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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Ethnic Albanian Editor Tells of 'Return From Dead'

Refugees: Reported killed in first week of bombing, he recounts harrowing ordeal of hiding and trek to safety.

April 08, 1999|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Few people have the chance to disavow reports of their own death. But Baton Haxhiu, a 32-year-old ethnic Albanian newspaper editor who was reportedly executed in the first week of NATO's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, is one of them.

A week after his own obituary was printed in the London daily the Independent and several other newspapers around the world, Haxhiu turned up in London on Wednesday to describe his "return from the dead."

Haxhiu, the editor of Kosovo's main Albanian-language newspaper, Koha Ditore, was in hiding in the Kosovo capital, Pristina, when he heard a radio report of his slaying by Serbian forces on the rampage.

"It was when I was hiding in a basement that I heard the news that I'd been executed and I was dead," Haxhiu said, looking horrified by his recent experiences. "It was a terrible position. I was separated from my family. I knew it was hard for my wife and son and parents."

Four agonizing days passed before Haxhiu could get word to them that he was alive. He did not make it to safety for another week after that.

Once, he said, he saw armed Serbs heading toward the building where he was hiding; he had "three or four minutes to get out." He spotted a woman with a small child and two elderly people and begged them to drive him out of the city. They did.

Haxhiu had shaved his familiar red beard, but people still recognized the bespectacled intellectual--described in the Independent obituary as "well-read, cosmopolitan and shrewd"--and called out his name when they saw him. He spent three days in the mountains before making it across the Macedonian border to safety.

"It's good to be back to life, but I was executed for 12 days. I really felt like that," Haxhiu said.

Haxhiu, wearing the stubble of a new beard, was clearly shaken by the experience and said he still fears for his family's safety.

"Albanians will never forget this and maybe will never forgive the Serb regime," he said.

Haxhiu appeared at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who promised funding for a new Kosovo Albanian information network.

Cook said Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's first act in the current Serbian offensive was to get rid of the opposition media. "At the very time when the people of Kosovo most needed a voice, the world was prevented from hearing it," he said.

Haxhiu said he will fly today to Macedonia, where he will try to resume publication of Koha Ditore several days a week with the help of British funding.

Also at the news conference, former TV journalist Midjen Kelmendi, 40, told of his last days in Pristina and his harrowing expulsion in the greatest mass deportation since World War II.

"As far as my family was concerned, everything started three days before NATO strikes in Kosovo. Serbian paramilitary forces threw a bomb on a well-known cafeteria in Pristina, and one of my brothers was killed by the bomb. He was 13 years old," Kelmendi said.

"I was in hiding in Pristina because the Serbian forces started to kill. . . . They started with a famous lawyer killed with his sons," he said.

It was after the funeral of that human rights lawyer, Bajram Kelmendi, that the editor Haxhiu and several Kosovo Albanian political leaders were reported killed.

Next, Serbian forces began emptying Pristina's Albanian neighborhoods. The people were "driven like cattle" through the city to the train station, Midjen Kelmendi said.

In the eight hours that Midjen Kelmendi waited with the terrorized throngs to board a boxcar to Macedonia, "three babies were born, and an old man and old woman died," Kelmendi said.

When the train arrived, he said, "everybody tried to get in. The number of people was enormous, and there was very little space. We were packed in like sardines with no air and no water" for the seven-hour ride.

"It was like something out of the movies, like something out of 'Schindler's List,' but I found that there was not a single Serb Schindler," he said.

Blerim Shala, editor of the Kosovo weekly Zeri and a member of the Kosovo Albanian delegation that signed the U.S.-backed peace agreement last month in France, also made it to safety. Shala defended the agreement, which the Serbian regime rejected, as "fair and decent."

Shala, who hid in the mountains for four days before making it to Macedonia with his wife, mother, brother and two nephews, said the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army is still fighting but cannot compete with the Serbs' superior weaponry. And the KLA, he said, is contending with thousands of refugees hiding in the areas where they operate.

"There are thousands of people trying to hide without food and supplies," Shala said. "Dozens and dozens are dying inside Kosovo."

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