Electronic Pony Express bypasses walls of war

Emma Daly in Sarajevo reports on how the Internet is keeping people in touch
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The Independent Online
In a crowded and smoky office, Sarajevo's electronic post office, a computer bulletin board called ZaMir-Sa was hard at work connecting people. "I am asking for information about my friend from childhood, Dr Vedada Seremeta," flashed a message on screen,sent by Zoran Kajmakovic from San Francisco. He thought his friend was in the US, but included Dr Seremeta's old address in Sarajevo.

"But I know Dr Seremeta," exclaimed one woman."He was in Zagreb. His wife called me six months ago and said they would probably go to the US or Sweden. I haven't heard since, but a friend of mine is very good friends with them, so I will ask her where they are."

In this way the Sarajevo bulletin board, a station on the Zamir network linking cities in the former Yugoslavia, has kept friends and family in touch at a time when international telephone lines are expensive and elusive, and the mail is non-existent. Many people can only stay in touch with the outside world through Red Cross letters.

The board allows 500 users in government-held cities in Bosnia to send e-mail abroad via a local phone line through the ZaMir-Sa office. The network was created to foster communications between Zagreb, Belgrade and the other former Yugoslav cities; ZaMirmeans "towards peace" in Serbo-Croat. It is linked via a German system to the Internet.

"My first contact for two years with my brother [who is in Sweden] came through this link," said Haris Hadzialic, a computer engineer.

This 21st-century Pony Express office is run by Mladen Rifelj and Meho Klico. "The main thing is that we can make contacts between ordinary people," Mr Rifelj said. "For 21 years I worked in the Post Office, in telecommunications, so I know what that means to people," Mr Klico added.

The Zamir-Sa office is connected to a generator run by the International Rescue Committee, an aid agency, and therefore has a constant power supply.

Although most of the system's users are computer-literate, ZaMir-Sa's administrators offer access to anybody who comes into the office and types a message on the central terminal. The word has spread due to the users' enthusiasm, Mr Klico said: "They just talk about it all the time . . . if one person in the street has a computer, everyone in the street uses that."

ZaMir-Sa is also used for academic traffic; one message comes from a woman from Purdue University, in the US, responding to a request for information about post-traumatic stress disorder, a hot topic in Sarajevo. Another, from St Lawrence University, details the kind of professorial help needed in the city, and explains how lecturers can volunteer to work in Sarajevo.

Above the terminal sits a photocopied map of the "Internet Backbone", the lines connecting the Americas to Europe to the Balkans, to Sarajevo. The roads out of the city are still blocked by enemy forces - but at least now you can travel in and out of Sarajevo on the information super-highway.