Digital Communication via the Internet in a War Zone: Conflict Resolution and the Internet

Eric Bachman

1. Introduction

The origins of the Internet are based on the concept of having a functioning digital network even during war-time destruction. I would like to see the Net serving humanity by helping to create an infrastructure that will go one step further and actively aid the prevention of war. As is more than obvious when one reads the newspaper, there are any number of hot spots and areas of tension throughout our world, not to mention all the outright wars taking place at this very moment. It seems as if more and more violent conflicts are invading our lives. They are certainly something we have to deal with during the next decades.

2. Communication and conflict

When tensions and conflicts increase between nations, or between groups in one country or even between individuals, the ability to communicate is one of the first things to suffer. The parties to the conflict are either no longer able to no longer willing to communicate, or they purposely break off any form of communication.

When a heated conflict turns into open hostilities, one of the first victims is usually the lines of communication. Either the fighting physically destroys the connections or the parties involved just delay messages or switch off any existing connections. In fact, the control of the flow of information by whatever channels and influencing its content are two very important aspects in the preparation for and during the life of any conflict.

The conflicts in the geographic region of what was formerly Yugoslavia were and are still no exception to this. I was invited by anti-war groups there to lead some seminars on nonviolent conflict resolution. In September and October 1991, shortly after the conflict turned into an open war, I traveled to Zagreb and Belgrade. By that time, the post and telephone connections between Croatia and Serbia were for all practical purposes not functioning. Either they were cut off, disturbed, or censored. Much earlier, Croatia and Serbia (and other regions of former Yugoslavia as well) had created their own separate radio and television channels, each of course feeding their own public with their own particular view of the situation. Information was twisted and turned to suit the plans of the particular government of each region.

The result was that the individual citizen had very little or no access to trustworthy information. It was very difficult to have access to multiple sources of information to evaluate the stories in the newspapers and on the television. Many people, family members, friends, businesses, and, last but not least, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) could no longer communicate with each other, if they found themselves on opposite sides of the lines of confrontation. Shortly after the war began, the anti-war groups and other NGOs working for a civil society found themselves in this situation.

This is where the network of networks comes in. Because a network of networks is extremely flexible, because it can twist and turn and move messages up, over, or around any existing or new borders and because it is quick, it can be of great use to those who want to stay in touch with each other, no matter what sort of tensions or belligerent activities are happening locally.

3. Communication links disconnected

Of course, no communication link can stop a conflict or even decrease the tensions. No communication link can create peace. But if there is no possibility of communication, then there is no chance of working for peaceful solutions. Open lines of communication are a prerequisite for conflict resolution. They are absolutely necessary for people and organizations working for peaceful solutions. After sanctions were imposed on Serbia, the BitNet connection to Belgrade, their link to the worldwide Internet, was disconnected. It was, I think, a disastrous decision. This limit on the flow of data prevented people who wanted to question the state-run media from having access to alternative sources of information. Researchers, scientists, organizations, and individuals were no longer able to communicate with their colleagues and friends in other countries. This is why I had no qualms at all about installing the server ZAMIR-BG in Belgrade, which then proceeded to break though this part of the sanctions on Serbia.

4. Zamir Transnational Net

It was at the request of the Anti War Campaign in Zagreb and the Center for Anti-war Action in Belgrade that I set up first a fax relay between the two groups via third countries (Britain and the Netherlands), and then later, the digital network that became the Zamir Transnational Net (ZTN) ["za mir" means "to/for peace"]. They saw the need for open channels of communication, both for their own organizations and for all citizens. They saw the need for people-to-people communication.

Unfortunately, full Internet connectivity was either not accessible for us (for political or technical reasons) or did not even exist in many parts of the region, which meant that a full access connection would have been prohibitively expensive. This, together with a lack of funds for the project made the start very difficult. We began in June 1992 (exactly four years ago) with a borrowed desktop computer in Zagreb and a borrowed laptop in Belgrade. Using borrowed telephone lines, for several hours at night, we were able to initiate daily digital exchanges via a third server in Vienna, Austria. Even though it seems very primitive, this small network of store-and-forward servers was an important improvement of communications. You must remember that, at this time, not only was Croatia at war with Serbia, but the war in Bosnia had already begun. And now, despite all the destruction, censorship, misinformation, prejudices, and fighting, all of a sudden it was possible to exchange messages overnight between people in Croatia and Serbia.

