A hi-tech search for the truth about Kosovo

Once they were wary of using technology, but now human rights groups are using IT to turn the tables on repressive regimes.

During the war in Yugoslavia last year, hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees fled their homes. Were they running from the Serbian military or Nato bombs? Was the refugee flight completely chaotic, or was someone orchestrating it with deliberate precision behind the scenes?

In the turmoil of war, truth often disappears behind the TV sound bites. Now an international consortium of human rights groups is hoping technology will unearth some of those truths in the wake of the Kosovo tragedy.

The consortium recently released a watershed report, Policy or Panic: The Flight of Ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, March-May 1999, analysing the flow of 400,000 refugees out of Kosovo last year. The report resulted from a nine-month joint research effort by the Tirana-based Institute for Policy and Legal Studies (IPLS), The East-West Management Institute in New York and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington.

Dr Patrick Ball, deputy director of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Programme and author of the report, said the Kosovo study reflected the new trend of human rights groups using technology to turn the tables on repressive governments. In the past, human rights organisations often viewed technology, and particularly computers, with distrust. However, in the past two years, they have been turning technology to their advantage, using it to investigate repressive governments just as those governments once spied on them.

While faster desktop machines and the internet have played a key role in this role-reversal, Dr Ball said the real shift in power came with cheap, off-the-shelf software programs that allow human rights groups to track abuses with the same precision only governments could afford two decades ago.

"Groups working in repressive conditions - on the sharp edge, examining [regimes] up close - are gathering and analysing data. The focus is on information management technology, not just communications. The net is useful, but the real pay-off has come from analytic technologies," he said.

"The advances in databases, word-processing, spreadsheets and encryption software is where the real revolution is taking place for human rights groups."

For the past eight and a half years, Dr Ball has been advising grass-roots human rights groups on databases and data security. It has been an uphill struggle, he says, with many groups resisting using computers for anything more than basic word-processing.

Fortunately, the situation is changing, he said.

"HR groups are beginning to recognise the tremendous analytic power that aggregating large-scale data brings to us - and you simply cannot do that without technology. You can have cards in an index file, but that's not really an information management system," he said.

The Kosovo report examined a total of 22,000 records from five different data sources. These ranged from one-to-one interviews with refugees in camps in Albania to hundreds of pages of handwritten notes made by Albanian guards near the border town of Kukes as ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo.

If they could reconstruct the refugees' migration flows and match these to the timing of either Nato bombing or Serb attacks, Dr Ball's team believed they would have irrefutable evidence of what really happened in Kosovo.

"The patterns were very complicated. We were trying to track the movements of hundreds of thousands of people among hundreds of villages during nearly 100 days. Do a little multiplication - you've got a lot of data points. That is just simply not doable without a computer,' he explained.

The first challenge was finding any raw records amid the pandemonium of the war. Luckily, the consortium discovered that the Albanian border guards had carefully written down the name of every head of a group of refugees, the name of the town they came from inside Kosovo, and the date they crossed the border into Albania between 28 March and 29 May 1999.

Gathering the records proved dangerous. When the Serbs fired a rocket-propelled grenade into an administration building on the Albania side, the Albanian border guards retreated half a kilometre away, behind the safety of a mountain bend. They left their records behind.

Not surprisingly, the local commander of the Albanian border guards was reluctant to allow Dr Ball and his team to get the records from the abandoned building. He told Dr Ball that the Serb snipers had also recently shot and killed a Chilean journalist right there.

Eventually, the commander relented and sent two guards to escort Dr Ball and his team through the danger zone to the building. The guards "didn't look happy about it," Ball said.

Inside the building, they picked through the broken furniture, shook broken glass off more than 1,000 pages of documents that were scattered in what remained of several rooms, and then carefully carried the papers back to safety.

In Kukes, the team spent almost 48 hours sorting papers and scanning the handwritten pages into two Dell laptops. They had to return all the records to the Albanian border guards before leaving for the capital.

They hand-fed the documents page by page into two Cannon flatbed scanners, used for reliability, but soon found an eager volunteer in their landlord's 17-year-old son.

"He was so hungry for the technology, he was willing to sit in this sweltering apartment scanning for six hours, just so he could push a mouse," Dr Ball said. The boy just wanted to "touch the computer".

In Tirana, data-entry staff at InTech, an Oracle business partner company, printed out the pages and entered the records into a database, before handing the data back to the human rights team. Ball then moved the data into Microsoft Access because the team had limited funding and was not in a position to pay for an expensive Oracle license.

They kept the names of the refugees private by encrypting them with PGPDisk for stored data and PGP for e-mail. Dr Ball explained: "Just because these people became refugees doesn't mean they shouldn't have any privacy."

Returning to Washington, Dr Ball ran all the data through a customised statistical analysis programme he wrote in the STATA programming language. The results confirmed some suspicions but also revealed a few surprises.

"Only a small fraction of Kosovar Albanians fled Kosovo as a direct result of Nato bombing raids," according to the report. However, the study also concluded that "while Nato bombing was not the cause of the mass migration, neither did the bombing stop Yugoslav forces from driving hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians from their homes."

Dr Ball said that the report's statistical analysis refuted many critics in "the US left" as well as the Yugoslav government, both of which argued "it's all Nato's fault". The study also determined that the mass exodus of refugees from Kosovo occurred in patterns "so regular" that "they must have been co-ordinated".

Dr Ball said the Kosovo report illustrated how increasingly universal acceptance of computer technology by non-government organisations was changing the nature of "truth" in human rights work.

"By themselves, anecdotes can be criticised or discounted. By itself, the quantitative data doesn't tell you why you have this data. But when you put the two together, they support each other because they are very consistent, and they are much stronger together than either one is apart," he explained.

The transition is welcomed by Dr Ball, who first developed his expertise in databases and statistics while doing his PhD in sociology at the University of Michigan. "I never have to explain to people why they need computers any more. Now people are like, 'Oh, thank God you are here!'. It used to be: 'I don't really trust you, you funny little techno-boffins'," he said.

With more techno-boffins scrutinising human rights abuses, repressive governments may find it far more difficult to get away with murder.

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