Wam Kat Interview

with David D'Heilly

Wam Kat is Dutch national who has continued to find himself at the center of developing central/eastern information networks. I met with him, in his capacity as a central BBS system operator for ZaMir, in the humble computer room of Zamir ('Za' = 'for,' 'mir' = 'peace.') Zagreb in early May '95.

with David D'Heilly

Wam Kat is Dutch national who has continued to find himself at the center of developing central/eastern information networks. I met with him, in his capacity as a central BBS system operator for ZaMir, in the humble computer room of Zamir ('Za' = 'for,' 'mir' = 'peace.') Zagreb in early May '95.

Wam Kat: This one (gesturing to the computer in front of him) is the central computer for Croatia, about 500 users — a lot of them are human rights groups, peace groups and humanitarian organizations. It's also the link between Zamir Tuzla, from which we are phoning, and Zamir Sarajevo.

They are also getting and feeding messages from us, and to our main connection to the Internet in Germany, bionic in Bielefeldt. So, we are a certain type of in-between system also to the normal world: Germany and the somehow less normal world in Tuzla and Sarajevo.

David d'Heilly: How did this connection with Germany come up?

WK: When the war started in 1991 between Croatia and basically Serbia — you can say — in both major towns, Zagreb and Beograd, there were peace groups. And for some people from Western Europe and also for people from Zagreb and Beograd there was a need to connect up with each other. In the beginning there was still possibility to phone each other. But very soon, telephone lines went down, and halfway in 1991, in August, complete break down of the telephone lines.

So, people in England and Germany, peace activists said, "OK, if you send faxes from Zagreb to Germany, then we will send the faxes from Germany to Beograd."

Dd: You told me about a connection from these fax networks and the ZaMir BBS configuration…. and an interesting anecdote about a given person, who shall remain nameless, who helped the original fax network happen… could you please relay this story?

WK: OK, at a certain moment this given, unemployed activist from Holland was crazy enough to order from a huge company which had offices in the Netherlands, an incredible amount — 40 fax machines and something like 35 laptop computers from a stupid company that was crazy enough to fill the order. They were a Japanese company, and wanted to establish a market; they were pretty well known for transistors and radio equipment but not for their laptops. They met this certain person when they started selling those things in Europe.

They thought they suddenly had the biggest deal possible. They delivered within days. And they didn't send the bill or anything to this person for a few weeks. After some months, of course, they started to ask for money and this I said, "OK, I don't have them anymore. I smuggled them all out to Eastern Europe in backpacks with people traveling in the area. Some of them were stolen in Eastern Europe, and some are still in use by environmental groups. Yes, put me in jail, I mean, if you want to have this story out. It'll be your image problem."

It ended up that this network of machines established itself within about 2 or 3 months. We were 40 points in Eastern Europe which stayed in regular contact, using these fax machines. And these countries' state control systems didn't know at the time what was happening because they were used to tapping the telephone lines. Now all they were hearing were electronic whistles. A lot of this information had been sent out on the telephone previously and it was sometimes very dangerous for the people involved. But it was needed to get out, and get out very fast.

During the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, this network served as an information service or Civil Forum to the rest of the world. They sent out their statement about what the hell was going on in Czechoslovakia at the time by these fax machines.

Dd: And how many of these nodes developed into BBS servers?

WK: Three of them: Eco-connect in Prague and in Bratislava came out of this; Spider in Budapest came out of this; and Strawberry Net in Romania came out of this fax network. Once the computers arrived, they just thought, OK, we have put these laptops now, maybe they can get a real desktop computer, and maybe even a modem. They went to people at GreenNet in London.

Still, we are in Croatia and Serbia, and we have got the highest connectivity of all peace and human rights organizations in Europe. It started completely different. Other groups in the Netherlands, for example, started to connect up because that was how they could get our information. We refused to send them faxes anymore.

Dd: And this was in the early nineties?

WK: They were sending these in the beginning of April '92. Soon there were all kinds of messages on fax about what the hell was going on in Sarajevo and especially from areas like Zvornik, Travnik, Skevenica and also in the north places, which were later completely destroyed. We had the last faxes coming out in some cases. Day and night, we were sitting, taking in faxes, and phoning London, putting the information on the Internet, and then we started to realize that actually people were interested and taking an interest. People were bringing our transmissions to major press agencies, saying: "Hey, we have information from the region and there is no CNN. And the first reactions back from these organizations were: "What do you mean a thousand people were killed in Zvornik!? That's not true, we haven't seen it on CNN yet." (laughs) And two days later BBC and CNN moved in and found out that it was actually true.

