E-mail at the End of the Earth

Net Dreams in Nagorno-Karabakh

Published July 15, 1996 11:44AM (EDT)


Ask anybody you meet at the modest, white-washed, two-story foreign ministry headquarters on the main street of Stepanakert, and an official will be found to sell you a postage stamp. It's a great souvenir, but you can't use it to mail a postcard to the folks back home -- because here on the raw edge of the former Soviet Union, there is no post office.

In fact, there is a lot of nothing in the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave hidden away in the mountains of the lower Caucasus. No diplomatic recognition, no factories to speak of, few working telephones, no gas stations, no television station, no airport, no railroad, only a handful of roads and fewer than 200,000 people. One of them is Samuel Mailian -- soldier, computer hacker and believer in the power of the Internet.

Twenty-three years old, dressed in blue denim, Mailian sits smoking Marlboros inside the cramped sixth-floor apartment of a former KGB colonel turned nationalist patriot. Slight and nervous, his dark eyes light up as he explains in patient, careful English how the Internet will help his struggling, landlocked enclave to become a real country.

"It all started back in 1993. The war was still going on but I thought, if people around the world know about Nagorno-Karabakh through the Internet then that would be a wonderful thing," Mailian said.

Great idea, but there is a lot more to setting up a Web site and e-mail system in Nagorno-Karabakh than running down to Computer City for a copy of Internet-in-a-Box. Virtually the only person in Stepanakert at the time with a computer, the former computer science major at Yerevan State University in neighboring Armenia started at the bottom of the information food chain. He taught himself UNIX, the operating system of the Internet, and began scrounging for the pieces of his dream.

"Almost everyone with any education had left the country because of the war," he said. "I was left all alone here. I needed a modem, financing, leased lines, more RAM and a faster computer. I needed everything."

He patched together a modem with spare parts and an old 386 computer to hack into what was then the only Internet service provider in Armenia -- Arminco, headquartered in Yerevan. He gained access to their files using one of the few crackly, unreliable phone lines in Nagorno-Karabakh, but he was quickly caught on-line by one of the company operators. "When they found out it was somebody from N-K," Mailian said with a laugh, "they couldn't believe it. They gave me an account and started helping."

As a result, Mailian gained the expertise needed to create a Nagorno-Karabakh home page and, more important for the day-to-day survival of a struggling government, to establish an e-mail link for residents to communicate with the outside world. With phone lines at a premium as the old Soviet-era system has crumbled under neglect and warfare, Arminco provided Mailian with a precious leased land line linked to Arminco's server in Yerevan. "This is a chance to get news out about Nagorno-Karabakh and to help them with Internet access," said Samuel Stepanian, a computer technician with Arminco in Yerevan. "Of course we are proud to do this."

Stepanian's willingness to help must be understood in the context of Nagorno-Karabakh's civil war, which became a patriotic cause celebre among Armenians scattered worldwide. Wedged between two former Soviet republics, Christian Armenia to the west and Muslim Azerbaijan to the east, Nagorno-Karabakh was one of the first regions to erupt into civil war when the Soviet empire began to implode in 1988.

Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself a republic in 1991 as the bitter war raged, claiming tens of thousands of lives. For more than two years Stepanakert was bombarded by Soviet-made GRAD missiles fired from hillsides by Azeri troops. Armenia was drawn into the fighting as volunteers flocked to Karabakh -- populated almost entirely by ethnic Armenians -- to take part in what became a holy crusade.

Save for the occasional border skirmish, the fighting has exhausted itself. Assisted by Armenia, the outnumbered Karabakh army drove the better-equipped Azeri troops out in 1992, seizing parts of southern Azerbaijan in the process. The devastation of former Azeri villages in Nagorno-Karabakh stands as mute testimony to the savagery of the conflict. Subsequent ethnic cleansing has been as vicious as anything seen in Bosnia, creating hundreds of thousands of refugees in both Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Recognized by no other government, not even Armenia,
Nagorno-Karabakh's status is debated in Moscow and puzzled over by the rest of Europe. The United States won't recognize its borders and wants the republic returned to oil-rich Azerbaijan, a fate the
Armenians utterly refuse to accept. Most international aid agencies can't work there because their charters don't allow them to assist an
unrecognized country.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a place with more strikes against it than Nagorno-Karabakh. With almost no trade, no industry and an infrastructure ruined by war, the country subsists on sheepherding, small-scale agriculture, donations from Armenians abroad and a lifeline of border trade with Iranian merchants, who pass through Armenia in colorful trucks laden with everything from orange soda pop to electrical wire.

Still, a semblance of normality is returning to this never-never land. A handful of small restaurants have opened, the first bar in town since the war started does good business late into the evening and
construction crews have patched together Stepanakert's main buildings. The parks are open again, and stylishly dressed men and women fill the streets. "The child is born and it is taking its first steps," says J. Girair Boghosian, the minister of humanitarian affairs. "Soon it will grow up."

Mailian, an army lieutenant by day, has convinced his superiors to let him begin the process of linking up far-flung military units on a local area network. The government itself has gone online, while the Arminco-based server carries news in Armenian on Nagorno-Karabakh's home page and beats the virtual drum for the independence cause.

Upgraded to a pair of more powerful computers and a 19.2 baud modem, Mailian and a handful of friends spend their evenings helping people contact relatives abroad via the Internet and otherwise spreading the cyberspace gospel. One of his computer students recently set up a "Brain Ring" game for Armenian intellectuals on the Nagorno-Karabakh Web site. "That boy is just 16 years old," Mailian said of his young protégé, "and now he knows the rest of the world. That is what I hope will happen for lots of children here."

Which gets Sam Mailian to his real dream. "The most obvious thing is to use the Internet to make the Nagorno-Karabakh people closer to the Azeris," he says, drawing deeply on a cigarette and sipping thick black coffee. "We have to start normal relations without weapons."

To that end, he has made friends with Azeri computer users -- something a closed, militarized border and a lack of phone lines between the two warring countries would normally make impossible. Azeris have visited his home page and left messages of support and encouragement. "It's just a beginning," Mailian says, "but it can grow."

Quote of the day

Continental Divide

"An emerging global elite, mostly urban-based and interconnected in a variety of ways, is amassing great wealth and power, while more than half of humanity is left out. We still have more than half the people on the planet with incomes of less than $2 a day -- more than 3 billion people. For poor people in this two-class world, it is a breeding ground for hopelessness, for anger, for frustration."

-- James Gustav Speth, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, which compiled the Human Development Report 1996, to be released Wednesday. (From "U.N. Survey Finds World Rich-Poor Gap Widening," in Monday's New York Times).

By A. Lin Neumann

Sacramento, Calif., writer A. Lin Neumann (74507.134@compuserve.com) is a former foreign correspondent.

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