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Albanians Try to Rebuild Lives in Kosova; Kosovar Journalists Study Democracy and Elections in Albuquerque

By Dennis Domrzalski

JUNE 19, 2000: 

Five ethnic Albanian journalists from Kosova were recently in Albuquerque to study free elections as well as the relationship between a free press and government officials. The journalists visited polling places, met with election officials as well as elected officials and candidates for public office; they also attended campaign parties on election night. I talked with them at length about Kosova (the Albanian spelling that the five asked us to use), the 1999 war in Kosova, American and NATO intervention, and their impressions of the United States.

In June 1999, Sanije Gashi stood poised outside the border of Kosova. The NATO bombing effort had done its work. Ethnic Albanians who had been terrorized, brutalized and driven by Serbians out of their homes and homeland four months earlier were about to stream back home. They didn't know what to expect, but they feared the worst. After all, their forced exodus from Kosova in March 1999 was a nightmare. People living in Kosova's capital of Pristina were given 5 to 10 minutes' warning one day before they were herded into convoys and taken to a train station to be shipped out of Kosova. People in the convoys were allegedly executed on the spot and women and children were allegedly raped and beaten.

What Gashi, 55, the editor-in-chief of Teuta magazine, and other Albanians met at the border made them cry.

"When we left Kosova, as far as the eye could see on the horizon, there were blue uniforms, the blue uniforms of the Serbian police," Gashi said. "Then, when we went back, it was a real paradise. There were no more Serbian police. Instead, there were American soldiers and they said 'good morning' to us and we started crying.

"We went back and nobody was there. There were no police. It was almost unbelievable. It was like going back to another place, another country."

Jailed for an Opinion

American journalists often whine about their jobs, bosses, editors and about how many obstacles there are to prevent them from doing great work. Well, they should talk to Gashi about obstacles. She has been arrested twice and imprisoned for expressing the wrong kind of opinion in Kosovarja (Kosova Woman), a weekly magazine she founded in 1971. In the early 1990s, the Serbians allegedly started removing ethnic Albanians in Kosova from jobs in government, teaching and medicine. Kosovarja railed against that policy.

"At the time I was editor of Kosovarja, it was banished twice by police," Gashi said. "On Jan. 12, 1992, police charged the magazine with being subversive. I was arrested, and they took me to the police station and straight to the courthouse, and I was fined. They put a note in my file saying, 'If you do this again you will be imprisoned.'" Three days later Gashi was sent to prison for two months. Why?

"The charges were for the cover story which said, 'Stop the arrests, stop the imprisonments, stop the shutdown of the schools.' Every sentence started with the word 'Stop.' This was a time when the Serbians had gone about kicking out Albanians from schools and hospitals and such. They said 'With this [article] you have really disturbed public order.'"

A Little History

Kosova is an area of 6,711 square miles (about the size of Maryland) and has a population of about 2.3 million, 94 percent of which is ethnic Albanian. The area was part of Yugoslavia until that communist country collapsed. Before that, though, Kosova was part of Albania. In fact, it was part of Albania until 1912, when, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the city was carved out of Albania by European powers. It was made a part of Yugoslavia when that country was formed in 1918. The people of Kosova maintained their cultural ties with Albania and refused to be assimilated into a new culture. The language and culture of Kosova is Albanian, and Albanians believe they are descendants of the Illyrians.

There was a period of relative freedom in the years after Yugoslavian dictator Marshal Tito died in 1980, but this ended after Slobodan Milosevic came to power. Until 1990, the region had only one daily newspaper, Rilindja. In the 1990s, the situation got worse. Serbians under Milosevic engaged in an alleged policy of "ethnic cleansing," that culminated with the forcible eviction of ethnic Albanians from Kosova in 1999. The journalists said that two-thirds of Kosova's Albanians were driven out of their homes. There are allegations that the Serbians engaged in mass execution of Albanians and that 500 mass graves exist; this latter claim is currently being investigated by war crimes tribunals. NATO and the U.S. intervened and started a methodical bombing campaign against the Serbs. Albanians claim that the Serbs destroyed 100,000 homes and 500 towns. It is estimated that 70,000 Kosovars are still living abroad and are expected to return to Kosova.

Forced Deportation and Convoys

It was 1:40 p.m. on March 3, 1999, when Albanians in Pristina were told to leave. Shefki Ukaj, 49, editor of Kosova Information, and editor-in-chief of Bota Sot (World Today) remembered that day.

