WiRED International’s Beginning
BY WIRED DIRECTOR GARY SELNOW, PH.D.
The road from Vukovar
Two computer technicians and I rode in a small van headed down a dark rutted road in far eastern Croatia. We had worked a long day in the war-damaged school in Vukovar, a town disfigured and dispirited by conflict sitting on the edge of the Danube River. We were exhausted, hungry and drained of emotion, eager to reach the next town, 30 miles away, to get a sandwich and a few hours of sleep before returning to our work at the school. There were no hotels in Vukovar; they were long gone.
A few miles outside Vukovar, an orange glow spread across the horizon. It grew brighter as we approached. We heard small cracks, then felt the bang of an explosion. The glow was caused by fires deliberately set in the fields by United Nations teams who were conducting the first of three steps to remove land mines that were left over from the war.
Heat from the fires exploded most of the small but lethal anti-personnel mines and the much larger anti-tank mines. Next, the teams rolled heavy equipment over the fields, their weight setting off mines that escaped the fires. Finally, young men, brave souls who could never be paid enough, went trippingly through the fields with metal detectors and slender metal rods, called prodders, to feel and flag the remaining mines. They would then, with the lightest touch, unearth the stealthy devices. These three steps cleared nearly all the mines, but, as experts have cautioned, an unlisted fourth step brings tragedy to farmers and children, who at their peril, stumble across the few explosives left behind.
Those farmers and children were on my mind that night, as we drove past the fires and away from Vukovar. The people there had experienced four years of brutal war. They had seen what mortars and rockets and aerial bombs could do. They knew what tanks could do. They knew the chill that descends on a population when an army turns its glare toward civilians.
Officially, the war was over, but really it was not. The mortars and bombs had stopped, but the mines remained; the haunting thoughts of the war remained. Tonight, the families, the children in eastern Croatia, lying in their beds, listened to the sounds of a war that refused to go away.
In this setting, the concept of WiRED took shape. Our work in the Vukovar school would connect this isolated region with the world outside. Maybe we could expand our application of technology to similar regions walled off and shut in. At that time, the Internet was a toddler. Few people knew for sure how it would grow, and even fewer could envision the sensation it has become. I thought we might be able to use the Internet and computers to integrate populations left out of the mainstream. That would take an organization like the one I had been thinking about several months earlier.
Back to the beginning
The story began in 1997, when I was a Fulbright professor at the University of Zagreb, on a sabbatical from San Francisco State University. An official at the U.S. Embassy had asked me to visit the town of Vukovar to coach school teachers there on a remarkable new medium called the Internet. Sometimes we referred to it as the World Wide Web. I traveled by train four hours east to Osijek, then hired a car and rode another 45 minutes to Vukovar.
Vukovar figured into a particularly virulent chapter of the war in Yugoslavia. Early in the conflict, in what is now known as the “Vukovar massacre,” more than 200 people were shot in groups of 10 to 20 and buried in a mass grave. That horrible event is said to have been the worst slaughter in Europe since WWII. By the end, the war was reported to have killed 2,000 defenders of Vukovar, many of them civilians; 800 went missing.1
I was prepared to see the remnants of battle but as I walked through the streets, I was stunned by the devastation that remained nearly two years after the fighting had ended. Entire blocks were demolished, buildings still standing were cracked and damaged, and many were hollowed out with no hint of what or who might once have been inside. The streets had been cleared of burned-out vehicles and rubble from the homes and shops that had collapsed, but the ground still bore deep craters from the mortars and track marks etched by 40-ton tanks. Vukovar isn’t very large; it’s easy to walk from end to end. At the edge of the town, small fields were surrounded by white plastic tapes bearing images of skulls and crossbones, a warning that mines awaited any poor soul foolish enough to trespass.
The town’s main church, built in the 1700s, was gutted, scooped out like a jack-o’-lantern. The floor was scraped down to the dirt, the walls pocked from thousands of bullets. People in town tell a haunting story: how the church stood only hours away from complete ruin, as militias stuffed explosives into holes chiseled in the massive pillars. The plan was to collapse the entire church in one coordinated detonation the way derelict hotels are dropped in Las Vegas. The story goes that the demolition was halted just hours before the explosives could be discharged. And so, for many people, the ravaged church stands as the site of a miracle. In Vukovar, you were grateful for miracles where you could find them.
