Editor Dodges Police After His 'Demise'
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 19, 1999; Page A14
TETOVO, Macedonia – Baton Haxhiu heard the news of his death broadcast live from NATO headquarters while sitting in the darkened living room of a friend's apartment in Pristina, the Kosovo capital. Outside, Yugoslav troops and Serbian militiamen roamed the streets, firing into the air as Haxhiu hunkered down with three other ethnic Albanians, all fearing for their lives.
Five days earlier, Belgrade government security agents had trashed the office of the independent ethnic Albanian newspaper Haxhiu edits, Koha Ditore, and executed its security guard. After hearing NATO's erroneous announcement on March 29, Haxhiu recalled in an interview here last week, he feared the government would redouble its efforts to catch him and plant him in front of a TV camera just to prove NATO wrong.
Haxhiu said he was convinced he had to leave his apartment and find a place to hide, a task he said was complicated by the lawlessness and fear that had gripped Pristina and made its residents reluctant to shelter someone who was a government target.
Since NATO began bombing Yugoslav military targets on March 24 and Serb-led Yugoslav forces launched an all-out campaign to force Kosovo's ethnic Albanians from their homes, many intellectuals and other leading figures there have shared the experience of living as fugitives on the run, never knowing which day might be their last.
Western officials say that security forces have killed at least three Kosovo political leaders and that many others remain in hiding in the belief that their names are on a hit list.
One of those killed was Bajram Kelmendi, a prominent civil rights lawyer who had secretly funneled information about atrocities in Kosovo to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Kelmendi and his two sons were seized the day after the NATO bombing began; their bodies were found at a gas station on the edge of Pristina on March 26.
Also slain were Agim Hajrizi, head of Kosovo's leading trade union, and Latif Berisha, director of the office of Kosovo's largest political party in the northern city of Mitrovica. Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the party, is under house arrest in Pristina, according to a German journalist who was trapped with Rugova's family at his home until a few days ago.
Koha Ditore publisher Veton Surroi was reported by the White House to have been slain, but he remains in hiding in Kosovo, according to sources here. Scores of other prominent ethnic Albanians have been able to slip out of the province only in the past week – many among the tens of thousands of people packed into refugee trains or who were able to flee by car.
During Haxhiu's period in hiding – he found shelter initially with a reluctant writer friend – residents of the city left their houses to buy food only between 9 and 10 a.m. It was then that electricity would be turned on in the city and he could watch CNN or BBC. "How is it possible?" he wondered after hearing the NATO briefing about his death. "I was shaking."
But Haxhiu was too terrified to reveal he was alive, and he moved to the basement of another friend's house, spending the next few days looking out a tiny window and hiding whenever he heard a car.
Then, at 9:30 a.m. on April 2, uniformed soldiers wearing green masks walked through the streets ordering residents to leave within four minutes. Thousands of people flooded into the streets, and through his window Haxhiu saw a young woman standing with two children and her parents.
He walked up to her and introduced himself, saying, "From now on, you are my wife, these are my children." She was astonished but agreed to go to the border with him in his car. Policemen were stationed every few miles along the way, and whenever an expensive late model car drove up, they ordered the occupants to leave it with them and walk.
But no one wanted Haxhiu's 1992 Volkswagen Golf, and he had no trouble reaching southern Kosovo. There, he pulled in behind what appeared to be a thousand or so cars, waiting two abreast to be allowed to enter Macedonia near the town of Jazince. The line barely moved over the next four days, and security forces patrolled the area around the clock, extracting bribes from those stuck in the line to move closer to the border.
Moving to the front of the line cost about $5,000 in German marks, Haxhiu said, adding: "If you handed over your mobile phone, you got to move up only 100 places or so."
One night, Haxhiu saw a few soldiers knock on the window of the car behind his, where two young women – aged 21 and 23 – sat with their parents. The soldiers forced opened the doors and dragged the girls away after the father said he could not pay a $6,000 bribe. Although many others in the line knew what was happening, "no one moved from their cars" to help, Haxhiu said. "That was the worst thing."
When the girls were brought back two hours later, they slumped in the back seat while their parents wept. The next day, they asked that he "never forget and never forgive" what the soldiers had done, Haxhiu said.
He tried to remain anonymous, but word spread and eventually several men dispatched across the border by Arben Xhaferi, head of the largest ethnic Albanian party in Macedonia, arrived to pull him from the car and push him through a crowd at the border.
Haxhiu said he plans to publish Koha Ditore in Macedonia and hand it out free to information-starved people at camps for Kosovo refugees in Macedonia and Albania.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company