The next year was spent improving this connection. With the help of many donors we were able to buy new computers, our own telephone lines, and were able to increase the number of connections daily. This meant that we then were able to offer public access 24 hours a day at no cost to the users. We also began to use a server in Germany that had full Internet access to improve the speed of messages to and from the rest of the world.

The second year, we began expanding the network. In the middle of the siege of Sarajevo, I was able to fly there (with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and set up a server for Bosnia. Data telephone exchanges via a server in Geneva enabled messages from Bosnia and Herzegovina to be sent to and from anywhere in the world. Later servers were added to Pristina, Tuzla, and other cities.

The Zamir Transnational Net is now a network of seven "store and forward" servers in seven different cities in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, and FR Yugoslavia. These seven computers are connected 24 hours a day to normal telephone lines and receive electronic data calls from our users, now more than 2,500 individuals, organizations, and businesses in the post-Yugoslavian countries.

5. The problems

Setting up such a network during a war was no easy task. There was a long list of obstacles that had to be overcome: the lack of electricity, for example, sudden or long-term outages, very noisy telephone lines or even the extreme lack of lines, overloaded telephone switching exchanges, the difficulty of obtaining computer equipment or replacement parts, travel hindrances, physical destruction of the buildings and infrastructure, no heat, and broken windows at the site of the server.

No full Internet connectivity

Since Internet connectivity was not to be had in most places and even now often is not readily accessible or is physically not available, we based our network on dial-up store-and-forward systems, which now have hourly connections with their servers. This stop-gap measure gave us one advantage, an optimum amount of flexibility.

Not only could we provide e-mail and newsgroup access where full Internet servers did not exist or were not assessable, with dial-up store-and-forward technology, we were very flexible and could easily and quickly choose new connections as the situation changed.

Flexibility answered many problems

Instead of being dependent upon the telephone company to provide one (or more) leased lines, we could operate our network wherever the telephone system was more or less working. If need be, we could quickly move our servers to another site. Also, if the lines were not working to one country, we dialed into a server in another country. This meant that the only way to totally disable our network would have been to disconnect all the telephones in the country and that was something that no one dared to do.

If we could not dial out, as was the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a server dialed into Sarajevo. If the costs of telephone calls changed, we changed our network to call from the cheapest country. If international calls from one city (in this case Pristina) had to struggle with the lack of a dial tone, we had a server from outside call into that city. And if the lines were overloaded during the daytime, we could usually get through using automatic dialing at night, when the load way much lower. We had to be very flexible and adapt to the situation as it changed for us.

During the most difficult times and to the least assessable sites, like Sarajevo during the siege, we were having data exchanges at least once a day or more. Now we are generally having hourly data exchanges and we are working on full Internet connectivity to further increase our speed of message and data transfer and general accessibility.

Lack of telephone lines

An additional difficulty, which still exists everywhere, is the extreme lack of telephone lines. Actually, this problem existed there even before the war. It just became worse with the outbreak of open fighting. After ordering new telephone lines, for which we had to pay US $1,000 in advance for installation costs, we often had to wait a year or longer before they were actually installed. And even now, one of our servers still is operating on one borrowed line.

The lack of telephone lines for the server and also for users limited drastically the possibility of online access. At times we had up to 600 users on a server that had only one telephone line. More were just not available. This was an impossible situation since this one line was also used for inter-server connections too.

We circumvented this lack of lines with the help of software (CrossPoint) that allowed users to read and write their public and private mail offline, dialing up to the server only for a quick exchange of data. It essentially gives each user his or her own e-mail system with its own database of the public newsgroups or conferences, private messages and mailing lists; an ASCII editor; an e-mail address database and a netcall or mailer function to allow programmable automatic exchanges with our servers, for example during the slack times.

At the moment we have one public telephone line for each 200 to 300 users. Additionally there is usually one line which is reserved for inter-server or for Internet connections. This way we are able to service 200 or even more users per telephone line.