Eventually I met the principal of the school, who told me there was no Internet connection, nothing we could use to “coach” the teachers. While people around the world were signing up for this new medium, the Internet remained a mystery for people in Vukovar. UNICEF computers, delivered without a specific purpose in mind, sat in a storeroom, the principal said, but they had no way to use them. Moved by the sights I saw earlier that day, and without any idea how I would make good on my promise, I pledged to connect the computers and get the school online. I had never built a computer network, and I didn’t know how to get an Internet connection in such a place. I had no idea what equipment was needed and no money for the work. It’s said, watch what you wish for; I say, watch what you promise.
I went back to Zagreb the next day and visited USAID, (The United States Agency for International Development), a well-funded agency of the U.S. Government. I described my idea of installing the Internet in a Vukovar school and asked if they would support the effort. Fast decision: “No.” The employees I spoke with said the project wasn’t in their budget, it wasn’t approved, it didn’t fit into their rebuilding plans, it wasn’t necessary, it wouldn’t work, yadda, yadda, yadda. I shifted to my fallback: the democracy argument. I described how the project would open Vukovar — now almost completely isolated — to the world outside. How it would show American goodwill, demonstrate citizen diplomacy, and extend a helping hand from the American people to the Croatian people. That didn’t work either.
I also looked elsewhere for funding, but people who work overseas know that USAID has the cash, so I decided to visit USAID offices every day. I waited outside at opening time and pitched the project to several additional employees, always with the same result. After several days I was becoming an irritant, and I knew it. Then a contractor with the Agency took pity on me and asked if I’d go away if he came up with $7,000. Yes, yes, I’d go away. That money would enable me to buy the equipment and train tickets, afford food and lodging and offer computer information technicians (ITs) a small stipend to work in difficult surroundings.
I recruited a computer student and his friend from the University of Zagreb, where I was teaching. We visited electronics shops around the city, bought all the routers, cables, connectors and other equipment we needed for the job, stuffed everything into backpacks, took a train to Osijek, and then went on to Vukovar, riding with several Croatians who worked for the United Nations.
The work in Vukovar
And so, that brings us to that midnight van trip and the fields ablaze and the unused computers at the school in Vukovar. Most people today who can remember dial-up connections know they were agonizingly slow. Maybe so, but that’s how we got our network online — via a long-distance number on an antique, rotary-dial phone. That the connection worked at all is thanks to luck and the skills of the ITs. Download speeds were measured in kilobytes, and later, when a half-dozen children logged on at the same time, the system slowed even more.
It turns out, speed didn’t matter. Students and teachers, for the first time, were communicating with people beyond the edges of their town. They set up Hotmail and Yahoo accounts and emailed people in other parts of Croatia, communicating with family members who had left during the war. They examined news sites and saw a world very different from the world they knew during the past several years. The Internet offered a little oxygen in a suffocating place.
The idea of WiRED came to me in 1997 after I first saw Vukovar. Then, the concept gelled, when it became clear that technology could make a difference in the lives of isolated people. We couldn’t have known it in 1997, but over the next two decades, as WiRED took shape and ran programs in low-resource regions, we would engage with millions of people isolated by war, poverty, politics and geography.
This is the first story in a series about WiRED International. How it evolved; how it went from providing computers and Internet connections for towns and villages in underserved regions to focusing on medical and health education using computer technology. How it expanded its work throughout the Balkans to Africa, Central and South America to the Middle East and Eurasia. How WiRED’s training programs, carried by the Internet, have now become global resources, used by hospitals and clinics, schools, other non-governmental organizations and universities.
An element of WiRED’s operation that repeats in every story is that all of WiRED’s programs are run mainly by volunteers who have made it possible for WiRED to provide medical and health training programs cost-free to everyone. WiRED’s administration is volunteer, we have a volunteer board, and our writers and editors are volunteers. A small paid staff builds and shepherds the training modules through the production process, but even their work is augmented by that of volunteers. I’m proud of the people in the United States and abroad who donate their time and lend their talents to this organization’s efforts to provide people in low resource regions with some of the finest public-access, health training material available anywhere.
1Tucker, Spencer. (2010). A Global Chronology of Conflict: From the Ancient World to the Modern Middle East. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC. p. 2617. ISBN 978-1-85109-667-1.