Dd: I first knew of you through your diary, which a friend (Geert Lovink) showed me in Amsterdam in '93.

WK: The diary was meant more as a certain type of… I'm a westerner or Dutch one living in an area of war, and I'm trying to figure out what war is actually all about. My own stories about war comes from the second world war, I was born 10 years after, so I haven't got any real experience of it — neither this, by the way, the people in Zagreb or Sarajevo before the whole thing started. I mean, there is nothing like professional war, civilian.. For everybody it's new, this whole situation.

But to show that life is going on, and how life behind these front lines you see on television is actually taking part, because the big part of the war is not the violence you see on television but the big part is what's happening on your radio system. What kind of propaganda or what kind of things are shown on television, how you can't buy biotic things in the shop.

We also found out that some of the information we really needed to know wasn't available in this region but people in London knew about it. They knew from areas we couldn't get any information from. And very fast, about a week after it started, I found out that people were really helpful in organizing private initiatives of sending help. If there was material needed, medical material needed in Sarajevo, I just wrote it on the Internet and 2 or 3 hours later we got message back from America: "yeah, we've got the stuff for you if you can bring it in.

Rather than using your creativity and making something like the global village of the Internet, there must be enough people who have creativity to find small solutions for small problems. A war can be seen as a very huge problem, it can also be seen as a combination of all kinds of small problems which are solvable, for which you can find small solutions. And not only solutions in a type for which you need 3 millions or 2 millions or 20 millions or fleet of trucks, but cooperation with each other.

Very soon we thought it was needed to have our own BBS system or our own point in Zagreb and in Beograd, to link those two cities to…In that summer or spring of 1992 I came to Zagreb and at that moment already a peace group in Germany had delivered a modem to a peace group in Ljubljana, a peace group in Zagreb and a peace group in Beograd. But there was no knowledge of how to use it. This was in June 1992 and so I had my own computer I'd brought with me to Zagreb and private telephone line; Eric Bachman from Germany organized with people from networks in Germany, they gave us free FIDO software, store-and-forward software programmed by the Chaos Computer Club in Hamburg. Friends of ours in Vienna who were running a similar system agreed that if we phoned them, then Beograd could phone them as well, then we could develop an exchange between systems in Zagreb and Beograd. That has been running for about a year but not so many users because it was a very new media for everybody.

Then we found software connected to this German software which made it very easy for a certain type of black box software that people just type, push a button and it was sent. They didn't have to know the whole technology. It was very simple, straightforward. We actually started to get money from groups from around the world who said, "OK, here you have got a computer and modem. Start writing." So, a lot of our users in Zagreb and in the rest of Croatia started to use computers, not as typewriters in the first place, but as communication machines — communication to the rest of the world.

It took again quite some time before they started to figure out that they could also communicate with each other. And that in Zagreb and Osijek and Pula, they could send plans around, and between Zagreb and Beograd they could exchange information.

For example, when we started in 1993 the Pakrac project–on the former front line between Serbian-held part of Croatia and the Croatian-controlled part, and we started actually to work together with people in Beograd. I passed the line there but we also needed direct communication via the network between Zagreb and Beograd. And then the first real exchange between those two cities started on a practical basis.

Eric Bachman from Germany worked a lot for it in Beograd and we got in the beginning of '94 a big grant from Soros Foundation to start to connect to those cities we'd had in mind but didn't have the money for it. Not that it's a lot of money involved, because it's very amateuristic systems. It's just home computers with very cheap communications software and they are now somehow more professional modems, but still not huge Internet connections. It needs about a thousand D Marks or $500-600 to start a system.

So he started to connect Pristina and Ljubljana, and then very fast afterwards, Sarajevo. Sarajevo was in the beginning very problematic because (a) they didn't have regular electricity in the town, (b) there wasn't always telephone centers in the town, (c) there was no telephone line! (laughs) Outside there were some links by satellite to Switzerland, to the Red Cross, but we were not allowed to use them. But the Swiss telephone company was rather speedy. They established a lot of special telephone lines between Geneva and Sarajevo because there are a lot of humanitarian organizations.

Very soon there was a certain type of normal communication line. So, we worked messages from Zagreb to Sarajevo, which went from here to Beograd, from Beograd to Geneva. It was also a completely remote-controlled system we installed there, from there to Sarajevo. It was about a year ago, so halfway '94 there was the first connection line between Sarajevo directly to Zagreb. It's still 14 telephone lines which are going out of Croatia into Bosnia; it's still very, very limited.