Poor-quality telephone lines

Another problem is the poor quality of telephone lines, which we have partly overcome by using better quality modems. Often though, we have to live with slow data transfer speeds due to the poor line quality. Jury-rigged repairs in Bosnia resulted in many very noisy lines, bad insulation in the underground lines meant problems even with local connections whenever it rained. Sudden disconnections and overloaded telephone exchanges made reliable data transfer difficult. Fortunately, not all of the problems have appeared at the same time in the same place and we were therefore able to work around them.

Lack of electricity

The lack of electricity was also a great difficulty, especially in Sarajevo. But also Tuzla, Belgrade, and Pristina suffered from abrupt hour-long outages, which are difficult to overcome with normal uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs). In Sarajevo, we used a concoction of batteries, chargers, converters, voltage regulators, and a normal UPS that enabled us to bridge 10 to 15 hours of unexpected power outages. Even so, the system was often offline because the entire city was without power for days or weeks at a time.

Even though the situation is improving, especially since the Dayton agreements went into effect, all of these problems still do continue to exist. This means that even if and when we do get full 24 hour per day Internet connections, which we are striving for, we will not be able to offer our users much online Internet access until we acquire more dial-in lines. In any case, we will keep the dial-up option as an emergency backup.

Lack of computers

The lack of computers was another big problem. Many of our prospective users: anti-war groups, the independent media, local non-governmental organizations, human rights groups, and individuals did not have their own computer. Many people did not know how to use computers. The lack of hardware and software slowed the growth of the Net. We began the ZTN on borrowed computers, using them at night for the Net and during the day for office work. Many people had their first experience on the computer when using e-mail programs. To provide more access, users could walk into the office of the server and use a local workstation to send and receive mail or they could bring in a floppy disk to exchange their mail and news.

Lack of funds

From the very beginning, we suffered from the severe lack of funds. The entire network was set up and run with donations. Even though our long-term goal is to have a financially self-sufficient network, it is still under development. In some regions we are taking fees from users. In others, notably in Bosnia, we are still offering the service for free. In crisis situations like this one, the users do not have enough funds to cover the costs themselves and the network must be subsidized from other sources.

6. Using the new links

Of course an open communication channel is not all that is needed. It depends very much upon the people who use it and also upon how they use it. It was people and organizations in Croatia, Yugoslavia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina who were especially interested in relating to each other in spite of the divisive war taking place that needed the Zamir Transnational Net. Anti-war and human rights activists, environmental groups, and especially women's groups were the first to use this network. Each group working in his/her country wanted to find out what was happening elsewhere.

Eyewitnesses

These people wanted to hear directly from eyewitnesses on the "other side" about the developments there. Via ZTN, it is possible for individuals to have a direct exchange of information about their lives and experiences. People from Belgrade, Sarajevo, Zagreb, or anywhere else in the world can report about or read about the situation. These reports do not pass through the prejudices of a journalist nor the critical mind of an editor. Nor do they have to pass the scrutiny of a national news agency, once on this side and again on the other sides, and then again the journalists and editors of other media organizations that finally publicize the reports. E-mail allows quick person-to-person contacts. Public newsgroups and electronic conferences allow many people to read messages and reports directly from the place where it is all happening.

Actually, public newsgroups and electronic conferences are a new form of media. Everyone participating has an equal chance of being both journalist and reader, with no editors and news agencies in between. And this information exchange takes place within minutes. These public newsgroups offer immediate worldwide distribution of people's experiences. Hundreds of very quick eyewitness reports are possible. Together with these advantages, we also have the problem of judging the trustworthiness of the reports. Rumors can also just as easily flood the newsgroups. But this is also a problem which we have with the traditional media. As with the traditional media, one must just be aware of it and interpret the reports and messages accordingly.

7. Examples

Here are some examples of how the ZTN has helped people during this war.

People who demonstrated for more democracy and no media censorship in Belgrade reported immediately afterward about them. These quick reports gave a more correct description of what was happening than the distorted official reports.

When the human rights of Serbs living in Croatia were violated, reports on it and requests for international protests went out over the Net. The media were often ignoring or misrepresenting the events.

