August 4, 2000 San Francisco Chronicle
Bringing People Together on Net
Montara man provides computer links to Balkans
by Bill Workman
For thousands of people in remote, war-torn villages of the former Yugoslavia, Gary Selnow of Montara is the guru of the Internet.
Selnow, a communications professor at San Francisco State University, runs a nonprofit organization out of his home on the San Mateo coast that provides computer links to doctors and other health care workers, journalists, students and other professionals in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro.
Since 1997, when he went to Croatia for six months to teach radio journalism at the University of Zagreb on a Fulbright scholarship, Selnow has been setting up computer network centers in the Balkans with donated, refurbished hardware shipped from the United States.
The centers are located in some of the most devastated, isolated regions, where the Net is thought to be helping to defuse ethnic tensions. And, it is hoped, to help restore order to civic life, as well as educate young and old in the new information technologies.
"Bringing people together has always been the mission of the project," says Selnow, 52, a New Jersey native who put himself through Rutgers University as an undergraduate working as a radio news reporter. "Maybe that's a bit naive, but it's at least worth the trouble."
While such a goal remains elusive in Kosovo, Selnow has watched with fascination in Croatia as Croatian and Serbia parents have left their hatreds at the schoolhouse door to "come together and see what this computer stuff is that their kids are learning about."
Estimates are that by the end of this year, more than 55,000 people will be served by cyberlinks at 34 centers established by Selnow's group, WiRED (World Internet Resources for Education and Development) in Balkan schools and other community buildings.
The nonprofit organization counts a growing number of volunteers and donors from around the United States whom Selnow, a widely quoted scholar on political activity on the Internet, has enlisted to his cause.
Among them is Tatjana Grgich, a Croatian American and co-owner of the Grgich Hills Winery of Napa Valley, and Bess Klumb,the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's development director and WiRED's lead fund-raiser; and several retired NBC executives Selnow knew from his days as a network consultant.
Many turn to the group's computer labs in the former Yugoslavian republics to stay in touch by e-mail with relatives and friends who left their homeland during the war. But Selnow says Internet access may also be subtly changing some Balkan traditions.
For example, he cites a trainer's observation in a survey that Croatian doctors have found so much evidence of the harmful effects of smoking on Web sites that they are increasingly joining the ranks of nonsmokers, in a culture long dominated by the machismo of strong tobacco.
In one recent innovation, WiRED and Selnow, who flies to the Balkans several times a year, are encouraging American physicians to volunteer one hour a month to link up on the Internet with Balkan doctors to keep them abreast of research. Recently, a Kosovo physician using the Net for his research published the first journal paper to come out of his country in two years.
Selnow hires a translator wherever he travels. "I know just about enough Serbo-Croatian to order another beer -- or get my face slapped," he said.
His first sojourn to Croatia "started out as an academicky thing, but it became much more personalized over time," says Selnow, a trim, wiry man who is up daily before dawn to bicycle the slopes of nearby Montara Mountain before settling down to read e-mail from WiRED associates and the overseas Internet labs.
Soon after he arrived in Croatia three years ago, Selnow was invited to talk about the Net at a middle school in Vukovar, a four-hour drive from the capital of Zagreb into the remote eastern farmlands, where the roadsides were taped off for miles at a stretch to warn of treacherous minefields nearby.
To his dismay, he discovered that the schoolchildren had no access to computers. "The teachers were training them with paper keyboards and paper mice that the kids tapped and moved around while following instructions on an overhead," Selnow recalls.
"It was kind of silly. There was no way to demonstrate how to get on the Internet."
However, Selnow learned that a while back UNICEF had left a dozen computers in a school storage room but never sent technicians to install them. Obtaining a small grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development office in Zagreb and rounding up local teenagers who knew something about computers, Selnow returned to Vukovar and set up what was to become the first of WiRED's satellite- linked cyber operations.
At the time, he hadn't envisioned taking on any more projects. But a terrifying van ride, later on the same night the UNICEF computers were installed, convinced him that there was more he could be doing.
Curious about a huge orange glow on the horizon, Selnow asked his driver to take him closer. It turned out that hundreds of acres of farmland had been torched by authorities to explode the mines, and it was only the skillful driving of his companion that got the two men safely away from the thundering firestorm.
Later, as they ate in a rural restaurant, the village continued to shake from the deafening explosions.
Selnow says it forcefully reminded him that the people he had come to know and like "had just been through a hell of war and that one computer center stuck out there just wasn't enough to begin to deal with their isolation and fear."
Bill Workman writes about people from the Peninsula and South Bay; he can be reached at (650) 961-2499 or by fax at (650) 961-5023.
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