USIA opens Internet center to assist Kosovo refugees
- By Dan Verton
- Jun 13, 1999
INGELHEIM, Germany—After five days of wandering through Kosovo's countryside with little food, water or shelter, Billi, a 17-year-old from Pristina, Kosovo's capital, arrived here at one of Germany's largest refugee camps to a world of rumors and confusion.
Yugoslavia's campaign of ethnic cleansing throughout the small province of Kosovo has torn families apart, leaving thousands like her wondering if they will ever see their relatives and their homes again. But now Billi and a thousand others are beginning to sort out the truth from the horrific rumors, thanks to a partnership between the U.S. government and the information technology industry.
Relying on the charity and compassion of the IT industry, the U.S. Information Agency has transformed this serene country setting into a lively hub of Internet activity. The sterile halls of the main building here reverberate with the sounds of young and old alike talking over the din of multimedia computers.
"I am so thankful that I will know something about my family members because of these computers," Billi said. The teen-ager, who is one of the few English-speaking refugees at the camp, has become a leader, helping officials communicate with her fellow refugees and assisting in the training of the refugees on the computers. "I am looking for cousins, aunts and uncles, and the computers will help me find out if they are dead or alive" (see related story, Page 34).
A T-1 connection recently installed by America Online now brings the world, and Kosovo, to Billi's fingertips and will help the refugees find their loved ones by linking them directly to databases maintained by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Chosen by Billi, the log-on for all of the computers is "trini," an Albanian word that refers to people of strong will.
Tom Becherer, head of the USIA technology initiative here, said the computers primarily are helping the refugees access the information they have been deprived of for the past two months. "In the absence of substantive information, the rumors fly, and nobody knows what is going on," Becherer said. "They tend to think about the worst-case scenario."
While Becherer said he hopes to establish the Ingelheim camp as a model facility for other camps around the world to emulate, he points out that industry really made it happen. "It couldn't have happened without industry. We had no public resources to do this," Becherer said. "Had it not been for industry stepping up to their corporate responsibility and desire to get involved and help, this would not have happened. The response was immediate and more than we could immediately use."
Bob Pencek, systems engineering manager for Silicon Graphics Inc.'s government area, said the hardest part of the project was setting up the equipment in an old facility with little modern infrastructure.
Christian Roos, a social worker who is aiding camp members here, said the technology provides a critical information gateway to the rest of the world as well as a much-needed distraction from the refugees' overwhelming sorrow and sense of desperation. "I hear everyday, from all sides, questions about 'When can we go home?' " Roos said. "With the political situation constantly changing and things happening, the potential to get news information is very much in need."
The walls of the Internet center, a room adjacent to the main entrance to the camp, are covered with paintings by Bosnian refugees who were housed here just a few years ago during the war in that part of the Balkans.
Kosovo's children, however, draw pictures of their homes using graphics software on five of SGI's recently released 320 Visual Workstations running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT and connected to an SGI Origin 200 server equipped with World Wide Web server software. SGI's 21-inch color flat-panel monitors help bring the children's creations to life.
Sitting at one of the workstations, Jalal, a 12-year-old boy from a small village near Pristina who said he witnessed the aftermath of Serb atrocities near his home, draws a picture of his house with just a few mouse clicks. Although the technology has changed, Jalal is a reminder that the art of healing and remembering has not. "I saw the Serbs and how they kill the people," he said, "but I hope to go home soon."