Machinery of hope

INGELHEIM, Germany - For most people, computers can bring tears of frustration when the machines do not work. But for Billi, a teen-ager from Kosovo's capital city, Pristina, tears flow because of the hope she sees in computers.

Amid the sorrow and confusion that permeate one of Germany's largest Kosovar refugee camps, this 17-year-old has emerged as one of the central figures in the high-tech effort to reunite Kosovo's broken families.

Launched last month, the Kosovar Refugee Internet Assistance Initiative brought together the U.S. Information Agency and more than a dozen technology firms to provide Internet services to refugees to help them locate family members and access news. Computers have been set up at several camps worldwide, including the main transfer point for refugees here.

Billi, whose last name is being withheld for privacy reasons, arrived here two months ago after spending five days wandering without food or water over the hills and rough terrain of Kosovo's countryside. One of the camp's few English-speaking refugees, she has become the primary facilitator of computer training - training that is critical to people trying to find loved ones lost during the exodus from Kosovo.

Like many other kids, Billi studied computers in her school in Kosovo before being forced from her home. Although others here are familiar with computers, including professionals such as doctors and lawyers, Billi has emerged as the resident information technology expert. Because Kosovars speak Albanian, a language not supported by Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT operating system, Billi's grasp of English has positioned her as a critical link in USIA's train-the-trainer program here.

"I was in computer school in Kosovo, but I have forgotten a lot of what I learned," Billi said. "In fact, when I started yesterday, I was so confused that I needed help."

Billi's computer training may not be that different from that experienced by the average high school student in the United States, although perhaps on a smaller scale. "In my school there were 10 computers, but they weren't [Intel Corp.] Pentium IIs; they were only Pentiums," she said. "We went once a week to learn it, and then we practiced. My school was the best in Pristina for computers."

Slowly but surely, Billi's studies are coming back to her. Her first step was to assign log-ons for the five workstations installed here by engineers from Silicon Graphics Inc. She chose the Albanian word "trini," which means "a strong person."

"When someone's name in Albania is Trini, it means that they are strong-willed and will be able to do whatever they want," she said.

Officials here have come to the realization that Billi is not a typical 17-year-old girl. Most of them agree that her vision of what technology can provide the people of Kosovo is uncanny.

In fact, the war in Kosovo has aged her beyond her years, turning the blind optimism of her youth into haunting recollections of what used to be and what it will take to get it back.

"[Pristina] was like a ghost city when we left," Billi said. "Before the Serbs it was full of people, full of smiles. It was my hometown, and it will be again.

"We went through a lot of bad things and saw lots of bad things," Billi said. "I slept outside for five days with only one blanket and only what we had to wear. You had to run for the food; you had to take half a loaf of bread for only one person, maybe for all day or just the morning."

For Billi, the computers represent the beginning of her return home, offering hope that she will find family members before it is time to make the long trek back.

"When I first came here, it was like a paradise," Billi said. "My aunt died two years ago and left three daughters and one son, and as to their fate we don't know any information. Maybe it won't be too long before I know where they are, and [SGI and USIA] are going to help us."

But every day, Billi wonders where the strength to keep going came from when she needed it most back in Kosovo. Today, she pulls some of her strength from the hope offered by a computer. She has become something of a journalist, piecing together news reports picked up online and distributing them to her information-starved comrades.

"When you have some kind of news and you work every day with these computers, you will know what is going to be tomorrow," she said. "With these computers and the Internet, we can translate the news information, and it could become some kind of magazine. Even if we take information from the Internet that is in a hundred pieces, we can give it to each person once per week."

With her optimism battered but intact, Billi is turning now to the task at hand: translating the point-and-click world of Microsoft's Windows into Albanian. "We have teachers here, and I will be the translator and I will learn myself," she said. "That is my mission."

Billi remains confident that Kosovo and its people will be reunited. "Some people say that maybe we are going to stay here four, five or six years. But I say, 'No, that is not true,' " she said. "For myself, I'm going to return to Kosovo."

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