Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 29 1999 7:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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If you are ever in Tetovo, the largest town in western Macedonia, and you want to find Edita Tahiri, academic and part of the leadership of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), go to Café Bolero, one block back from Marshal Tito Street. If, on the other hand, you are looking for the younger and hipper crowd from Pristina, specifically the drama and theater types, the place to go is smallest cafe on the third floor in the new shopping center. Then again, if you are looking for the journalists, the ones from the Kosovo Albanian-language daily Koha Ditore, then go to Café Arbi on Marshal Tito. Sure, Koha has an office, too, but what would be the point of following complicated directions if everyone who is anyone is holding court in the cafes? If there ever was a cafe society, the Kosovo intelligentsia in exile, currently resident in Tetovo, is it.

As far from Skopje's lackluster tidiness as you can get, Tetovo reminds me of Pristina. Miserable in the drizzle of winter, stifling in the dust of summer, Pristina was never a particularly attractive or pleasant town, but back when life was allowed to go on there, it overflowed. The cafes blasted and burst onto sidewalks, crowds pushed cars off the roads, and the number of useless, kitschy, and colorful objects for sale overwhelmed. So when I saw decorative mobile-phone antennas for sale in Tetovo, I had a sense of recognition. And, with Tetovo's normal population of about 70,000 nearly doubled by the influx of refugees, the crowds were certainly there.

The waiter at Café Bolero told me that Edita Tahiri had, unfortunately, gone to Skopje. She would be back tomorrow morning, and I could leave a message if I wished. Her cell phone, having as it does a Kosovo number, does not work. "Is anyone else from the LDK around?" I asked.

"Well, Shkelzen is out of town," he said, "and he is not LDK anyway."

"That's right," I responded, eager to show off my expertise. "He is Café Arbi, isn't he?"

The waiter nodded and watched--ruefully, I thought--as I walked away toward Café Arbi.

"Someone here to see you," the waiter said, leading me to Baton Haxhiu's table. Baton already had company, however, so I demurely scheduled myself for the next time slot, in half an hour's time.

"So how does it feel to be back from the dead?" I asked in a couple of hours, when my interview with Baton began. The day after the NATO bombings began, the following news circled the world of those who were concerned with specific lives inside Kosovo: the offices of Koha Ditore had been attacked, a night guard killed, and Baton Haxhiu, the editor in chief, was missing, presumed dead. I heard the news in Moscow, then exchanged it with a colleague in Belgrade, each of us growing somber at the other's knowledge, which seemed as bad as confirmation. As Baton grew more surely dead with every passing day, strangely, no one seemed too concerned about the fate of Vetan Surroy, the founder and publisher of Koha Ditore, who was rumored to be abroad--some said in Turkey, others, in the United States. It wasn't until days later that we began to realize that Vetan, being Vetan, would surely make public statements if he were, in fact, abroad.

The story of Koha Ditore, as told by the staff that has made it to Tetovo, goes like this. On the first night of the NATO bombings, its offices were, indeed, attacked. The night watchman was killed. Everything, including the computer equipment and all the archives, was destroyed or looted. The paper's printing plant, located a couple of kilometers outside of town, was also burned down. When Baton Haxhiu came to the office in the morning, he was stopped by the police. He called his editor, 25-year-old Ardian Arifaj, and told him not to come to work or leave the house at all that day. Then he went into hiding.

Ardian, a short, prematurely bald man, is someone I know, the boyfriend of an old and dear friend, Vlera, who translated for me the very first time I came to Pristina. The first news I had of Vlera and her family was disturbing: They had not left Pristina before the bombing started. The second thing I heard, already in Belgrade, was that the family was safely in Macedonia. Still, when I saw Vlera walk by the cafe where I was sitting this afternoon, at first I did not believe my eyes, and then--for the first time, I realized--I actually believed she was alive. She is working at Koha now, with Ardi.

But back to Baton. "I really felt like a dead man for 11 days," he says. He hid in basements, changing his location every couple of days, only occasionally sneaking a visit with his family. "I had a radio with me," he says, meaning short wave. "Radio is everything in war. If you don't have a radio, you go crazy. I had problems myself the last three days, because my battery was running low." But he had heard the news of his own death earlier. On April 6, the paramilitary eviction troops came to the part of town where Baton was hiding. "After 25 minutes, there were thousands of people in the street. I saw a woman alone with a child, and I thought this was a good time to come out. I went to her and said, 'Now I am your husband, and this is my child.' She asked, 'Who are you?' 'I am Baton Haxhiu.' 'So you are alive?' " That's probably what Ardi said when he saw Baton, days after his own arrival in Tetovo--at Café Arbi.

