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CYBERCULTURE | DIGITAL NATION

Engineer Wires a War-Torn Croatia

April 13, 1998|GARY CHAPMAN | Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin

The Hotel Esplanade in Zagreb, Croatia, one of the grandest hotels in the world, is straight out of Agatha Christie. A huge, classical stone edifice, it was built in 1925 to serve passengers on the Orient Express, who would stop at the train station across the street. It doesn't seem to have changed much since those days. It is still a jaw-dropping place, decked out in royal purple velvet and polished brass trimmings.

It was in the bar of this hotel that I met Predrag Pale (pronounced PAW-lay), the 38-year-old Croatian deputy minister of science and technology and the man responsible for all things related to computers and the Internet in one of the world's oldest countries and one of its newest states.

When my wife and I spent two weeks touring Croatia in March, we fell in love with the country--one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on Earth--and its people. And Predrag Pale is an inspiring example of the engineer as national hero.

Pale is an energetic, talkative, inhumanly busy man who speaks nearly perfect English, having worked for some years in Silicon Valley in the 1980s.

He regaled me with stories of how he and his colleagues coped with one of the worst wars of the last 25 years, when Serbs in paramilitary units and the Yugoslav Federal Army attacked Croatia in 1991 and 1992. Zagreb was bombed by both planes and artillery and the incomparably beautiful and historic city of Dubrovnik, in the south of Croatia, was under siege for 10 months and relentlessly shelled by the Serbs, a crime of unspeakable barbarity.

"The war was about money," Pale said. We heard this everywhere we went in Croatia. During the nearly 50 years of communist rule in Yugoslavia, the federal system glued together by Tito and his allies imposed a huge transfer of wealth from productive Croatia to less productive, and even backward parts of the country, such as in Bosnia and Serbia. Croatia supplied money and foreign currency because of its better developed industry, its rich agricultural production in the north, and its booming tourism along the Adriatic coast.

When the communist system began to break up in Central and Eastern Europe, Croats and Slovenes in Yugoslavia started to question this system of subsidization. Eventually Slovenia broke with the Yugoslav republic, forming an independent state, and Croatia announced that it would no longer send money to Belgrade to support other parts of Yugoslavia.

"When our government decided to keep this money," Pale told me, "it suddenly produced a large surplus of funds, something we hadn't seen before, a figure of some $20 million. About $4.5 million was dedicated to improving the University of Zagreb's computer and networking equipment. Prior to this we were using oscilloscopes so old that the markings on the knobs had worn off from use."

The computer and electrical engineering departments at the University of Zagreb immediately purchased a vast new array of computers and telecommunications equipment with their windfall. But just as the shipment was being transported to Zagreb via Slovenia, the Serbs attacked across the Slovenian border with tanks and planes.

"We had many sleepless nights, wondering whether our equipment would be destroyed before it arrived," Pale said. It did arrive in Zagreb safely, moved in unmarked trucks at night. But then, as it sat waiting to be unpacked in Zagreb, the Serbs launched their assault on Croatia, with rocket and air attacks on Zagreb.

"I swore to myself that this equipment would survive, and that it would never fall into the hands of the enemy. It was the foundation for a new opportunity for our country," Pale said. In hours, the equipment was not only unpacked, but dispersed into the homes of faculty and students of the university.

"The equipment disappeared in eight hours. Then we developed a secret password. If the Serbs appeared in Zagreb, as we thought they would, we would telephone with the password, and the equipment should then be buried or hidden to prevent it from being stolen."

The Croatian army was more successful than most people expected, and the Serbian military was driven out of Croatia, resulting in the establishment of a new state.

Pale's first task during the war had been to build a national news service--from scratch--to get out information about the war from the Croatian point of view.

He has since gone on to build a national Internet backbone, which is now among the best in Central Europe. He's also in charge of all of the country's information policies, its use of computers in education, tele-medicine and the development of new information industries.

He makes about $200 a month--during the war that figure sank to $80--and prices in Croatia are even higher than in Germany or Austria.

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