But e-mail is certainly a big practice there because a lot of private people in Zagreb have got relatives in Tuzla and Sarajevo. A lot of organizations have got artists, partners of humanitarian organizations, partners in Sarajevo that have headquarters here in Zagreb and, if everybody started to phone over these 14 lines. I mean, it's still very hard to get through to Sarajevo. But now we combine all these mails and with high-speed over telephone lines, we can send out far more personal mails and all kinds of directions. UNHCR is using it, International Red Cross is using our bulletin board now. All the grassroots organizations which are not allowed to use UNHCR or UN … Force official telephone lines, satellite lines: they are all using e-mail.

Dd: You can't hitchhike on ham radio?

WK: No, you can't send political information. Only humanitarian information. We've did it in late '93 when the BH pocket that was quite stable in an area which was completely surrounded and together with IRC, International Rescue Committee and some others, we were able to get ham radio material in; had one standing here in Zagreb. For 2 or 3 months it went quite alright — not perfectly: we had some problems in the beginning because radio war-time is something like "maybe they are spying." If you are talking about paranoid, this used to be one country, so what is there, the hell, to spy?

Officials reacted that way, radio was something in the Second World War, illegal, pirating and spying. It's not the reality on the .. They know it's out of this position perfectly.

But the basic problems were more the non electricity in Sarajevo, than hitchhiking on Ham radio. We had to work with APS? systems: when there is energy, you load them and when there is low time, then it brings them down to 12 volts, instead of 220 volts. We did it together with students from a technical university in Germany, who were of course very interested to find out if it was possible to run a BBS system out of Sarajevo.

Dd: It's an interesting technical issue.

WK: So, they figured it out how to do it. In the first two months Sarajevo ran on a laptop computer. A very old-fashioned laptop, only a very big hard disk, nothing fancy.

Dd: And this was running through a land line, or this was running through..?

WK: Satellite. Satellite line to Switzerland. Very soon afterwards we could get a desktop computer inside Sarajevo. The first was brought inside, then later they found desktop computers inside Sarajevo. When people started to find out it's working, then people from computer companies started to get involved because they didn't have any connection with the rest of the world, either. And some of them were very bright computer programmers before the war. They were completely cut up from the rest of the world. And they are still programming parts of our database systems, for example, because they still haven't got much to do.

Dd: And here we are in Zagreb, you are Dutch and Eric Bachman is an American. The two of you operate with technical support from the Chaos Computer Club in Hamburg, and programmers with a lot of time on their hands in Sarajevo. This is sort of how the 'group' configures?

WK: Yeah, it's a global village. In principle everybody is just one keyboard away. (laugh) It doesn't matter where they are. For example, a lot of people who were active here in the beginning of the war and Moslems who came here to Croatia as refugees were active with us in helping refugees here in Croatia. When the war started in Bosnia between Moslems and Croats, a lot of these people decided to emigrate to Australia but they were still involved in the office work of organizations here because they learned during the period here in Zagreb the use of e-mail and, well, an office can be in another room or an office can be on the other side of the planet. You're still connected and you still get all the information which I also could get in Zagreb, and I still can do my work there, calculation work or something, it can be done in Australia much easier than in Zagreb.

Dd: You mentioned, for example, there are a lot of women on line in ZaMir…

WK: Yeah, there are still a lot of women involved. First of all, during the war there were lots of men who were going to the battle field, or resisting somehow or getting out of the country, so those who could be active with human rights and peace activities where still are mostly women. Also before the war there were environmental organizations or women organizations even, who started to get on-line and involved when the war started, doing peace work. There were women organizations, they were allowed to get women involved because it was not political. (laughs) High politics and men have got mostly the habit of being more involved in highly political work and women can be in more environmental, emotional stuff — human rights, Red Cross and so on.

We have got still very high amount of women users. Almost 50% of our users are women, which is incredible if we compared it with any other system in the world. Women from abroad who came here, got involved because in the late '92 there was this thing, a lot of women were raped in Bosnia. So, all the woman activists in the rest of the world started to show up here in Zagreb to do something for these war victims, for these women. Even people from America and UK found out, "Hey, this is great. These women are looking at the world in another perspective because they already know how to communicate with America." And they started, for example, to go to Pristina in Cosevo, where Eric started Zana.

Dd: Zana, Pristina, is a BBS, right?

