November 22, 1999
Media correspondent Terence Smith talks with ethnic Albanian journalist Baton Haxhiu, winner of a 1999 Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
TERENCE SMITH: For more than a week after the start of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia last March, ethnic Albanian newspaper editor Baton Haxhiu was officially a dead man. On the night before the NATO campaign began, the Pristina offices of Haxhiu's paper, Koha Ditore, or Daily Times, were ransacked by Serb police. An elderly night watchman was murdered, and the building was torched. Days later, a NATO spokesman, Air Commodore David Wilby, seemed to confirm the suspected fate of Baton Haxhiu.
AIR COMMODORE DAVID WILBY: Four other prominent ethnic Albanians were reportedly executed on Sunday, including editor-in-chief of Koha Ditore, Baton Haxhiu.
TERENCE SMITH: But in early April, Haxhiu surfaced in Macedonia. He had gone underground, hiding in basements and in friends' apartments, and disguising himself to elude his Serb pursuers.
BATON HAXIHU: (Translated) I was hiding for 12 days like most of the Albanians left there. There were definitely no witnesses to what has been happening in Pristina. We were the only ones, but we were in a basement. People did not make mistakes in saying that we were executed. We were as close to death as skin to the bone.
TERENCE SMITH: Haxhiu and his paper had long been targets of Serb harassment. Koha Ditore, the largest and most influential Albanian-language daily in Kosovo, and its editor, were fined heavily and repeatedly by Serb authorities for allegedly "inciting hatred between nationalities." Within days of his reappearance, Haxhiu and a small staff, using borrowed computers and one cell phone, set up shop in Macedonia. Once again they were publishing Koha Ditore, distributing it free in the Macedonian refugee camps. After the bombing campaign, Haxhiu returned to Pristina where Koha Ditore, renowned as a moderate, pro-human rights voice, is again on the streets every day.
|A period of deep desperation|
TERENCE SMITH: Joining us is Baton Haxhiu, the editor of Koha Ditore. He is one of the 1999 winners of the Press Freedom Awards, given by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Welcome to you. Welcome to this country and to the NewsHour.
BATON HAXHIU: Very nice to be here.
TERENCE SMITH: My understanding is that the last edition of your paper, before the NATO bombing, had a headline that said, "NATO, Just Do It," over the NIKE swoosh.
BATON HAXHIU: Yeah.
TERENCE SMITH: You must have known that you were a bit of a target, then.
BATON HAXHIU: Between 23 and 24 --
TERENCE SMITH: Of March --
BATON HAXHIU: -- Of March, I put it in the front page, not to air just to wait, because we were waiting for many, many months, Serbian territory in Kosovo. And so finally, we are waiting for NATO bombs in Kosovo, and to see international committee how they help Albanians. So really, between 23 and 24 was very dangerous for me because our lawyer was killed --
TERENCE SMITH: Yes.
BATON HAXHIU: Between 23 and 24.
TERENCE SMITH: Of March, right.
BATON HAXHIU: Of March. And our office is destroyed. Our bodyguards were also killed, and our print house was destroyed. So from this day, from 24, I was in hiding for many days, until seventh of April.
TERENCE SMITH: What was it like to hear -- I gather you heard it on the radio or over the air -- that you were dead?
BATON HAXHIU: I heard from CNN news. The press conference in Brussels, and Jimmy Shea, the -- said -- And I think, on 26 or 27 of March, that yesterday, in Pristina, were executed four intellectuals, and including chief editor of Koha Ditore, Baton Haxhiu.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
BATON HAXHIU: I was surprised, I really was. I was in deep desperation because I was separated from my family, from my wife and son, and from my parents, and they didn't know what happened with me. For many days, they think that I'm dead, so --
TERENCE SMITH: And you were not able to call your wife --
BATON HAXHIU: No, no, absolutely.
TERENCE SMITH: -- or communicate with her in any way?
BATON HAXHIU: No. I was in hiding in the basement for many days, with some apples, and with just water.
TERENCE SMITH: Apples and water?
BATON HAXHIU: Yeah.
|Keeping ideas alive|
TERENCE SMITH: And then you slowly made your way to Macedonia?