"Serbian military and paramilitary units moved into town with tanks and armored personnel carriers. They ordered us to leave our houses in five minutes. People were lined up on the streets they had cordoned off. They were using brute force. As people lined up, [Serbian troops] started pulling people out of the convoy and executed some on the spot. A film director, Ekrem Kryeziu, was in the convoy. A Serbian paramilitary man pressed a gun up against his 22-year-old son's chest. The young man's mother said to the paramilitary man, 'What do you want?' The man said, 'Ten thousand deutsche marks.' She did not have 10,000 deutsche marks. She had 7,000, and with those 7,000 deutsche marks, she saved the life of her child. The director today lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"The military people were taking away food from people and children were screaming. We got to the railroad station where we met with other convoys from around the city. There were, I estimate, 150,000 people--men, women and children--and many of them in a desperate situation. We had started at 1:30 in the afternoon, and it was 2:30 a.m. when the train pulled into the station to take us to an unknown destination. We feared it would be Serbia or Macedonia and that we would be executed and massacred. I call it the Train of Terror. I saw so many beatings and young people who fainted. It was a very sad moment in time.

"We were taken to Blace, a neutral or no-man's-land between Kosova and Macedonia. My family and I stayed there for seven days. I was keeping a diary. Every night, babies and pregnant women would die. I truly believe that, were it not for American intervention, and that of NATO--and I would especially like to acknowledge the support of Great Britain--that there would have been a tragedy of even greater proportions.

"Every night it rained. We did not even have plastic sheets to cover the babies with. I had 22 members of my family there and I felt I would be betraying them if I tried to escape, so I stayed there with them until I was dehydrated and until I was taken to a village in Macedonia on a stretcher. The next day, I heard that my family was out of Blace. There were a total of 10 children. I said, 'Thank God.'

"I feel obliged to tell you how the Macedonian police handled the situation. They were throwing loaves of bread into the crowds, sinking the people's spirits. We were taken from one place to another in Macedonia. Families got separated. They were boarding people on buses without criteria. We were sleeping on the ground. There was mud all over and it was raining. It was bad. An elderly man said, 'God has given up on us.' I told him, 'We will return,' and we did.

"If it were not for America and its allies you would never have heard of Kosova. The American people I will never forget. I will always be filled with gratitude and respect for them."

The Wonderful Sound of Bombs

The sound of bombs falling and exploding might not be for everyone, but for Zenun Celaj, editor-in-chief of Zeri Daily in Pristina, the sound of NATO bombs falling on Serbian military targets was beautiful.

"I will never forget the excitement I felt when they started dropping bombs on military targets," he said. It was the salvation of the people of Kosova who had suffered under Serbian occupation.

Government and Free Speech

Today, Kosova doesn't have its own government. It is governed by the United Nations Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), a group of UN officials trying to restore order and bring democracy to the area. Elections for local offices are scheduled to be held in October. Until Kosova governs itself, its citizens must submit to UN rules, which Celaj said sometimes run counter to free speech and freedom of the press. He explained:

"We don't have laws, but we do have rules and policies in place. One rule is that people who fuel ethnic conflict or hatred are sanctioned. It is in clear conflict with freedom of speech. No one is spared, not newspapers, not teachers. Just before this trip to the U.S., Dita (Day Time), the youngest paper, wrote a report about a war criminal working for the UNMIK. The war criminal was identified by the newspaper. UNMIK took no action. What happened, though, is what we in the newspaper business did not want to happen. The war criminal was killed and found in a ditch. Now, UNMIK is investigating the editor-in-chief of the newspaper. That is how they treat it. That concerns us a lot."

Unforgivable and Unforgettable

The UN, of course, is hoping that Serbs and Albanians in Kosova can co-exist. Can they? No, said Gashi.

"It is unbelievable what human beings do to each other. I still don't believe the Serbians did this to us. And now they want us to co-exist. At this time, you cannot ask it. You are talking about 500 mass graves."

Impressions of America

Sometimes it takes outside eyes to tell you what you have. Sometimes that seems to be the case for the U.S. The journalists said they were impressed with the freedom people have in America and with the ability of people of all races and ethnic backgrounds to live together.

"This is my first visit to America," Ukaj said. "As a reporter, I notice that Americans have moved beyond racial distinctions. I was impressed. The people here are of different origins, but everybody is under one flag and that is the American flag. America has really achieved what others try to achieve, and that is to treat people with equality. It was the chance of a lifetime for me to see America. I am happy to have met with such nice people. They are happy and always with a smile. This is the America I will remember."

Ms. Nafije Latifi, senior editor of Kosovorja magazine, was impressed. "America is a huge country and it breathes freely."

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