and this past spring the Bosnian city of Tuzla. Even the founders of ZaMir seem awed by the fact that an e-mail network has taken root in the scorched Balkan earth. "I mean, people actually have ongoing conferences across these borders!" exclaims Bachman. In the words of Wam Kat, a Dutch activist who has been working on ZaMir-Zagreb since the beginning, "The most ridiculous, idiotic thing has happened – a country at war with no money now has the highest percentage of e-mail users in the peace movement: every post-Yugoslav group active in environment, peace, et cetera, is on ZaMir."
Kat is a 40-year-old globetrotting troublemaker whose personal mythology is nearly rich enough to rival the convoluted history of his latest adopted land. The child of Holocaust survivors, he was wounded in Jerusalem as a child during the Yom Kippur War; he claims to be an heir to roughly a third of the Trans-Siberian Railroad; his dissertation, written in 1977, was a utopian fantasy about miniature computers; he has 14 brothers, two of whom are related to him by blood and 12 of whom are adopted, including three boys saved from Nazi concentration camps and six gay teenagers put out by their families; of his two brothers by blood, one is a juggler endlessly traveling by bus between the South of France and a natural farm in Estonia while the other is setting up grass-roots print shops in Borneo. Wam Kat has worked in the peace and environmental movements in Europe for the last 20 years. With the details of his dramatic, novelistic background so difficult to best, it's no wonder he has spent the last three years in Zagreb, becoming famous locally for his role in the ZaMir network, for co-founding a volunteer reconstruction project in the demolished town of Pakrac, and for posting the Zagreb Diary online, an ongoing daily chronicle of the vagaries of a Western European peacenik's life in Croatia.
There is an advantage to having this war in the heart of Europe, as both local and foreign rhetoric inaccurately but stubbornly dub the region. For one thing, European do-gooders – that peculiar social layer composed of unemployed would-be hippies, draft dodgers, and others Kat calls "refugees from their own cultures" – no longer have to travel to another continent to engage in exotically satisfying physical labor; they can help rebuild bombed-out houses an overnight train ride from home. Even better, Zagreb is a nice town, dotted with lovely parks and pleasant cafés set off by ensembles of cream, brown, and gray architectural symbols of Habsburg refinement. Since the war of 1991, which touched Zagreb briefly but devastated areas an hour or two to the west and south, the Croatian government has lavishly funded the restoration of the capital, turning it into a conspicuously shiny example of what the heart of Europe would look like if it were in Zagreb.
Zagreb is a uniquely nice place to fight against a war, and running an electronic-mail network is a uniquely nice way to do it. "It gives me a good conscience," bubbles Andreas Jäger, 21, an apparent surfer wannabe from Germany who used to run the Zagreb system but has now moved to the Adriatic coast, where he dispenses tech support via a cellular telephone. One surmises that if Jäger were back in Germany, he would be doing something a lot less fun and satisfying: his military service. Like all but one other member of the ZaMir-zg support fraternity, Jäger sports shoulder-length hair. His support-teammates are Kat; Burkie, a silent, disheveled character of indeterminate age who was a sergeant in the German army until meeting Kat 10 years ago, when he developed the habit of popping up everywhere Kat goes; Ognjen Tus, 45, a techno-hippie who maintains he drives one of the last Volkswagen Bugs made in Yugoslavia; and Srdjan Dvornik, a weary 42-year-old intellectual political activist.
In each city, the ZaMirites seem to have a distinct group identity, and most of them have never met their counterparts in the other cities. Only Bachman is acquainted with all the systems operators – there are two or three of them at each node. Some ZaMirites are geeks, some are intensely political, and the Zagreb ZaMirites are notably cool and generally pleased with themselves for running such a nifty project.
No more than two of them at a time could possibly fit into the ZaMir-zg domicile, a pine-paneled room that in summer heat produces a distinct sauna effect. The six computers that comprise the Zagreb node reside on pressboard atop sawhorses. The file server has been temporarily stripped of its case, which, technology aggressively demystified in keeping with ZaMir's use-it-don't-fetishize-it attitude, has been adapted as an ineffectual but symbolic liquor cabinet. For my first two nights in Zagreb, Kat sleeps stretched out between the two makeshift tables: he has just rented a new apartment in Zagreb, but he doesn't have the keys.
