War in the Balkans: Escape From Terror - Editor who came back from dead

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"I HEARD of my death on the radio while I was hiding for five days in a basement in Pristina," Baton Haxhiu said in London yesterday, "and I couldn't tell anyone it wasn't true - not my wife, not my child, not my parents. I was very worried about how they would feel."

It is a good thing that the 32-year-old editor of the Koha Ditore (Daily Times) newspaper - one of the most prominent and respected Albanian journalists in Kosovo - has a dry sense of humour. The Independent's obituary described him as "well- read, cosmopolitan and shrewd". Every journalist and diplomat who visited Pristina called on Baton Haxhiu, because he was (and is) among the best- informed and most acute analysts of the territory's tragic affairs.

Mr Haxhiu's international reputation contributed to the shock felt when it was claimed that he had been murdered by the Serbian security forces. "It was quite credible," he said yesterday, "because I was with Bajram Kelmendi [the human-rights lawyer] until 5pm on the day he was killed with his two sons. My name was definitely on a list." The editor was said to have been abducted and shot after attending Mr Kelmendi's funeral, but here he was in a London hotel, days after escaping from his shattered homeland. Our conversation was constantly interrupted by emotional reunions with Albanian friends living in Britain.

After escaping the death squads, Mr Haxhiu slipped out of Pristina last Thursday and went into hiding for four days in the mountains near Macedonia. "I had shaved off my beard, and did my best to disguise myself," said the journalist, whose stubble is beginning to restore him to his normal appearance, "but people kept saying, `You're Baton, you're Baton'. I kept denying it, but it was getting too dangerous. I got in touch with people I knew and they got me into Macedonia." The editor-in-chief of the Koha Ditore, Veton Surroi, a member of the Albanian delegation at the abortive Rambouillet peace talks, is still in hiding in Kosovo.

Mr Haxhiu and four colleagues arrived in Britain yesterday as guests of the Foreign Office. Today they are due to meet the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who is expected to announce that Britain will help them re- establish the newspaper in exile. "I want to go back to the region and start work as soon as possible," Mr Haxhiu said. "Maybe we will not be able to publish every day, but there is a desperate need for this."

Another member of the party is Gjeraqina Tuhina, 23, whose e-mailed reports from Pristina were published, in diary form, in The Independent - anonymously, to protect her identity. "I reported on the first night of the bombing for Radio Free Europe, and after that I had to go into hiding," she said. "They all had my name, and I had to move to a new place every day. Most of the time the only people on the streets were soldiers and armed Serb civilians. I had to try and choose a time between about 9-11am, after the bombing had stopped and while some civilians were out shopping. Then I could lose myself in the crowd.

"I tried to stay in Pristina as long as I could, to keep reporting. It was a big risk, but I never had time to think about it.

"I was really thrilled to hear later that my reports had been in The Independent.

"I was among the last people to leave the city. It's almost empty now - it had 300,000 people before the bombing, and I would be surprised if there are more than 300 left - and half of it is destroyed. That's mainly thanks to the Serbs, not the bombing," she said.

Ms Tuhina still does not know where her parents are. "My father was a high court judge and my mother worked for the Kosovo government before all Albanians were dismissed from state positions. My father has had a heart attack - I don't know whether he could survive in that field on the Macedonian border."

Last Friday, Ms Tuhina escaped from Pristina; she admits she is "a bit confused" at finding herself in London only four days later.

"I didn't have time until now to think about all the horrors," she said. "I'm very scared to go back to Macedonia, because then I will have to find out who is no longer alive. Like many people, I don't want to think about it yet - I'm not ready."