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Chicago Tribune MetroChicago Section

By David Mendell

Tribune Staff Writer

August, 31, 1998


Charles Rudnick (left), assistant dean at Chicago-Kent College of Law,
and student Henry Schwenk went to Albania to lend computer help.

Albania computer trip had unusual glitches
Ex-journalist is fulfilled by difficult journey

A journalism degree in hand, Henry Schwenk once thought his professional life very well could include travel to regions of the world beset by war.

Several years later, the realities of journalism became more clear: Tied to a computer in Time magazine's Chicago bureau, Schwenk found his computer more interesting than his daily grind of telephoning news assignments to freelance reporters and photographers. He left Time to earn a degree in computer sciences and, with the move, assumed he also left behind any hope of exciting travel to far-away news events.

So the irony was not lost on the 31-year-old senior at the Illinois Institute of Technology when his most recent class assignment appeared more like a foreign corespondent's mission - wending through the scenic mountains of northern Albania among a convoy of vehicles and aboard a sluggish ferry boat, all the while guarded by a gun-toting police officer.

Schwenk is part of a small team of computer gurus from IIT and legal eagles from the Chicago-Kent College of Law who comprise Operation Kosovo, an ambitious effort to make the Internet accessible to refugees fleeing ethnic fighting in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

The operation comes on the heels of Project Bosnia, a similar joint endeavor by the two schools to use the Internet as a tool to rebuild law libraries and legal institutions in that war-ravaged nation.

"I found it tremendously rewarding," Schwenk said of his trip into the troubled world of the Kosovo conflict. "It makes you feel better to use your computer skills for something more worthwhile than boosting the profits of a company - not to mention that I wound up being out where the news is."

Situated north of Albania, Kosovo erupted in violence six months ago. Ethnic Albanians, who outnumber Serbians 9-to-1 in the province, are seeking independence from Serbia, the dominant republic. Refugees have been pouring into the northern regions of Albania as their Kosovo villages burn behind them. The United Nations refugee agency estimates 200,000 people, one-tenth of Kosovo's population, have been displaced since the fighting began.

The Chicago group, which traveled to Albania in July on its first scouting mission to the region, reported 40 or 50 people were living in homesteads which usually house a family of four or five. On their backs, refugee families carried all of their possessions, usually rolls of bedding and sacks of clothing, team members said.

Conditions likely have worsened in recent weeks as fighting has intensified in the region.

The students' plan is to help those thousands of refugees gain access to World Wide Web-based legal information that can assist them in their struggle for survival.

They hope to accomplish this by establishing a computer center in Albania or southern Kosovo. Refugees could then send e-mail questions to attorneys trained in human rights and international law, as well as find quick, accurate information about the conflict and refugee rights through a Web site established in Chicago (www.kentlaw.edu/kosovo).

Dubbed by the group as a "legal relief initiative," the mission is fraught with vexing problems, however, including Albania's mountainous terrain, grueling winters, uncertain political climate and primitive infrastructure. Wide stretches of the country operate as though they were passed over by the Industrial Revolution and almost all of the region has yet to find the Information Age, the team said. Albania is Europe's poorest nation and, though team member knew this, they didn't realize the extent of the country's privation.

"The infrastructure system there is just atrocious," observed Charles Rudnick, Chicago-Kent's assistant dean for International Law and Policy Development, who, along with IIT student Shree Iyer, also traveled abroad with Schwenk. "Whole sections of the country aren't controlled by the government. It really is lawless. It's like a Third World nation in many ways."

Complicating the operation further is Albania's antiquated way of life. Only 2 percent of Albania's citizens have access to a telephone, much less can tap into the Internet.

Fewer than 50 computers exist in the northern regions of Albania, which itself has a history of ethnic strife that has hindered the growth of modern technology. And only a handful of modems with Internet access are in place to serve a population of 3 million, the students discovered.

The team hopes to establish a satellite service in a secure area where the equipment won't be stolen. The students' week-long scouting trip consisted mostly of meetings with officials of relief agencies and governments who could help them find such a site and provide some type of Internet connection. Relief groups are the most technologically advanced in the region, they said.

"We left there convinced we could make it happen technologically and that it would be useful," Rudnick said.

However, there is a fall-back plan. If computer technology can't be established, the team will distribute paper literature with information about the refugees legal rights.

Funding sources for the project remain unclear. Chicago law firms have donated dozens of computers for shipment to Albania, but Rudnick estimated it will cost about $3,000 per month to uplink a satellite dish with an Internet connection.

The team, soon to be reshaped with a new class of students, plans another visit to Albania in early fall and hopes to install hardware and software at that time. Vigorous fighting in recent weeks may delay that trip.

"We have a vision to push the frontiers of what people do in law school," Rudnick said. "We could do without hearing gunfire in the background, but it is exciting and worthwhile. We just wish the world community could learn the lessons of World War II and Bosnia so this isn't necessary."