WK: A BBS system from our network, and started to teach women who were not allowed to come out of their houses because they were Islam or to behave in a modern way — even some of them were not allowed to watch television because that was something for men — and teach them how to use e-mail.

Dd: But their husbands, they don't..

WK: They don't understand what's going on. I mean, there was somebody in with the laptop computer, they are used to seeing women sitting in the backroom doing something but they don't understand a thing, what is going on. Their women are communicating with women groups in Germany, lesbian women, woman activists, talking about emancipation rights and so on.

That is women are suddenly in the year 2000 and their husbands sometimes are still in the year 600 or 1600. So they really can't figure out that their women are often more up-dated on the situation around the world than the husbands.

Dd: And there's never been any political backlash political leaders?

WK: The only reaction we had was about three years ago there was an item on Croatian news — the real news broadcasting — that there was misinformation sent by e-mail to the rest of the world from Croatia, about Croatia.

We very well knew that they were actually mentioning us. Our reaction was very open. "OK, we were 100% illegal, we know. " There is a law in Croatia that says you are not allowed to hook up a modem to a telephone line. It was just like Germany in the beginning; it was also not allowed yet, you'd had to find systems that you'd have to use with voice connectors, very difficult systems you had to go around the law. But, we just said, OK, this is our telephone numbers, cut us down, we will find a way out anyway. Then we were phoning to Austria: "How do you think actually to stop us, or arresting us up?" (laughs) You want to have a democratic country, you want to act like a modern society, I mean, we are busy building up a super-modern society around here. So this was quite more or less half-aggressive reaction from us. OK, if you want to close it down, this is where you'd have to come. (laugh) You go under one telephone line, the only thing you'd have to take care was to pay it all the time because it was the only way. If we didn't pay it, then they could close it down officially without any other problems.

In Beograd we still don't know if the state did this on purpose but it happened an awfully lot of times that coincidentally deadblocked where our BBS were standing, cut up from the telephone systems for repairment. Sometimes in the high times they just started to dig up the street in front of their house with explanation that the telephone line has to be repaired.

If that had anything to do with each other, we don't know. We don't get paranoid about those things, you know.

We don't want to moderate in the way you are saying and we think information should be strong enough to be self-regulating. But the true, if you are fighting about the truth. You are surprised on the Internet conferences which are related to Yugoslavia — social courts for Yugoslavia, social courts for Croatia. There is a lot of fighting, "You are a liar," "You are a liar," "Ah, but in 1600 something […] came and .." Very dumb stories, it's a real flame war. It's a real war.

Dd: Let's talk more about your off-line activist work. You also mentioned that people were broadcasting from mosques.

WK: Yes, the mosque here in Zagreb, which is actually the central place for the Bosnians, moslems, for a long time after being.. especially in the late '92, or the beginning of '92 and halfway '93, it really was the center of all moslem activities in Zagreb. Refugees came there, humanitarian aid was coordinated from there.

Dd: Nexus was a group that you mentioned has been important development network here…

WK: Yeah, Nexus came out of Sansequit. Sansequit is an organization that I started. It means 'turning to the sun', literally. .

These refugees came in from Bosnia and the whole idea was.. OK these people get shelter, which means they can put up a tent in area, they get some food, and that's it. Nobody is taken care of that there is no school, no activities for children, nobody is there during the day, these people are bored shitless. And we were still thinking it would take maybe 3 months, 4 months, so let's bring in foreign volunteers — people who were willing to come here to pay for their 3 weeks' travel. So, let's organize activities for children. And due to my connections already on the Internet and to these foreign volunteers, people started to bring boxful of medicines with them. I didn't know what they could do with these medicines so I asked a girl from the States and sorted out the medicines because she was a doctor study.

And that became Nexus. Because after the first boxes came within 2 or 3 weeks, we had a room full of these drugs. Now it's quite a big organization with a type of coordination office for grassroots, humanitarian aid. So, initiatives in Western Europe and America with partners, towns, refugee camps, small projects, here in Croatia and in Bosnia. They have a few trucks for themselves, a few volunteers who are crazy enough even during the heaviest fighting in Bosnia to keep driving to Tuzla. Even there was one truck road with all second-hand army trucks which we painted in refugee camps; children were painting them so there were flowers on them. And people were reacting on them: there was a circus passing by; later on, another group picked this idea up and started a series of road shows from England doing almost the same thing but having a real theater aboard.

Dd: How did you initially contact all these people to get medicine, etc?

