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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Albanian Journalist Looks At 1999

By Melazim Koci and Don Hill

A British newspaper (the Independent) published an obituary last April of young Kosovar Albanian journalist Baton Haxhiu, murdered, said the newspaper, by Serbian security troops. Ten days later, Haxhiu surfaced in Macedonia, still writing, urgently telling his fellow refugees to prepare to go back. In a telephone interview, Haxhiu, now back in Kosovo, tells RFE/RL correspondents Melazim Koci and Don Hill that the war produced no winners.

Prague, 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the year 1999, Kosovar Albanian journalist Baton Haxhiu became a legend among his fellow ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

He had insisted on piercing what he calls the "information blackout" in defiance of Serbian security forces. As editor for more than a year of the daily "Koha Ditore," he wrote what he considered the forbidden truth about the oppression, murder and dispossession of his people by forces of the Serbian majority.

He and his staff persevered because, as Haxhiu puts it, "We intended to break the autocratic atmosphere of lies and illusion, which were maintained as a long-term policy."

Serbian security forces ransacked and destroyed Koha Ditore's offices last March. Word went out to a shocked community that Baton Haxhiu was dead, abducted and slain by Serbian troops. But ten days later, he surfaced in Macedonia and soon, aided by a British grant, was publishing a newspaper for Kosovar refugees there. Haxhiu spoke recently with RFE/RL about the experience:

"This is what motivated me to start a newspaper for refugees -- to inform people in the camps and in private homes, to tell them that they needed to stay near the border. Because we had to go back. In 15 days we organized a daily newspaper, started it from nothing. The headline of the first story was 'The Unbearable Lightness of Crime.' Another one was 'We Will Return to Kosovo by June 15.' We meant to create hope among the refugees."

Haxhiu's face and name already were well known to both Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo when Serbian militias began to coordinate and orchestrate their attacks on Albanians. He had long practiced what he calls "sandwich journalism," writing between assaults by Serbs and by the one-sided leaders of the Kosovar Albanians.

In his words: "You were beaten from two sides. One side that was very dangerous was Serbia, and the second side, Albanian autocrats, ready morally to destroy everybody. It was a moral lynching."

The journalist is matter-of-fact in describing his harrowing escape. When the NATO air strikes started, he stayed in different parts of Pristina, in cellars, living on water and apples. From a window in one such cellar, he saw that militias were forcing thousands from their homes. He knew the time had come to run. He put on a fake beard and a hat. Haxhiu:

"I saw a lady with a baby in her arms. I was disguised. I asked her to help me, telling the others that I am her husband. 'Who are you?' she asked. I told her that I am Baton Haxhiu. But she replied that Baton is dead and that I must be an idiot for what I am saying. Until then, all Kosovo believed that I was dead. And this was nothing new for me. When I took off my hat, she recognized me. From there, we escaped to the mountains near Macedonia, where we stayed for four days. Then, some people helped me and I reached Macedonia."

Haxhiu says there were only losers and no winners in NATO's war over Kosovo. Not the Serbs, of course. Certainly not the Kosovar Albanians. Not even NATO, Haxhiu contends. In his words, "Even if [NATO] is the military winner, it is a moral loser." Also a loser is, as he puts it: "the international community, which promised that Bosnia or Croatia would not happen again, and failed."

Now Haxhiu, himself, is back in Kosovo. He says he is determined to persevere as a journalist. But, despite NATO's defeat of the Serbian militias, the writer says, life remains dangerous in Kosovo. The Serbs are gone, but criminality is not. And the international community's presence is inadequate.

In Haxhiu's words: "Here are not yet to be found the elements of democracy and of a civil society." Life is not markedly better for an outspoken journalist, either, he says.

"Despite understandable difficulties because of the war, I remain determined to pursue independent journalism. This is dangerous, because in Kosovo exist bases of political mafia and political corruption, known in the Balkan experience as something impossible to solve. To fight against them with a newspaper is really very difficult. But independent journalism is a political force, and I wish to have a healthy society here. Or at least a society that will oppose the things that have been present in the Balkans for the last 10 years."

Haxhiu says he began as a journalist by publishing articles in a student newspaper. He says writing and publishing gave him new hope that things could actually change.

Later this month (Tuesday, November 23), the Committee to Protect Journalists will present a 1999 International Press Freedom Award to Baton Haxhiu for courage and independence in reporting the news.