The part of the world that used to be called Yugoslavia has a peculiar effect on journalists and other writers: we start obsessively culling vignettes we claim embody the spirit or logic of the whole place. A town comes to signify the entire country, a person its long history, and a lost puppy the overwhelming scope of the refugee problem. Perhaps there is simply too much confused and disheveled life to grok in this land, where a message from Zagreb to Belgrade (a six-hour drive before obstacles caused by the war) needs to travel between 4 and 48 hours via a server in Bielefeld, Germany.
Perhaps it is simply the Balkan trend toward compartmentalization and miniaturization. Whatever the reason, the story of Wam Kat's keys strikes me as properly symbolic of the entire ZaMir phenomenon.
This is how it went: After being put out by his girlfriend, Kat rented a new apartment that had belonged to Kathryn Turnipseed. This being the Balkans, she is a separate story – a 32-year-old former commercial banker from New York City who has spent the last year traversing the post-Yugoslav countries training women to use ZaMir. Traveling under the code name Electronic Witches, Turnipseed is a one-woman campaign aimed at correcting the male domination of technology (the first and only female ZaMir sysop, in Sarajevo, came onboard just a few months ago) while helping the various women's groups working against the war (in all towns made up largely of refugees, there are disproportionate numbers of both women and children). A lot of her students have never touched a computer. To help them overcome fear of high technology, she says, "I compare computers to things like ovens and cars. Just like a car, you don't know what's happening in the engine but you can still use it, and if something happens, you call a technician."
But back to the keys: Turnipseed was not in Zagreb when Kat hoped to bed down in his new dwelling. When asked where she might be, ZaMirites gave a variety of answers from which one could deduce that she had moved to the Bosnian city of Mostar. As it turns out, she had moved – across town – not the border, but was at that moment at a women's conference in Macedonia, where she had not received messages. She had one set of keys, and three more sets were locked inside the apartment.
Which may not sum up all of the former Yugoslavia, but it does capture the essence of the ZaMir network: at the same time the keys were so close and yet not within reach, all the ZaMir-zg software and history was lost somewhere on the three 500-Mbyte hard drives but utterly inaccessible, because for two days, the drives had been insisting they were blank. Attempts to download the software from Germany were foiled by bad phone lines. And the backups – the backups were with Eric Bachman, who was "somewhere between New York, Bielefeld, Tuzla, Belgrade, and Pris tina," according to a message from Ognjen Tus. "The latest message is that his notebook computer is broken."
So far, and yet so close: on the first day of the disaster, Bachman was actually just a phone call away, at his home in Germany.
On the second day, he was on his way to Zagreb but couldn't have gotten in touch with ZaMir because all four phones were off the hook to prevent users from connecting to 1.5 Gbytes of empty disk space. Bachman's notebook was indeed broken, so he was traveling around with a portable hard drive – a typically ZaMir low-tech solution to a high-tech failure.
There is something mind-boggling about such inefficiency and rumor running a network. Turnipseed suggests that because everyone is Wired, there is no need to keep one another abreast of physical whereabouts. But perhaps all the entanglements and failures also have something to do with the romance of the war zone, where nothing should ever work too smoothly and no one should ever get too comfortable. Perhaps, too, it is the way of this region, where myths are born out of thin air and carried through generations, and where personal fictions are sometimes the only means of escape.
This is a place where many people are but the disembodied memories they have left behind, while others wish they were disembodied – and not just because they have no place to sleep. "The whole region is a virtual reality," claims Wam Kat. "Bosnia is a virtual country, because its citizens are scattered all over the world."
But Bosnia is an actuality as well, a reality of relentless carnage, dead children, and people reduced once again to starving in the basements of their buildings while, perhaps, upstairs a modem is blaring, missing a potential connection in a rare moment of telephone lines and electricity working in concert. The most dramatic part of ZaMir is its link to Bosnia, a year-and-a-half-old communication miracle maintained in spite of regular power outages, nearly nonexistent telephone connections, and, of course, shelling. Messages from Sarajevo to the outside world pass through Zagreb to Bielefeld, which in turn distributes the messages to Belgrade or the Internet. In April of this year, Bachman hooked up Tuzla, another Bosnian city.
