War and peace on the Web ignore previous


Media coverage of war, operating under strict State regulations and working to various agendas, tends to give a controlled version of events and coverage of the war in Kosovo has been no different. While we have daily accounts of NATO air strikes - its successes and "mistakes" - and a very strong sense of the nightmare experienced by Kosovar Albanian refugees, what, for example, do we know of the conditions of Serbians living under NATO attack? However, switch off the telly, dump the newspaper, turn on the computer, and a whole new world of information opens up. Whatever else it maybe, the crisis in Kosovo is fast developing notoriety as the first "war on the web". While NATO is using the Net to supply front line forces with the most up-to-date information, out-and-out cyber-warfare caused a NATO information site to crash after it was infiltrated in early April.

There are now hundreds of sites which, if not dealing exclusively with the war, cover it extensively. From the official US line (www.state.gov/www/regions/eur/ kosovo_hp.html) to its opposite number, the official Serbian site (www.serbia-info.com/news) there is an enormous amount of information available. Or would that be propaganda? While the NATO site (www.nato.int) gives accounts of military operations and transcripts of its daily press briefings, the Serbian Network (www.srpskamreza.com) displays a NATO logo which turns into a Nazi swastika. Left-wing American academics such as Noam Chomsky post their anti-war arguments. Serbian sites give details of Albanian terrorism against Serbs in Kosovo. News junkies need go no further - most television networks, radio stations and national newspapers have regularly updated sites which include everything from interactive maps to emails from Kosovo. In fact, email is playing a particularly powerful role in this context. In the normal course of events, families and friends lose touch during a war. Communication lines collapse and millions agonise over the safety of loved ones living in danger - rarely hearing anything at all until the war is over. But families with internet access are now able to stay in contact.

Serbs living abroad rely on email, as the only accurate way to find out what is happening to their families. There are also sites which reprint messages sent by inhabitants of bombed towns, providing vivid descriptions of daily life. Meanwhile, Serbs living in Yugoslavia get news from the outside world by email, which provides some sort of psychological and emotional support for people living in rapidly deteriorating and terrifying circumstances. Email is also taking on a therapeutic function for those who wish to express their anger - towards NATO and the Pentagon. Both organisations have apparently received floods of hostile email, although efforts in the other direction - to email the Serb army headquarters - appear to have been blocked. Newsgroups, meanwhile, receive thousands of messages a day, covering everything from complex conspiracy theories to eyewitness accounts of NATO bombings. Newsgroups are an unusually direct way to access each side of the story. Sworn enemies can post hate mail - although there are accounts of people who develop a new understanding of the opposition, and have a change of heart. But this is war, and people using the internet have been advised to take precautions. The Kosovo Privacy Project is a gateway through which Kosovars can send their email without being identified.

Charity organisation across the globe are also using the internet to help families make contact. The Red Cross in the US has an interactive site, the Displaced Persons Linking Centre (www.redcross.org), through which they hope to help refugees and their families to find one another. Earlier this month, the Kansas City Star reported the story of Fatmira Beka, a 20-year-old Kosovar Albanian who fled to Germany and then to the US six years ago, and desperately wanted news of her grandfather, uncles and cousins. Gathering information from refugees can be a difficult task because they don't always have identification and they are generally on the move, but she continues to search the online facility. The International Red Cross has set up a site (www.familylinks.icrc.org) to facilitate refugees and their families. Refugee families enter their names as people looking for relations. If a relative abroad who accesses the site can't find a relevant family name, they can list their own name as someone looking for information. The Irish Refugee Agency is not aware whether if the site is being used by the Albanian Kosovar refugees living in Ireland. And a quick scan through the list of names and addresses did not yield me any information on Kosovar families living here. Aid organisations such as Trocaire and Save the Children Fund have Kosovo links from their homepages. The Kosovo page of the Save the Children Fund site (www.oneworld.org/scf) describes the situation and outlines in detail what the organisation is doing to help refugees in the various refugee camps. It gives the option of making a donation online - and all donations will be allocated to their work in the Balkans until further notice. The Trocaire site (www.trocaire.org) also gives information on the work the organisation is doing for refugees, and offers an online donation service.

The internet has clearly proved a unique facility in the context of war - at least among countries where there is sufficient access to it - particularly the insight it can offer into war from the viewpoint of people whose lives are so profoundly affected by what we mayeuphemistically refer to as air strikes or what Milosevic might call "cleansing".