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Internet Project Aims to Heal Bosnia; Volunteers Tap Into Net Technology

By: Sharon Machlis

November 17, 1997

Some U.S. volunteers are hoping that Internet technology will play an important role in rebuilding Bosnia-Herzegovina after its devastating four-year war. Several groups are working to boost Internet access in cities where almost all communications were cut off by years of siege. And academics are trying to reconstruct documents lost when Serb forces destroyed the National Library.

The latest high-tech effort, Project Bosnia, plans to set up an intranet in the Serb-held city of Banja Luka for independent journalists to communicate with one another. "It's a useful step to open up some new channels of information exchange," said Henry Perritt Jr., dean of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, which is part of the intranet project.

Balkan experts say that media controlled by nationalist extremists spewing ethnic hatred contributed greatly to the war in Bosnia, which is why it is important today for independent media to be functioning in the country.

Project Bosnia, sponsored by the Chicago-Kent law and Villanova University law schools, already has identified a home at the Banja Luka University-based media center for a donated Sun Microsystems, Inc. server. IV Ashton, a third-year Kent law student just back from Bosnia, said he hopes the next step might be a wireless connection across the former front line between jounalists in Banja Luka and Sarajevo and eventually access to the wider Internet.

The Internet project meshes with U.S. government efforts to bolster anti-Karadzic forces within Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity created by the Dayton peace accords. Radovan Karadzic, charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, still holds power in most of Srpska and opposes many provisions of the peace treaty that ended Bosnia's war in 1995.

"One of our major efforts is to promote independent media . . .[and] improve access to information, which is still pretty limited in Republika Srpska," said Janet Garvey, public affairs officer at the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo. The U.S. government has given financial backing to the intranet plan, she said.

Project Bosnia earlier set up an intranet in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, which suffered years of heavy bombardment by Serb forces. Serb gunners targeted several historic and cultural landmarks in the city, including libraries and museums that housed vitally important documents.

That intranet, still in its early stages, will be used first by the country's courts and human rights office to gain access to electronic documents where paper versions are unavailable. Other projects across the country bring legal information via intranet to regional government offices.

In the longer term, university volunteers are trying to help rebuild the collection of the National Library, where millions of books and several rare historical manuscripts were destroyed. "When the National Library was burned down in August 1992, the card catalog along with most of the collection," said Andras Riedlmayer, a bibliographer at Harvard University's Fine Arts Library. Riedlmayer has worked on several Bosnia-related reconstruction projects. "They were left with no way of even identifying what it was that they lost."

OCLC, Inc. in Dublin, Ohio, agreed to search its bibliographic database from thousands of member libraries for any Bosnia-related publications, creating a massive reference resource. Enes Kujundzic, director of Bosnia's National Library, said the project will help not only people in his country, but also researchers worldwide who need information about the Balkan nation.

In addition, basic computer technology such as technical journals on CD is vital in helping to rebuild the library's contents, he said. With entire collections of medical, scientific and other magazines wiped out in the shelling, it would be expensive and time-consuming to handle all new paper copies. "We don't have much staff at our disposal," he said. "In addition to online access, CD technology is very important."

RARE DOCUMENTS Another reconstruction attempt, the Bosnian Manuscript Ingathering Project (www.applicom.com/manu/ingather.htm), seeks to find researchers around the world who might have visited Sarajevo to study and photocopy some of the rare manuscripts that were destroyed. So far, the project has identified scores of manuscripts and rare photographs, and sponsors hope one day to be able to give access to the copies over the Internet.

Future plans within Bosnia call for creating an academic computer network across former front lines, according to Kemal Bakarsic, an assistant professor in the library studies department at the University of Sarajevo. That would incorporate Banja Luka University, which is under Serb control; two universities in Mostar, now split between Croat and Muslim sectors; Tuzla University in that multiethnic city; Sarajevo University; and the National Library.

Such a network would create links among former colleagues who were separated by nationalism and war. Technology, Bakarsic said, is helping to rebuild the country.