Just over two weeks after Baton arrived at Tetovo, Koha Ditore was also back from the dead, in a feat perhaps more miraculous than the resurrection of any single human being. With money that was, according to Ardi, given by the British Foreign Office, the crew that has assembled in Tetovo--about 10 people--bought a dozen computers. Some kind soul constructed spectacularly uncomfortable metal-and-plywood desks. Chairs were donated by Café Arbi, of course (consequently, they match), and the space, complete with tinted overhead lighting, was a hand-me-down from a pub. The first issue was printed in Germany, as copies intended for the Western European Albanian diaspora had been before, but, starting last Monday, the paper is coming out in Macedonia, 10,000 copies distributed free of charge, primarily in the camps.

The office has no phone line, but an Internet connection was provided by the nearby Internet cafe, which fits five computers and 15 people with no breathing room and which stretched a 100-meter cable directly to Koha. Most news comes from the wires and foreign media and is, therefore, reflective of the West's take on the conflict: a lot of NATO, a little of Russia, much refugee horror, and an unhealthy dose of KLA glorification. The hardest part, says Ardi, is obtaining any news from Kosovo: Many of Koha's reporters are still there, so the office-in-exile is understaffed and underinformed.

Governments in exile, as well as revolutionary movements in exile, have a rich history in 20th-century Europe. But most of them have located themselves far away from the country of their revolution: Lenin worked in Zurich, Poland's government-in-exile was based in London, and even Kosovo's own parallel parliament was generally concentrated in Germany and Switzerland. Finding a base in a country where the greatest fear is being affected by the ongoing conflict may be an unprecedented move, and one that forms a strong undercurrent in Macedonia's fear of the refugees: What if most refugees leave but the seat of resistance remains in Macedonia?

What's worse, the Koha people seem to be trying to convince people to stay in Macedonia. "This project is to inform deported people to not move from the camps and stay near the border," says Baton Haxhiu.

"Do you mean you want people not to go on the airlifts?"

"Well, we want to give hope," hedges Baton, "to give some small illusion--oh, that's not good for printing. We want to give hope that very soon in Kosovo there will be NATO troops--and then the deported people will be ready to go back." Actually, the illusion Koha is spreading is not small: The paper, though already registered and legally printing in Macedonia, is still putting its Pristina address and telephone number on the masthead-something that gave me a shock when I saw it at one of the refugee camps. The volunteers there, who were passing it from hand to hand, were convinced it was actually printed in Pristina--a long-awaited, hopeful sign of life.

While I was doing the media in Tetovo, I met with Artan Skenderi, the big-bellied, big-bearded director of Art TV, an Albanian-language TV station. In a huge unfinished building that is Art TV, Artan occupies an office so tiny and smoky that I, a smoker, had to ask to go to another room to stop a coughing fit. Artan is a good man who runs a good operation. Among 46 TV stations in Macedonia (shortly after seceding from Yugoslavia, Macedonia liberalized the airwaves with such fervor that it earned a reputation as having one radio station for every person and one TV station for every family--in fact, there are about 200 radio stations in a country of 2 million), his is tops on most counts, including, he claims, the most expensive--and therefore professional--postproduction equipment. Now he has hired four extra people from among the refugees, though he didn't really have the slots, but he had worked at Pristina TV after graduating from the university in Belgrade, and he had to help old friends. And there are three families--16 people--living in the two rooms on the third floor, plus seven more at his house. And his station is devoting two to three hours a day to reciting the names of people searching for relatives and those who are sought (TV stations in Albania have added a round-the-clock running text line to their broadcasts for this purpose). And all this, he says, is as it should be--for a limited time only.

"If they are our guests, if they are our friends, if they are here for a short time--and I believe they are--then we must be accommodating here, to make it like home." But if they linger, says Artan, the local Albanian-lanaguage newspaper publishers will start asking why the British government is not paying their production costs, and Artan will start to wonder who will pay the additional salaries at his station, or the costs of finishing the construction, which he suspended when the economy collapsed because of the war. And these words, coming from this good man, are just one more indication of how this country is about to start coming apart at the seams.

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