There are more than 700 users in Sarajevo, though many of them do not have their own modems, and some don't even own computers. They come into the ZaMir-sa office to upload or type in their messages. In a city where life is reduced to survival, the proper function of an electronic communication is to testify to this accomplishment, to let others know, and to locate the missing. Since the initial wiring of the Sarajevo node, it has been used largely to help friends and relatives separated by war to find one another.
Alexander Olujicá – or Sale, as everyone calls him – was "found" by a couple of friends still in Sarajevo, which the 16-year-old Sale fled with his sister three years ago. In April 1994, he received a phone call that passed on a ZaMir e-mail message from high school friends still in Sarajevo. "I was very intrigued," he explains. "How did the message get here? When they told me by computer, I was interested and asked if they needed any help." Soon he was heading up the letters project in Belgrade.
I wrote to Sale before coming to Belgrade, and he heartily invited me over e-mail to the ZaMir-bg office for beer, which, he wrote, lasts from about 4 in the afternoon till 8:30. By the time I get to Belgrade, though, Sale is nowhere to be found; he is in Nova Pazova, a tiny town where, the hope is, he can evade police and soldiers carrying out the mass mobilization of refugees from Bosnia.
Nova Pazova is a bumpy 50-minute bus ride from Belgrade (we pass a sign to Zagreb – a sort of "I exist," with no kilometrage and pointing in an indeterminate direction, which is just as well, since you can't get there from here), and the entire dusty town smells like a chicken coop.
Sale, now a 19-year-old with a disarmingly downy upper lip, sits on a fold-out velveteen couch, lanky arms stuck between bony knees: idle restlessness embodied. His friends from the Centre for Anti-War Action, where the Belgrade ZaMir is housed, are supposed to be on their way over with a computer and a modem so he can get back to work from his hiding place.
I ask him how long he has been in hiding. He flashes an embarrassed smile: "I am not in hiding. It's sort of a vacation for me." Which, translated, means something like, "I am sick to death of politics, and that is the last thing I want to talk to you about."
The ZaMir letters project relies on a score of volunteers in Sarajevo and Tuzla to receive messages from ZaMir's Belgrade office and pass them on to addressees by phone. "There are a lot of things that are needed for this to work," says Sale. "ZaMir-Sarajevo has to be working, the volunteer has to have electricity and a phone and be in the same part of town as the recipient – you can't expect someone to carry a message in those conditions." The most a volunteer can be asked to do is struggle with the phone to read a message aloud to the addressee. Most phones do not reach beyond a particular neighborhood, however, so Sale has an incomparable asset as coordinator: he remembers what Sarajevo telephone exchanges are located in which neighborhoods. He estimates that 1,000 people have exchanged between 5,000 and 6,000 messages with friends and relatives in Sarajevo in the past year.
But his work is emphatically not political. He just loves computers, he says, this boy who was forced to leave high school after his second year, and at ZaMir-bg, he tells me, he gets to do what he loves.
As much as the Zagreb ZaMirites enjoy the glamour of their political mission, their Belgrade counterparts shrink from it in horror, proclaiming their techno geek-essence repeatedly: being political in Belgrade is too hard. It means responsibility. It means crying, like Lepa Mladjenovicá does, when you read an e-mail message from a friend in Sarajevo who describes "the vertical sound of the raindrops falling and the horizontal noise of the shells flying." No one is relaxed in Belgrade anymore; it has a lot fewer cafés than Zagreb, and in those it does have, people do not lean back leisurely: they lean in intensely. In the view of the Western world, Bosnia-Herzegovina is the residence of Victimhood, Croatia is the Potential New Democracy in the heart of Europe, and Serbia is the seat of Evil. From within Serbia, people have had to choose between the tears and weight of responsibility, rabid nationalist fervor, and forced de-politicization; the Belgrade ZaMirites have tried for the last. And as Zagreb takes its virtual connection to the rest of the world as its due (it is the heart of Europe, after all, and carries none of the responsibility for the Balkan disasters), Belgrade is scrambling for that connection desperately, hopeful that through the Internet it can become a part of the civilized world.