The Balkan Peace Team, which consists of teams of international observers in Croatia and in Serbia who are reporting human rights violations to the world, use the ZTN to communicate with each other and to publicize their observations to the world. The publicity created by international observers has helped many individuals threatened with eviction.

By reading the public newsgroups and electronic conferences and by comparing various reports with local media, the users of the Net can easily discover the twisted reporting as it is happening.

Letters

Refugees who have no computer use the Letters service to send and receive messages from relatives and friends all over the world. Volunteers in Sarajevo received messages for family members or friends that remained in Sarajevo. Despite the shelling, they managed to find a way to deliver the messages and to facilitate a reply. Volunteers in many countries delivered messages to refugees who had to leave their home. These volunteers provided an interface between electronic mail and paper mail.

Someone in Zenica asked the Letters service in Belgrade to locate a friend. The only information was the company where he was working before the war. After 3.5 weeks of searching and with the help of old co-workers and relatives in Belgrade, the man was located--in Kenya. He now uses the e-mail address of a friend in Kenya to communicate with his friend in Zenica.

The Letters office in Tuzla has helped someone to send and receive a message from a family member that was in prison in another region.

A refugee support group in the Netherlands was so successful in finding missing family members via e-mail that they were asked by the authorities to take the computer out of the refugee camp. You see, if family members of registered refugees are found, then they also have the right to come to the Netherlands.

The Volunteers Project in Pakrac

The Volunteers Project in Pakrac started during the time that Pakrac was a divided town, half controlled by the Croats, half by the Serbs. The Anti-war Campaign in Croatia worked together with the Most (it means "bridge") Group in Serbia to organize international volunteers to work at the physical and social reconstruction of the town. They communicated with each other using e-mail via Germany.

Now the Volunteers Project in Pakrac (which is now completely in Croatia) uses e-mail to keep in contact with the several hundred ex-volunteers, regularly sending them reports of the work in Croatia. New volunteers, as well as financial and material support, are organized using the worldwide e-mail connections.

Women in Black

The Women in Black, a group of women in Belgrade who have been continuing a weekly public vigil for the past 4.5 years to protest the war, use e-mail to stay in contact with similar groups all over the world.

ArkZin

ArkZin, an independent biweekly newspaper in Croatia, uses ZTN to keep in contact with many of its journalists who are living in Austria, England, Switzerland, the USA, and other countries.

Agency Argument

Agency Argument in Belgrade, a private, nongovernmental, scientific institution doing applied political and sociological research with the aim of contributing to democratic tendencies in FR Yugoslavia, uses ZTN extensively to work with their partners in Zagreb to do an intensive study of media and the war. Via the Net, they exchange their analysis, for example, of the linguistic analysis of war reporting or the images of political enemies as seen through the media. They have to exchange a lot of data and ZTN is the only way for them to do it from computer to computer.

Humanitarian aid

Humanitarian aid groups, have used the ZTN to coordinate their search for and distribution of aid. We have set up limited access conferences for some of them so that their offices in various cities have access everywhere to the same information.

Zagreb diary

Wam Kat, a Dutch volunteer who came to Croatia for a month and stayed three years, wrote a daily public diary on the Net. His experiences and reflections while working for peace in a country at war were read by people the world over and have now been published on paper in several languages. It helped many people outside of the Balkans to circumvent the biased news reporting in their own countries and it gave then a better understanding of this complicated conflict.

Para Pacem

A group in Switzerland took messages from the public conferences, translated and published them on paper for German speakers who did not have access to the Internet. Such information was very important for people trying to have a deeper understanding of the situation in the Balkans.

Kidney machine

Shortly after the war started in Sarajevo, there was a shortage of material and medicine needed by the hospital for kidney dialysis machines. A message was sent to a public newsgroup. A woman in the USA ask a doctor friend for help. He contacted a Italian company which donated some the needed material and medicine. A helicopter pilot was found and the package was flown into Sarajevo. It was all organized over the Net.

I could go on and on with these stories. And much, much more happened that I did not hear about. Where the normal infrastructure breaks down, the network as we have set it up can bring enormous advantages for people working to bring humanitarian aid into the region and to help people who are working to build a more peaceful future.