WK: Partly through the Internet, partly over the volunteers who came here who connected themselves up to the Internet, friends calling friends, other people heard that it was being done, telling it to other people; small action newspapers which stared to write about it, some journalist source said, "OK, we can write everyday by cheering in Sarajevo, let's write something else" wrote stories about it, it's a kind of alternative, hippy-like, sometimes, area. They are all young people, but mostly weird types started to look into this.

Very known group — Women for Peace from Bristol, England — who used to be active against nuclear rockets in the beginning of the '80s in these women peace camps: they bought from British Telecom some trucks and started to have regular transportation from UK; they are still coming down every second week, full of food, pampers, hygiene bandages. So, women among women, they learned how to drive trucks, just for direction. They developed their network in the UK, how to collect these things: it's all private initiatives of persons. No huge organizations involved and that's the way it works: people tell people tell people. You keep in contact with each other, it's very important. And people really like to do something. I mean, you are sitting watching this bloody television, and suddenly some of your friends tell you that they've got Internet and say, "Hey, there is this connection. The connection is actually open, we can ask them what they need." Because otherwise they go to the International Red Cross or something, and ask them, "yes, yes, make a cheque and give us money." and you don't hear anything anymore.

And it's a war going on in Europe, which is very close by to where people are actually living. You can come hitchhiking to this war. If you are a journalist in the Netherlands and if you don't have got the money for a train, you just go hitchhiking. You come here and you can hitchhike to Sarajevo if you want to. People are actually taking only 64 hours to drive from London, for example, to the southern part of Croatia. It's not a war somewhere far away in Africa. So, people are far more able to do something rather than buy an expensive airline ticket to Africa.

From our almost 300 volunteers who have been working in Pakrac Project, on the front-line project, social reconstruction, there are at least 50 Americans who actually bought an airplane ticket and came working on the front-line. Also they most of them really heard about it over the Internet, started to look up to me personally and said, "Hey, can I also join this thing? I'd like to come to Europe if it's possible." "Yeah, it's possible.

Dd: Please tell me more about the Pakrac Project.

WK: Pakrac — at this moment, the broadcasing must have already forgotten again. Pakrac was in the middle of sector West, which is one the United Nations protected areas in Croatia. This was an area which was half under the control of Croatian Government, half under Serbian control. The former front-line was going straight through the town. Center of the town was lying on the Croatian side, the villages and suburbs were lying on the Serbian side. Especially the town itself, the Croatian side, was heavily damaged.

75% of the houses is damaged in the sense that it really cost months to rebuild them and 25% was so damaged that you have to take them down to rebuild it. All the industry is broken, all the economy is gone. On the other side of the Serbian side, the damage was not so big because the shooting was taking place from there but almost the same amount of people were living there. There were more people when they came there than on the Croatian side. And people didn't dare to go there to start living there again.

So we decided to go to help local people rebuilding, cleaning up houses, organizing activities for children, organizing women groups, who were also actually using e-mail nowadays, and build a youth center, which was a certain type of small cybercafe, because students there from the school were actually using connections to students in America.

So, we used the Internet connections to teach English. People made Penthouse in America, writing lettres there, our volunteers were teaching English. So the American teachers were able to help us by the Internet to build up a certain type of English teaching program.

Again, it's also grassroots small initiatives to show people normal type of life, reality can return, even to the town of Pakrac, even on the edge of the front-line, even when sometimes there was shelling, even when you knew the whole time you were surrounded by mines. But by showing that people are willing to come there, because the only foreigners they knew after the war was over, that were UNPROFOR soldiers from Argentina, or from Canada, or people in nice white cars with 'UN' on it, rushing through the town, or big trucks from UNHCR or Red Cross, that was all the connections they had with the outside world. Then suddenly youngsters with long hair, or even very neat, dressed up people, old women or everybody came to the town, sit down and was actually part of their community.

When we came, there were about 300 people on the Croatian side. That is, during the war there were 75 left, and so a year after the war, 225 came back. Nowadays, after 1.5 years' Pakrac Project there are living 350 people on the Croatian side — it's a very normal society, became up to about 10 days ago, when the Croatian Government decided that they wanted to have the rest of Sector West under their control as well. We don't know at this moment 100% how we will continue, but we are absolutely sure we 'will' continue.

One way or another we will. We never say with big words for we are doing reconciliation work. Bullshit, we are building houses, we are playing with children, we are teaching English, we are doing something with women groups, we are bringing in a lot of personal, humanitarian aid, persons-to-persons, we are hooking up schools all over the world, we have the local schools, that's all we are doing: no big thing with peace building, or big words behind it.

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