In addition to Sale, the ZaMir-bg team includes Sas a Petrovicá and Miroslav Hristodulo, two 23-year-old engineering-student friends who want nothing more than a full Internet connection for the rump Yugoslavia. Of all the post-Yugoslav countries, full Internet connections exist only in Macedonia, Slovenia, and Croatia, though in Croatia, ZaMir's struggle to get its own gateway has so far been fruitless. The republics of Montenegro and Serbia, including the Albanian enclave of Kosovo, had an Internet connection through Austria starting in 1989, but with the imposition of international sanctions, this line to the outside world was cut.
Close to two years ago, Hristodulo, Petrovicá, and about 200 kindred spirits, all of whom had met through various Internet-related newsgroups on Yugoslav BBSes, decided to form the Yugoslav Computer Communications Association (YuCCA), devoted to devising an on-ramp to the information superhighway. The first step, according to the group's members, is a local UUCP network, which they have lovingly dubbed the Yu-Internet – sort of a virtual Internet. "This is so we learn the protocol for when we get Internet," Petrovicá explains, batting his thick eyelashes like a 5-year-old trying to rationalize opening his Christmas presents too soon. The second step is – the World Wide Web.
At the Organizational Sciences Faculty of Belgrade University, Professor Bo ze Radenkovicá proudly demonstrates the World Wide Web. An extraordinarily large and bearded man, Radenkovicá is the head of the government's information-superhighway task force, formed around the same time as YuCCA. The government of the despised, boycotted rump Yugoslavia is real keen on getting on the Net.
"This is a conference on communications," booms the giant professor. "See, these are the presenters. This is very interesting."
As interesting as dozens of digitized photographs of middle-aged gray-suited men could possibly be. Radenkovicá uses the phrase "very interesting" exactly 38 times; 16 of those times he adds "for you." What is very interesting for me is that this entire group of very enthusiastic computer scientists seems to have forgotten the meaning of the first two Ws in WWW.
"They have very nice World Wide Web at the Electrotechnics Faculty," Professor Radenkovicá informs me. "And this presentation is accessible to all 1,200 users of the Yu-Internet."
Perhaps they stand for "We Want."
The more isolated an area is, the greater the information deficit among its residents and the more exposed their desire for a connection to the outside world becomes.
Perhaps no place – certainly no place that's not currently being shelled – projects the same feeling of isolation as Kosovo. Kosovo is a disputed region of about 2 million ethnic Albanians who are living in a police state ruled by a tiny Serb majority. Since 1991, Albanians have been shut out of all the official institutions, including the media, the theater, and the education system.
They have formed a parallel underground government and education infrastructure. Everyone I know in Kosovo is concerned first and foremost with how to get his or her passport, which has either expired and not been renewed or was taken away by the Serbian police; second on the agenda is the installation and maintenance of a satellite dish that allows the people of Kosovo to watch Albanian television, which broadcasts for two hours starting at 6:30 in the evening – the streets are empty until 8:30. The average Kosovo Albanian makes no money. The average working Kosovo Albanian would have to labor for two or three months just to buy the simplest satellite dish at 450 German marks. Yet the companies that import them claim to have sold 110,000 since last year.
It is little wonder that the people of Kosovo who hear about the miracle of electronic communications become obsessed with the idea. Akan Ismaili, the tiny 21-year-old administrator of the Pris tina ZaMir node, says he read about the Internet in high school and three years ago took a job with an insurance company solely because there was a modem in the office. He used it after hours to call BBSes wherever he could find them. Last year, he sent an article about the Internet to Koha, an Albanian-language weekly magazine, and was asked to travel the 50 kilometers to the Kosovo capital of Pris tina, where Bachman and the staff of Koha were cooking up ZaMir's Kosovo node.
Having spent his formative years fantasizing about the Internet, Ismaili appears distinctly more comfortable with computers than with people. After asking me a few questions, he gets an understanding look in his eyes: the keywords journalist, Eastern Europe, English language have computed. "Ah, so you are like a newsgroup," he says with relief, performing the information-age corollary of anthropomorphizing.
