USIA plugs in Kosovar refugees

Refugees from Kosovo are being given Internet access and e-mail accounts that they can use to obtain news and try to contact their relatives as part of an international relief effort launched last week by the US Information Agency.

The program, called the Kosovar Refugee Internet Assistance Initiative, will provide computer equipment, software and support services donated by 15 companies to eight refugee camps in Macedonia, Poland, France, Germany and the US. The first information centre was scheduled to open in Skopje, Macedonia, on Friday.

Jonathan Spalter, associate director for information and chief information officer with USIA, said his agency saw "a profound need'' to alleviate the "massive confusion" in the camps to which nearly 670,000 Kosovars have fled.

"Of course, the most important and pressing needs are . . . clothing, food, shelter and warmth," he said. "This initiative is not meant in any way to take away from those absolutely critical needs. But once those are in place, [the initiative aims] to augment the kinds of assistance and support to these men and women.'' The equipment will be used to deliver Albanian-language radio and TV broadcasts produced by USIA through its news services, as well as translations of text-based news sources. Refugees will be able to use the computers to seek other information on the World Wide Web and will be provided with portable e-mail accounts.

"Previous major refugee situations have not happened in places where there is a degree of computer literacy,'' said Spalter, who started putting the project together three weeks ago.

The equipment also has another purpose. Relief agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration, will be using the equipment to register the refugees in the camps. Although these groups already use computers to log the identities and whereabouts of refugees, additional systems will help them register people faster, Spalter said.

"The way in which families were forced to flee and become separated in this case led to such a large number of people needing a way to contact relatives that this response made sense,'' said an American official in Europe who monitors refugee issues and who asked not to be named.

"It was very difficult to get information between the camps,'' said Pat Lange, director of business development with Springfield, Virginia-based Autometric Inc. "They didn't have the equipment they needed. There were not enough computers to go around.'' Autometric is coordinating the Skopje installation. Lange said her company got involved when USIA contacted the National Technology Alliance, a high-tech research and development consortium sponsored by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which prototypes military and intelligence applications. Autometric runs an NTA laboratory.

So far, vendors have contributed $US500,000 worth of equipment. Gateway has supplied the information centre in Skopje with 23 PCs and a server, as well as a digital duplicating machine from RISO Inc similar to one used by the US military in the Persian Gulf War.

Apple Computer is delivering 12 computers and a server to Fort Dix., New Jersey; SGI is supplying 16 Unix workstations and two file servers to two camps in Germany; and Hewlett-Packard will provide 16 computers to two camps in Poland and, most likely, one in France.

Cisco Systems is contributing routers and cabling to connect the centres to the Internet. Rounding out the hardware donations are a high-speed copier from Xerox, scheduled for Tirana, Albania, and two satellite telephones from MVS USA that will be installed in Skopje. Other companies and non-profit groups are providing integration support, technical assistance and language translation services, including International Data Group, the parent company of FCW Government Technology Group, which is the parent company of Federal Computer Week.

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