BATON HAXHIU: What's happened after 12 days in hiding, paramilitary forces were coming in this area in Pristina.
TERENCE SMITH: Where you were?
BATON HAXHIU: Yeah. And after that, they just give one or two minutes to -- two minutes to citizens to go out of the flats, and from my basement I saw -- from small windows, I saw people how in deport --
TERENCE SMITH: And they were just fleeing?
BATON HAXHIU: And just fleeing. And so I also saw one woman with child, and I said, "Baton, it is good time to go out." I was in mask, of course, and I pleaded to this woman.
TERENCE SMITH: When you say a mask, sort of a disguise of some sort?
BATON HAXHIU: Yeah. So, nobody believed I am alive, because for many days people thought Baton is killed. And so, this woman said, "You are a big liar. How you can say Baton is alive?" And so after a few minutes discuss, she said, "You are really Baton Haxhiu?" I said, "Yes." And so we left Pristina on second of April, with this child and this woman.
TERENCE SMITH: And when you got to Macedonia, were you able to call your wife from there?
BATON HAXHIU: No. She watched me on TV. I was on -- I was 7 of April, in Bonn, and live conference, press conference from Bonn, and she saw me on TV.
TERENCE SMITH: So, she both heard that you were dead --
BATON HAXHIU: Yeah.
TERENCE SMITH: -- on the air, and also learned that you were alive?
BATON HAXHIU: Yeah. Learned from TV. And people had gone to her to say "Sorry for Baton." And she, for 12 days, she know that I am dead.
TERENCE SMITH: Extraordinary. And then you were able to set up your newspaper in temporary quarters in Macedonia, and print and distribute to the refugees?
BATON HAXHIU: Yeah. My idea was to keep alive ideas with information, with newspaper, for people who stay in the border, and to be back in Kosovo; and the second, to keep stability in Macedonia, because it was very important for us to have stability in Macedonia.
TERENCE SMITH: Stability there?
BATON HAXHIU: Yeah, of course. Because if in Macedonia, start to be trouble, all international focusing will be on Macedonia. Everybody will forget Kosovo, and Milosevic will have a free hand to cleansing Kosovo.
|Working in a land whose dead speak|
TERENCE SMITH: So finally, you were able to return to Pristina. What was that like to go home?
BATON HAXHIU: Oh. I thought -- it's good to be back in Pristina, and in Kosovo. But Kosovo, it's too much destroyed. Kosovo is the land whose dead speaks...
TERENCE SMITH: Where the dead speak?
BATON HAXHIU: Yeah, where dead speak. And I think it's -- now we have many mass graves. We have people who are frustrated, we have blood to revenge of course, individual crimes, now. And it's a different post-war period in Kosovo. It's a big political vacuum, it's also -- we not have many institutions. It also has destroyed life in Kosovo.
TERENCE SMITH: The NATO troops that are there, how long do you think they will have to stay there?
BATON HAXHIU: Oh, they will stay a long time.
TERENCE SMITH: Years?
BATON HAXHIU: Years and years, because Balkan needs the troops for stability. If not to go on from Kosovo, we never, never, never can have peace in the Balkans.
TERENCE SMITH: And you are now able to publish your paper again?
BATON HAXHIU: We are able to publish, but also we have a problem, because people is frustrated, and people need -- especially political parties -- need to say who is the winner of this war. And if we starting to criticize somebody, this is a very big problem because --
TERENCE SMITH: I understand that you have been criticizing some of the Kosovo Liberation Army units and people.
BATON HAXHIU: Well, this agency of KLA, and they wrote something about me, like a Churchill before the war. I remember the letter of Milosevic to Koha Ditore and to me on 21 of March. And it's the same letter -- now it's the same letter and same language, but this time in Albanian.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. So it's still a dangerous business being a journalist in Kosovo?
BATON HAXHIU: Yeah, especially to be independent is very dangerous, because we have many problems. We have different interests. We don't have security -- court system is destroyed. We have a political vacuum. We didn't have a police system. We don't have many things. And the international community works so slowly in Kosovo. This is a turtle walk in Kosovo, especially OSC (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). They want to establish media system and broadcast system, but they work very slowly still.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Thank you very much for joining us.
BATON HAXHIU: Very nice to be here.