The only person Ismaili likes is Zana. In fact, he seems to be in love with her. "She is a beautiful young woman," he says, stretching the oooh in beautiful to the point of ecstasy. "She's the good fairy of the woods. She helps people in need get out." Zana is the Pris tina ZaMir node. The name was chosen because "za mir" is Serbo-Croatian, the alienating language of the oppressor. Zana is a favorite Albanian folk image as well as a popular girls name, making the computer network for Ismaili just another adorable Pris tina infant.
It is a modest undertaking in Pris tina, and an uphill battle. At the moment, Zana-pr is two 386 computers without hard drives or monitors, hooked up to the local-area network in the offices of Koha. The system has 80 users, many of whom are foreigners working for international relief organizations.
The local phone lines are so bad that an organization wanting to use the system regularly – a magazine or a newspaper, for example – would have to set aside a dedicated terminal to make netcall attempts all day long. But now that Zana-pr has survived what Ismaili calls "the period of childhood diseases," he is sure it will take off.
Pakrac, Western Slavonia
One of the few givens of our nihilistic age of information is that information is an absolute value. Its free exchange is what authoritarian regimes have done their best to prevent. It has been thought to topple governments – some would say the entire Communist bloc fell because of it – and to start wars. Certainly, the exchange of information – insults, rhetoric, revisionist histories – played a key role in starting the wars that followed. People are killed for what they know or refuse to forget. Shells are fired to quash information.
These are some of the initial wars of the information age (the first would probably be the real-time spectacle of the Persian Gulf in winter 1991). Like the wars before them, they have subjected their living victims to physical and political isolation. But unlike those wars, they have not created information vacuums.
With the possible exception of obscure Macedonia (the only post-Yugoslav country without a ZaMir node), all Yugoslav-successor governments have attempted to control the media. On the whole, their efforts – including Yugoslav president Milo sevicá's yearlong all-out war on the independent media – have failed spectacularly. Independent newspapers survive, though, like Belgrade's Nasha Borba (Our Struggle) or Pris tina's Bujku, they consist of scores of journalists stuffed into small flats adapted as office space. They owe their survival in large part to electronic communications. Shoestring operations with offices that may as well be virtual and are paperless of necessity (the price of paper is prohibitive) receive stories via modem – often via ZaMir – from their correspondents in various countries, and from AIM, the Alternative Information Agency, an association of about 70 post-Yugoslav journalists who use a closed Paris-centered computer network to supply stories free of charge to independent media throughout the former Yugoslavia.
On the face of it, this is the stuff of exquisite inspiration: journalists and activists succeeding against wartime odds in making an alternative perspective public. Except the wartime odds are winning. The antiwar groups and independent media in the region may have succeeded in getting hooked up, but this does not appear to have moved the war any closer to its end. The most tangible things activists do is mend people and buildings broken by war, often only to have them smashed again. This is what happened in Pakrac in the disputed region of Western Slavonia, where Wam Kat and other volunteers had been working for two years only to have their office used as a base by Croatian forces that overran the long-suffering town on May 1. Still, in Pakrac, the conviction that information must flow has not been abandoned: in addition to helping rebuild houses, Kat and his team continue to teach kids and women the basics of e-mail. Their impact can easily be debated – "I wonder who reads all this stuff," Kathryn Turnipseed laments, even after the monumental effort of training 110 women to use computer communications software and to put their stories on the Net. But the effort does leave incongruous traces.
There was the time, for instance, about a year and a half ago when Wam Kat handed his notebook to a 15-year-old Pakrac girl named Emira Demiri and asked her to type in her story. "Believe me, it wasn't easy," she explains. "It's bad enough just having it in your head, not sharing it, because it's yours, even if it's bad." This was the story of seeing her boyfriend blown up in the schoolyard, about being hospitalized for months and taking antidepressants for months more.
Kat posted the account instead of an installment of his diary. Letters of support and gifts poured forth in response, and another e-mail believer was born.
