Liberation of Kosovo: Albanian leadership - Publisher dodged Serbs by hiding in `homes of brave'

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VETON SURROI looks relaxed and healthy, if a little pale, for a man who has spent the past three months in hiding from the Serbian security forces.

Mr Surroi, publisher of the Albanian-language daily Koha Ditore, an independent member of the Kosovar Albanian delegation to the Rambouillet peace talks and seen by some as Kosovo's future leader, stayed in Pristina throughout the Nato bombing campaign and Belgrade's expulsion of 800,000 people.

Sustained by the "extraordinary solidarity" of his hosts in four different homes, he told The Independent yesterday at a British Embassy house in Pristina, that there were three categories of people in Pristina.

"One was thinking vegetables, second was herded cattle, and third was hunted animals."

The thinking vegetables, he explained, were people who sat in front of the television, and then went to bed. The second were driven away like cattle, and the third were people who were hunted and killed unable to protect themselves.

"I fortunately escaped the second category, but I was stuck in between being a thinking vegetable and a hunted animal."

His life was restricted to the four walls of whichever home he was sharing - once with four families. "That was one of the lowest points. I had become a danger for all the people there, and there were kids in that house."

It was the closest Mr Surroi came to depression, but his house-mates simply would not allow him to sink into despair - they never left him alone.

News of the bombing campaign, "was like watching soccer. When we saw those film pictures of bombs falling on tanks or garrisons, yeah! One- nil. And these Apache helicopters - it was like a soap opera."

0utside life went on. "I saw rivers of people, incredible scenes of people carrying plastic bags with bread, old people who could no longer walk carried by their children, people afraid to look to the side."

One of those deported was his sister - but Mr Surroi's friends dialled her mobile phone, heard a message from the Macedonian operator and realised she was alive - then he saw her interviewed on the BBC. Every two weeks he sent a message to his family (safe in Macedonia) that he was alive and well.

Mr Surroi had a couple of lucky escapes while changing houses.

Once a special police patrol pulled up 20m away. "Three guys came towards me - I thought my time had come. Suddenly out of nowhere came a utility truck, probably looting stuff, and that diverted the policemen's attention."

Mr Surroi is thinking of the future: re-opening Koha Ditore (the printing plant was burnt down) and trying to build a new Kosovo, a civil society, and a liberal democracy.

He does not admit to harbouring political ambitions, though he is often talked about as the one Kosovar who can really do business with the West. And his stock must have risen since spending the war in Pristina rather than fleeing to safety. He has great hopes for the future: "This is the end of the Ottoman Empire in a sense. This is one of the last transitions from Communism to democracy. This is the European transition from apartheid to democratic rule."

The Kosovo Liberation Army, he says, lit the "spark of revolution" that caused these changes and now its leaders must change their role, so that they "move forward to democracy and not the simple revolutionary gains of power."

But for now he is enjoying a more normal life, telephoning all his friends and savouring survival and a kind of victory. "There was a scene of the Paras walking on their patrols, everyone 10m apart, and I said, well, this is a safe place now."