USIA plugs in Kosovar refugees

Refugees from Kosovo are being given Internet access and e-mail accounts that they can use to obtain news and try to contact their relatives as part of an international relief effort launched last week by the U.S. Information Agency.

The program, called the Kosovar Refugee Internet Assistance Initiative, will provide computer equipment, software and support services donated by 15 companies to eight refugee camps in Macedonia, Poland, France, Germany and the United States. The first information center was scheduled to open in Skopje, Macedonia, on Friday.

Jonathan Spalter, associate director for information and chief information officer with USIA, said his agency saw "a profound need'' to alleviate the "massive confusion" in the camps to which nearly 670,000 Kosovars have fled.

"Of course, the most important and pressing needs are...clothing, food, shelter and warmth," he said. "This initiative is not meant in any way to take away from those absolutely critical needs. But once those are in place, [the initiative aims] to augment the kinds of assistance and support to these men and women.''

The equipment will be used to deliver Albanian-language radio and TV broadcasts produced by USIA through its news services, as well as translations of text-based news sources. Refugees will be able to use the computers to seek other information on the World Wide Web and will be provided with portable e-mail accounts.

"Previous major refugee situations have not happened in places where there is a degree of computer literacy,'' said Spalter, who started putting the project together three weeks ago.

Roberta Cohen, an expert on refugee policy with the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said the most important potential benefit of the project would be to give refugees accurate information about whether they can safely return home. "Given so many refugees as there are, I think this is going to be used in a lot of different ways,'' she said. "The most important issue is that the refugees be well-informed about what return is going to mean, what conditions are on the ground and what the political situation really is.''

The equipment also has another purpose. Relief agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration, will be using the equipment to register the refugees in the camps. Although these groups already use computers to log the identities and whereabouts of refugees, additional systems will help them register people faster, Spalter said.

"The way in which families were forced to flee and become separated in this case led to such a large number of people needing a way to contact relatives that this response made sense,'' said an American official in Europe who monitors refugee issues and who asked not to be named.

"It was very difficult to get information between the camps,'' said Pat Lange, director of business development with Springfield, Va.-based Autometric Inc. "They didn't have the equipment they needed. There were not enough computers to go around.''

Autometric is coordinating the Skopje installation. Lange said her company got involved when USIA contacted the National Technology Alliance, a high-tech research and development consortium sponsored by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency that prototypes military and intelligence applications. Autometric runs an NTA laboratory.

"This situation [now also] plagued the world after World War I and World War II, where families were disbanded and countries torn apart,'' said Anthony Robbins, vice president of the federal systems area of Silicon Graphics Inc., one of the vendors who donated computer equipment. "There are many stories where people are still just finding each other. Technology, the Internet and communications have come such a long way that we can enable quicker assimilation of refugees back into their country.''

So far, vendors have contributed $500,000 worth of equipment. The information center in Skopje has been supplied with 23 PCs and a server from Gateway Inc. as well as a digital duplicating machine from RISO Inc. similar to one used by the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf War.

Apple Computer Inc. is delivering 12 computers and a server to Fort Dix., N.J.; SGI is supplying 16 Unix workstations and two file servers to two camps in Germany; and Hewlett-Packard Co. will provide 16 computers to two camps in Poland and, most likely, one in France.

Cisco Systems Inc. is contributing routers and cabling to connect the centers to the Internet. Rounding out the hardware donations are a high-speed copier from Xerox Corp., slated for Tirana, Albania, and two satellite telephones from MVS USA that will be installed in Skopje. Other companies and non-profit groups are providing integration support, technical assistance and language translation services, including International Data Group, the parent company of FCW Media Group Inc., which is the parent company of Federal Computer Week.

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