Emira wears a long-sleeved Nirvana T-shirt, a reminder both of the fact that contemporary war survivors grew up in the global village (where they watch MTV) and of another great Pakrac e-mail success: Last year, a group of Pakrac girls sent a message to Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic urging him not to commit suicide like Kurt Cobain, especially in light of how important his music had been to the girls' own struggle to survive. Novoselic responded with assurances of his intention to stay among the living and a US$60,000 donation to the Pakrac Reconstruction Project. Novoselic, it turns out, bears the name of one of the towns along the road from Zagreb to Pakrac, segments of which are ghost land – towns destroyed and abandoned – but the train still stops there, as though driven by motor memory.
From some angles, Pakrac looks no different: a decaying skeleton of a town.
But there are about 4,000 residents left here – about half its previous population – and one finds evidence of life, like a volunteer-organized youth party on the Friday night I'm there.
Down a few crumbling steps, around the corner of what may, if there were a light source, turn out to be either a covered alley or a large hallway, about 50 teenagers in plaid flannel and Nirvana T-shirts are packed into an old classroom. A square white sheet on the far wall implores in crayon colors:
BELIVE IN GOD [sic]
TO BE GOOD
In front of it, the world's smallest girl singer in several layers of grunge croons speeded-up Beatles covers. The teenagers toss up gangly bodies haphazardly, their skinny limbs flying overhead. The Pakrac volunteers – the same twentysomethings who have been rebuilding houses and teaching e-mail – stand back looking distinctly older, both wearily satisfied and vaguely dismayed.
"What the volunteers are doing here is normalization," Emira explains.
This oasis of frenzied energy in the middle of a dark, deserted, and destroyed town feels anything but normal. But then everything is relative where time, communication, and war are concerned.
Sale told me he's given up on trying to discuss politics with friends in Sarajevo "because all they want is to feel normal." He explained: "I wrote to one friend saying, I know how you feel: you have no heat and no food. And he wrote back, 'I have my humanitarian aid and my firewood, and I am fine.'"
A couple of years ago, my Belgrade friend Lepa used to obsessively repeat a line in a letter from a Sarajevo friend: "What I need you can't give me." No one can. No one can bring back the dead, guarantee that the new roof won't be blown off the house just like the old one, or create any sense of security for a single person or group living in what used to be Yugoslavia. Perhaps the best anyone can do is play the good fairy of the woods who helps people in need find, if only virtually, a way out.
Masha Gessen (email@example.com) is a Moscow-based journalist.
Evil Jesus Wires Albania, the Land Technology Forgot
Just for fun, try calling Albania. Here's Bill Eldridge's phone number: (355-42) 42531. He's a cool guy and probably wouldn't mind hearing from a stranger. But I'm not really worried about your bothering him; the point is, you'll never get through. You could try 20 times with operator assistance, and at best you're likely to hear weird pinging noises and sounds a leaky submarine might make. You might possibly even get through to the country and disturb some random, hard-working Albanian family. But your chances of reaching Bill are extremely low.
Modern communications is not one of Albania's strong points.
Isolated by communism's arguably most paranoid and hellish dictatorship for 44 years, Albania still has a bit of catching up to do with the rest of the world. Though only 60 miles across the Adriatic Sea from the boot heel of Italy, it is decades away from modern Europe. Until three years ago, there were no private vehicles in the country of 3.3 million inhabitants. (Now there are about 200,000, all clunkers, and it's no coincidence everyone drives like they just learned how.) Fewer than 2 people in 100 have telephones.
This year, however, if Bill can come through, the country is going to have one much stronger link to the modern world: the Internet. On a mission from his own private god, and with funding from the Open Society Institute and the United States Information Service, Bill is working to hot-wire Albania or bust.
Sporting a shaven head, a pointy red beard, and a glint in his eye he calls the "Evil Jesus" look, this 34-year-old Alabaman ex-punk street musician might seem like an odd choice for wiring a nation to the greater world of electronic communication. But Bill is probably as capable as anyone. With degrees in electrical engineering, computer science, and (for good measure) Spanish literature, plus having worked as a network administrator in St. Louis and later at the University of California, Los Angeles (after crooning in the streets in Barcelona and New Orleans got tired), he's got the skills required. Stints in India, Holland, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Macedonia seem to have given him enough perspective to deal with Albania.
