Back from the dead

A Kosovo journalist NATO reported killed is working to get news out to refugees in Macedonia.

Published April 14, 1999 9:06AM (EDT)

Baton Haxhiu, 33, is holding court in Arbi's, a cheerful faux-marble-floored cafe with a pastry counter full of iced sweets and a chrome espresso machine, here in the northwestern Macedonian city of Tetovo. Old men elegantly dressed in three-piece suits tip their hats and come up to shake his hand. Kosovar Albanian girls stop by to kiss his cheek. Anxious-looking young men in jeans and leather jackets buy him coffee, while the owner of the cafe takes telephone messages for Haxhiu, who always asks who's calling before he answers. A group of foreign reporters have their notebooks open at his table, and wait patiently during the frequent interruptions of admirers coming to visit him.

Haxhiu, the editor in chief of Kosovo's leading ethnic Albanian newspaper, Koha Ditore, is more than a local celebrity. He is back from the dead. Two weeks ago, NATO reported at its daily press conference in Brussels, Belgium, that Haxhiu, along with four other top Kosovo intellectuals, had been killed by Serbian forces after attending the funeral of top Kosovo Albanian human rights lawyer Bajram Kelmendi. Haxhiu describes the surreal experience of watching the press conference announcing his own death via satellite television in the basement of the Pristina apartment where he was hiding from the Serbian police during the NATO bombing.

"I was frozen," Haxhiu recounts. "I was watching the BBC. Every half-hour they reported I was killed. On CNN, I was watching my friends crying for me. Foreign journalists were doing reports about how they met me. The BBC reporter said I was dead because I was strong and a very good journalist. German ZDF television said I was killed because a few days before I was seen wearing a T-shirt that said 'NATO: Just Do It,'" he recalled.

Haxhiu is well known to journalists and diplomats who have covered Kosovo. He and his wife frequently took their 3-year-old son, with his wide face and long curly blond hair, out to dinner at a popular basement restaurant in Pristina called Hani's.

On Tuesday, coincidentally, at the table next to Haxhiu's at Arbi's cafe sat the burly, dark-bearded owner of Hani's, Fadil Dragaj, and his raven-haired wife, Merita. Their presence was equally miraculous. On March 22, two days before NATO started bombing Serbian forces, Fadil was shot five times and received a leg and back full of shrapnel when Serbian terrorists sprayed automatic weapons fire and threw a grenade into the Magic Cafi -- next to his restaurant -- where Fadil was enjoying an after-hours drink. Four days later, with part of his fingers missing, three ribs broken and the shrapnel still in him, Fadil, Marita and their little boy packed the car and headed for the border. Now they sit a little awkwardly in Arbi's cafe, chatting with friends.

Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city, has become the base for refugees like Haxhiu and Dragaj, leaders of Pristina's intellectual and cultural community, now expelled from Kosovo by a deliberate campaign of "ethnic cleansing." Haxhiu and other Kosovo journalists, artists and political activists are trying to quickly mend their own war wounds to provide hundreds of thousands of Kosovo refugees with a desperately needed cultural lifeline: a new newspaper to be distributed for free to the refugees in their camps. They aim to provide not only news, but a sense of community that has been destroyed overnight by their violent expulsion from their homes, towns, habits and homeland.

A walk through the refugee camps in Macedonia gives a glimpse of how desperate Kosovo refugees are for information, news and a sense of connection to their former lives. On the hour, people rush off to find radios, gathering around them to try to find out what is happening in Kosovo, where many left loved ones behind. An old man named Qerim, from the central Kosovo farming region of Drenica and now living in the Stankovic refugee camp, goes to great effort to procure batteries to give as a present to whoever shares a radio with him, so prized is the gift of news in this camp.

No one knows better than Haxhiu how news can be the difference between sanity and madness and despair. He spent more than a week alone in various friends' basements in Pristina, trying to hide from the Serbian forces who were deliberately targeting Pristina's intellectual leaders for retribution. All he had to keep him company was a radio.

"No one slept two nights in the same place," he says. But after he was reported killed, "nobody wanted me to stay in their basements. They were afraid. Finally I found one basement. I didn't know what day it is. I didn't want any food. The only important thing was news. If not for the news, I would start to go crazy.

"In one basement, I only had four apples and tea. I had two apples the first day, two apples the second day. On the third day, the battery on my radio went dead. It was terrible. For the next three days, I just thought back on my life, all the stuff that had happened to me. I only thought bad things. Never hope. I always thought how the Serbs could come and humiliate me."

A few days later, all the residents of the neighborhood where he was hiding were expelled by Serbian paramilitary forces, Haxhiu says. Through a basement window, he could see the legs of his neighbors gathered in the street, and he decided that mixing in with them was his best chance for escape. He had already shaved his beard, put on a hat and taken other measures to disguise himself. He walked up to a lady walking with a little boy, slipped his arm through hers and said, "If anybody asks, you are my wife, and this is my little boy." They made their way with the hundreds of others fleeing the neighborhood to the border, where he slipped out of Kosovo and into exile.

Soon Haxhiu was in London, meeting with British foreign secretary Robin Cook, and securing pledges of several thousand dollars from Western nations to support his idea of a "Koha Ditore" newspaper in exile.

But Haxhiu has yet to get the permission of the Macedonian government to start such a news venture in Macedonia. Tensions between Macedonia's ethnic Slav and Albanian communities is already on the rise, as Slavs fear the new Albanian refugees will boost ethnic Albanian demands for independence. But already the idea of the paper has given hope to refugees -- who have actually brawled over copies of newspapers brought into the camps -- and the dozens of journalists and writers who used to work in Kosovo.

One of them is Virtyt Gacaferi, a young Kosovo Albanian journalist with Koha Ditore who also escaped to Macedonia after hiding in Pristina for weeks. Also feared dead, Virtyt appeared -- looking little worse for the wear, only a bit shaken -- in the Macedonian capital of Skopje Tuesday. He only left Kosovo, he said, after the phones went dead and he couldn't file his stories anymore.

"I was still writing stories every day," Virtyt said over a cola on Tuesday. "But with no place to send them, I was going crazy. I decided I had to leave." Gacaferi is planning to organize his fellow journalists to help take testimony from the refugees -- an attempt to document alleged war crimes for the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague.

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

MORE FROM Laura Rozen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------