8. Connectivity

Is spite of these problems, we were able to provide communication across the new lines of separation. After two years of isolation, people in Sarajevo were euphoric when we connected them with the rest of the world. For some though, it was a shock to realize that the rest of the world also included Serbia. Yes, the rest of the world does include all of the world, even people you might consider your enemies.

That is one of the great things about Internet connectivity. It is basically open. If you are connected, then you have the possibility of communicating to anyone on the Net, anywhere. It is very difficult to separate friend from foe. People are able to transcend some of the barriers that otherwise would exist.

Of course, at the same time, the existing conflicts can be carried into the Net. There are some discussion newsgroups where the Balkan conflict is taking place as a war of words. No one is being killed on the Net, but name-calling and insults make good discussion there impossible. This too can happen on the Net.

The Zamir Transnational Net is now a member of the worldwide Association for Progressive Communication and has its own set of local conferences or newsgroups on issues of special interest to people in the region: human rights, reconstruction, anti-war activities, refugees, finding lost people, environmental issues, UN activities, media, women's issues, anti-racism, etc. Other sets of newsgroups such as from UseNet, Human Rights Net, etc. mailing lists, and all Internet services that are accessible via e-mail are available. We have local newsgroups interlinked to Web sites on the Net, such as the ZAMIR CHAT, so that everyone, anywhere can discuss with ZTN users.

9. The future of ZTN

We have just begun to exploit the advantages of digital communications on the Internet. Now that the Net is up and running, we need to concentrate on helping organizations to use it better for the publication of the information that they are creating. We must help them to learn to use it to improve their information gathering activities.

We are striving to obtain full Internet connectivity for each of our servers. With improved speed of communication and more accessibility to information, the Net could be even more useful.

We need to train users to prepare documents for the Internet. We want to offering the World Wide Web as a transnational platform for publication purposes. One idea we have is to use it to help publicize requests of aid for the reconstruction of region.

Additionally, we will be setting up more servers in the region, for example in Mostar and other divided cities. We want to use them as a way of connecting people from all sides of the divisions.

10. How can the Internet help?

Despite the great use of quick electronic communication in war zones, it could be even more influential if it were used intensively before the war begins. We need to act on the causes of the tension before destruction begins. With the help of quick and intensive communications among a groups of experts, it could be possible to act in areas of growing tension before they explode around us. The war in former Yugoslavia (to name just one example) clearly has involved many people at a distance from the actual site of the event. All too often, we see the politicians, the diplomats, the media, and others reacting to what has happened rather acting to prevent further or more catastrophic disasters.

Easy access to many different sources of information about the same events can help observers to better understand what is happening there.

Direct people-to-people exchanges can help to further understanding among people from different sides of a conflict.

More and easier access to information can help to prevent an information monopoly of the better informed.

The Net could also be used to help connect local observers (political, sociological, and others) with international experts to analyze changing situations to be aware of growing tension and to enable people and diplomats to be able to act before a hot spot turns into a war.

The Internet could be the tool which enables real time consulting by experts spread all over the world. The information and ideas thus collected could be easily made available to thousands and millions of people everywhere. The openness and speed of the Net can become strong allies for social movements that are trying to stop and prevent many of the atrocities in this, our one and only world.

This new form of public media can be a very useful to help us develop better world. Of course, it depends upon all of us and how we are going to use it.

e.bachman@bionic.zerberus.de
e.bachman@zamir-zg.ztn.apc.org (or at any of the other ZTN servers)

Appendix: Zamir Transnational Net

Member of the Association for Progressive Communication (APC)

Zamir (for peace) is an electronic mail network in the geographical region of former Yugoslavia especially dedicated to helping peace-oriented people and groups, humanitarian organizations, NGOs, and the independent media to improve their communication possibilities. The network is open to all who want to use it.

Even though it is a time of war, where hate and fear abound, there are people and groups to be found who are working for a more peaceful society. In spite of what is happening, they are concerned about human rights; they are working toward a free flow of information; they are developing skills in nonviolent conflict resolution; or they are publicly opposing all forms of military activities. This network was created especially to support such work. Without good communications, it is not possible to work for better understanding among people nor is it possible to dismantle prejudices based on misinformation.