"After living in North Denver and on Broadway in LA, Tiranë seems quite normal," he says, as we pick our way over garbage heaps in an alley shortcut to see the country's leading computer and chewing-gum dealer.
Bill is, in fact, becoming something of a Balkan online specialist. Before moving to Albania, he completed a 10-month Fulbright project in Macedonia, helping get that country's Internet connection up and going, which it did the month he left – June 1995.
Both Albania and Macedonia have as yet fallen beyond the reach of the ZaMir network's funding capacity, though there is talk of adding them in the future. When Bill's assignment in Albania is up, his next adventure may be networking in Prague for Radio Free Europe.
It's worth noting the one common thread running through almost all Balkan online projects, including Albania and Macedonia's Internet hookups and the ZaMir Transnational Network: the Open Society Institute. Solely funded and in large part controlled by Hungarian-American billionaire financier George Soros, no other organization comes even close to the institute's contribution to networking throughout all of ex-communist Europe. From all the countries of the former Yugoslavia to the most remote former Soviet republics, the institute has a profound vision for how online communication can help re-integrate these lost societies into the modern world community.
In any event, certainly few Albanians know as much about computers as Bill. Before the country's painfully repressive, hopelessly isolated communist regime died at last in 1991 – after massive riots destroyed most of the country and thousands of refugees fled – there were essentially no computers in the country.
That's not an exaggeration. Probably not more than 100. PC sales in Albania today are completely dominated by two distributors, those for IBM and Hewlett-Packard. Both say last year wasn't bad, with sales of about 500 PCs each. Best estimates are that fewer than 5,000 PCs exist in the country today.
Not surprisingly, Bill doesn't plan a conventional network for the country. With time tight, funding limited, and infrastructure nonexistent, his vision involves an odd mix of radio-packet switching, wireless modems, and satellite transmission. In fact, the term "wiring" has little relevance at all for the project, so much of it depending on transmission by air.
"Wires suck," says Bill. "Every time it rains, snows, hails, or someone digs a hole, the phones break down for a week."
For that matter, most of Albania has pretty basic problems with water and electricity supply. Universal connectivity isn't the top priority at the moment.
So, wireless modems seem like one obvious answer to the phone problems. And the idea of also incorporating radio-packet e-mail into the system came from Bill's pal Mike Holman, the geek for God. For the last year and a half, Mike and some 70 organizations within his umbrella group of Christian missionaries, the Albanian Encouragement Project, have been online, with both a domestic and international e-mail network, which Mike designed.
Obviously divinely inspired, Mike has jerry-built an e-mail system using hand-held VHF radio transceivers from RadioShack, terminal node controllers (essentially ham modems), solar-powered mountain-top radio repeaters, car batteries, vise grips, and duct tape. It's a bit slow and temperamental, to say the least, but it works better than previous alternatives.
Transferring by TNC at 4 Kbytes a minute, it still takes e-mail the better part of a day to filter from rural villages to the Tiranë BBS.
"It used to take weeks to send a fax out of the country," says Mike, a computer programmer and engineer, employed at NASA for a spell in the '60s, and a die-hard ham radio enthusiast for three and a half decades. "Two years ago, you had no choice but to drive for eight hours to another part of the country just hoping someone would be home, because there was no other way to get through."
More reliable still, for some thousands of souls lucky enough to have computers at all, the Internet promises to be a revolution of exactly the kind Albania desperately needs. Shortages of books and paper, harsh political censorship of the media, and almost no access to telephones for the masses remain realities in Albania today – a climate where online international connectivity could quietly work miracles.
In fact, the Net is also probably a much better way to try to reach Bill. Watch for www.albnet.al. Bill's beautiful, bald Czech wife, Elen Eldridge, was last seen designing extensive Albania Web pages on her PowerMac, doubtless the only one in the country. Or by now, maybe they're in Uzbekistan – who knows.
But by telephone to Albania? Forget it.
– Rick E. Bruner
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