Media: You only live twice

Two journalists covering the Kosovo war are fighting their own battles, one `back from the dead', the other from his wheelchair
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The Independent Culture
The night the evil of ethnic cleansing was visited on Koha Ditore, the newspaper was about to publish edition number 666. It was the evening Nato began bombing Serbia and, having already run a front-page lead story headlined "Nato - Just Do It", the chances of the title surviving were slim. The chances of its staff surviving were equally precarious.

The paper's journalists had been speaking out against Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic's persecution of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority since the paper (in English "Daily Times") hit the streets in its present form two years ago. None was more vocal than Koha Ditore's editor, Baton Haxhiu, and so it was with little surprise but much regret that the world learnt the newspaper offices had been torn apart by Serb police, who shot dead its caretaker and - as far as we knew - killed Mr Haxhiu.

His "resurrection" two weeks later - he had hidden in a basement for five days before escaping over the border to Macedonia - filled Kosovar exiles with delight: one drop of good news in an ocean of misery. He is regarded by his ethnic Albanian countrymen as something more than simply an editor. So to have lost his voice would have diminished Kosovo's own. Now he - and Kosovo - has that voice back. Koha Ditore is being printed again. This time, however, it is not being sold from the news-stands of Pristina but being given away to Kosovar refugees languishing in overcrowded camps in Macedonia.

In a cramped, smoky office measuring no more than 20 feet by 10 feet, in Tetovo, an ethnic Albanian town 40 minutes outside the Macedonian capital Skopje, Koha Ditore is being put together each day by a team of journalists with 12 computers and no telephones.

The newspaper office is not as illustrious as the title, located above a shopping complex on Tetovo's high street. It is no more than a shop unit, with its windows covered in paper to preserve the staff's privacy, a simple device that also serves to create an atmosphere of siege inside. The journalists sit cramped together, but they display no signs of the hardship they have endured. There is a subdued atmosphere brightened by a George Benson tape playing in the background.

Desks line two walls and, after deadline, the journalists begin playing Patience on their terminals. It has the atmosphere of any British provincial paper, but surely none has a newsroom so small. After being forced to go into hiding or flee, many of the paper's 30-odd journalists reached Macedonia, all of them alive but powerless to ply their trade or continue their personal crusade against ethnic cleansing. Then Mr Haxhiu rose from the dead. "It was incredible," said Nasir Miftari, a writer and sub-editor. "We were overjoyed when we heard he had escaped and later, when I saw him, I just gave him a huge hug."

Like so many of the staff, Mr Miftari is lucky to be alive. He was about to walk into the office the morning after the first of the bombs fell when he noticed Serb police outside.

One of the policemen pulled a knife out and said: "I'm going to kill you now. He finally let the journalists go, saying only Mr Miftari's willingness to speak good Serbian had saved him. Nevertheless, it did not prevent Mr Miftari, his mother, father, grandmother, four brothers and four sisters from being driven out of their home in Pristina.

All of the journalists have stories like these, but it appears to drive them on. There is a run of 20,000 for the international edition of the paper, which goes to the ethnic Albanian populations of Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and Scandinavia, and a 10,000-run which is taken by the paper's own drivers to the seven refugee camps in Macedonia. Distribution in Albania has so far been too difficult. "There is a psychological difficulty," said Agron Bajrami, the deputy editor. "I came here as a refugee and I went through the same process as all the other people, and I am proud of having done that because I understand what they are going through.

"The most important thing, as journalists, is to separate what we have experienced ourselves from what we have heard from others. We are determined to be objective and not mix the two. Being a journalist helps. For the people talking to us, I suppose it is cathartic but I get disturbed because reporting on the killing and rape doesn't hit home any more. I think my whole country needs help, needs to talk about what we have experienced. For now, we will do what we can."

Steve Boggan