A Premature Obituary
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (email@example.com) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
THE EDITOR PULLED AN obituary that ran April 1 in London's Independent out of his shirt pocket and passed it around the table at the Restaurant Arbi in Tetovo, Macedonia, a hangout for exiled Kosovar elite in the town of 300,000. "You see, I was dead for nine days," Baton Haxhiu said with a chuckle, as he went back to his lunch of grilled meat.
The report noted that Haxhiu, "one of the most prominent and respected of Albanian journalists in Kosovo," had been murdered by Serbian security forces. NATO made the announcement March 29. The editor of Koha Ditore, Kosovo's leading Albanian-language daily, heard the news of his death on the BBC after he went into hiding. "It made me crazy," he recalls. "I was afraid even to call my wife. She already was receiving condolences."
On March 24, the day NATO airstrikes began in Yugoslavia, Serbian agents smashed the offices of the independent ethnic Albanian newspaper, executed an elderly night watchman, and set the building ablaze.
Like other members of his staff, Haxhiu, 32, eluded Serb police by shifting hiding places. From a small peephole in the basement where he hid, the editor could see Serbian militia in green masks roaming the streets, shouting that residents had four minutes to get out. Haxhiu, who had shaved his trademark red beard, donned a baseball cap, joined the crowd and made it to his car a short walk away. He picked up a woman with two children and an elderly couple, offering them a ride to the border as part of the subterfuge.
For three days, they inched along in a row of vehicles that stretched for miles as they headed for the Macedonian border. It was during that time that Haxhiu witnessed the abduction of two women, ages 21 and 23, from the car behind him. His blue eyes hardened and the glib smile disappeared as he recounted the incident.
The Serbs, he says, demanded 10,000 German marks. When they realized the father didn't have the money, they dragged the women out of the back seat. "He offered 4,000 German marks, but they refused," Haxhiu says. "We were powerless. I was afraid and frustrated. I couldn't help them--that was the terrible part."
Upon returning two hours later, the women sat in the car weeping with their parents. The father, says Haxhiu, urged those who witnessed the episode "to never forget and never forgive."
"For me, death at the hands of the Serbs was not the worst thing. I knew if I was caught, they would humiliate me on Serbian TV. That was my great fear," says the editor, who had visited with Bajram Kelmendi, a prominent human rights lawyer, just hours before the attorney was seized with his two sons and executed on March 25.
As soon as the embattled editor crossed into Macedonia in early April, he grabbed a telephone and announced to his wife, "I am alive."
Ardian Arifaj, 25, a deputy editor at the newspaper, listened intently as his mentor described the ordeal. Like the others, Arifaj once believed Haxhiu to be dead. "We [the newspaper] did more damage to [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic than the Kosovo Liberation Army," the young journalist says. "We expected that we would be killed if we were taken."
Nearly a month after the paper's offices were destroyed, Haxhiu, with a skeleton staff of 23, including Arifaj, began working out of a one-room office on Marshal Tito Street in Tetovo on borrowed computer equipment and with one cell phone. On April 26, Koha Ditore was back on the street and being distributed free at refugee camps.