The Zamir Transnational Net aims especially to serve people working for: the prevention of warfare; the elimination of militarism; protection of the environment; the advancement of human rights and the rights of peoples regardless of race, ethnic background, sex or religion or political convictions; the achievement of social and economic justice; women's rights; the elimination of poverty; the promotion of sustainable and equitable development; more and better democratic structures in society, especially the advancement of participatory democracy; nonviolent conflict resolution; and to aid the communication between all people, especially for refugees. All groups and individuals who are in agreement with these aims will be actively encouraged to join and use the Zamir Transnational Net.

The Zamir Transnational Net began in July 1992 with two e-mail systems. The Anti-War Campaign and Center for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights in Zagreb set up the system called "ZAMIR-ZG" and the Center for Antiwar Action in Belgrade set up the "ZAMIR-BG." In early 1994, two additional systems have joined the network: ZAMIR-LJ in Ljubljana and ZAMIR-SA in Sarajevo. In October 1994, a new system in Pristina (ZANA-PR) became a part of the ZTN. In March 1995, we set up a system in Tuzla (ZAMIR-TZ) and in autumn of the same year ZAMIR-PK was initiated in Pakrac.

We strive to provide hourly (depending upon the technical situation) data exchanges for private electronic mail and public news among our servers and with other networks in Europe and around the world. Users of these systems can send and receive e-mail to and from anyone else in the world who has an e-mail address. They can reach any address on the Internet.

The users can not only read and write the messages in the conferences/newsgroups. Besides the Zamir conferences in the Balkan languages, we also exchange certain conferences with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), ComLink (CL), Z-Netz and USENET. The Zamir Transnational Net (ZTN) is now a member of APC, which is an international network reaching literally around the world. ComLink and Z-Netz are from the German-speaking regions of Europe. USENET is the group of newsgroups exchanged throughout the Internet.

Practically speaking, using the Zamir Transnational Net means that messages sent to public conferences or to private users of these e-mail networks may be expected to arrive within two to four hours of being sent. Various difficulties-hardware limitations and problems with the quality of the telephone lines-have caused delays in the development of the Zamir Transnational Net. But it is now working and growing. Soon there will also be e-mail systems in this network set up in other cities of the region.

Anyone who is interested in using this network, especially peace groups and their members, alternative media organizations, human rights groups, women's groups, etc. is welcome to become a user. Most of the systems charge no fee for opening an account, but in the future we will have to begin charging a fee to cover the running costs. Up until now, most of the costs for this network have been covered with the help of generous donations from supporters from many countries in Western Europe and North America. Special help has also come from the Soros Open Society Foundations. To help develop the system and to help other groups to become users of the system we are, of course, dependent upon future donations of time, money, and equipment.

ZAMIR-BG is in Belgrade at tel: +381 11 632 566
Voice support at tel: +381 11 626 623

ZAMIR-LJ is in Ljubljana at tel: +386 61 126 3281
Voice support at tel: +386 61 302 912

ZAMIR-PK is in Pakrac at tel: +385 34 83594

ZANA-PR is in Pristina at tel: +381 38 31276
Voice support at tel: +381 38 31031 / 31036

ZAMIR-SA is in Sarajevo at tel: +387 71 444-200 (3 lines)
Voice support at tel: +387 71 444-337

ZAMIR-TZ is in Tuzla at tel: +387 75 239-146 (3 lines)
Voice support at tel: +387 75 239-147

ZAMIR-ZG is in Zagreb at tel: +385 1 271 927, +385 1 423 044, +385 1 274 188
Voice support at tel: +385 1 426 849

All systems have a support team at the addresses:

support@ZAMIR-BG.ztn.apc.org
support@ZAMIR-LJ.ztn.apc.org
support@ZAMIR-PK.ztn.apc.org
support@ZAMIR-SA.ztn.apc.org
support@ZAMIR-TZ.ztn.apc.org
support@ZAMIR-ZG.ztn.apc.org
support@ZANA-PR.ztn.apc.org