“In Kosovo, everybody has their own truth”

Serbians and Albanians have clashed in the mountains and valleys of what is now Kosovo since the fourteenth century. In 1998, the Kosovo Liberation Army of ethnic Albanian fighters openly fought Serbian police and faced retaliation from Serbian military and paramilitary forces. Ethnic Albanians wanted autonomy and freedom from a Serbian government they thought was as bad or worse than the communist regime.

Paramilitary troops responded with more violence and drove families from their homes. Worldwide news organizations started reporting on refugees fleeing to the Albanian and Macedonian borders.

In March 1999, masked Serbian paramilitaries began looting and tearing up neighborhoods in Gjakova, a small Kosovo city beneath the Rugova mountains. Fehmi Xharra, a computer programmer, was given a choice: everything you have of value, or the lives of your family.

They had survived in the shadow of a looming war. Ten years earlier, on June 28, 1989, Slobodan Milosevic – Serbia’s president who would later be tried at The Hague for war crimes – delivered a speech at the site of a historic battle. He called for unity among all Serbians, and effectively stripped all autonomous rights from Ethnic Albanians living in the most southern tip of the country. 

That wasn’t good for the Xharra family. Ethnic Albanian schools closed, and the army filled the streets of Gjakova to disband the local government. Children had to be home-schooled. Five months later, the Berlin Wall fell.

In May of 1999, a decade later, his daughter, Besiana Xharra, 16, saw masked men threaten neighbors with crowbars. She screamed, “They’re coming to kill us,” and Fehmi Xharra knew it was time to escape to the Albanian border. They fled, leaving newspapers on the table. 

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Arbana Xharra, 17, remembers reaching the border, where Serbian military officers took her family’s identification documents.

On the Albanian side, international reporters pushed microphones in front of her to ask what genocide looked like. 

“Killing people on the streets, I see,” she said in one Associated Press clip that survives on YouTube. “I see them in the streets, killing. I see three people and one little child.”

Xharra says that’s when her journalism dreams began.

After Bill Clinton-led NATO air raids forced Milosevic to withdraw troops, Fehmi drove Arbana to the capital city, Pristina, to attend a private journalism school run by an editor at Koha Ditore, the nation’s largest newspaper.

On one of her first assignments during an internship at Koha, she interviewed a construction foreman in his office trailer about a lack of permits. She said he offered her a bribe and pushed her against the wall, trying to get her to take the money. She was 18 years old.

She covered city government in Pristina, where the municipality president bought a new car. Through serial number and transport documents, Xharra found out the vehicle had belonged to the son of the Kosovo president, whose son had crashed it and sent it to Macedonia to get fixed and resold as new. The newsroom loved the story. It won prizes. At that point, she was married to a sports broadcaster, had one child and another on the way.

Another series of stories at the national airport covered contraband, nepotism, and pay-for-play hiring practices with fellow Koha reporters. “I know you have a son,” one airport manager said in response.

Even Kosovo’s independence celebration in 2008—a month-long party—was tainted by scandal. She tracked the one million euros earmarked for the independence celebration––a large portion of the money intended to pay performers, and buy flags and decorations. The  performers and workers told her they did the celebration for free.

Little came of her stories. “Nothing changes,” she said. 

Still, by her late twenties she was the editor in chief of Zeri, one of Kosovo’s biggest and most independent media outlets, and writing a business column.

Kosovo was two years into its 2008 independence from Serbia and communism, and democracy had been a tenuous enterprise. Government officials had threatened to throw Xharra and her reporters in jail for writing about corruption. In one of her desk drawers she kept two bottles of clear liquid with Serbian labeling. They were supposed to be medicine for children. But they were, testing revealed, placebos instead. Serbian pharmaceutical companies, she felt, were scamming Kosovo pediatricians and patients. Xharra feared the worst: the hatred between Serbians and Ethnic Albanians had morphed into medical warfare.

In 2012, Xharra won a grant to write about, among other things, radicalized, young Kosovar women who fight for ISIS. With her son in tow for one story––so a key imam would see her as a mother, not an enemy––she completed more than eighty interviews with imams, parents of ISIS fighters and other experts on politics and Islam.

Later, Carlotta Gall of the New York Times published a piece headlined  “How Kosovo was Turned Into Fertile Ground for ISIS.” Xharra went on Kosovo and Albanian TV stations to discuss the story and her own work. Threats appeared on her Facebook, warning her to stop this reporting of “propaganda against Muslims,” her own ethnic Albanian people. “We’ll rape and burn you and your house and your family.” 

“In Kosovo, everybody has their own truth,” her former Koha Ditore editor Naser Miftari said, “and they use it as a gun against one another on social media.” 

Xharra feared the stories––the fake medicine sent from Serbia, corruption at the airport, nepotism in the new government––wouldn’t matter. That the threats against her life and her family would be endured in vain. Corruption would win.

“In Kosovo, journalists were kind of taking on a double role,” said Kenneth Andresen, a professor at University of Agder in Norway, specializing in the post-conflict Balkans. “They’re traditional journalists who cover news, but at the same time, they feel they … (must) take on a knight-in-shining-armor position. But that’s very risky––soon, you become an activist.”

A decade ago, coffee shops and restaurants were filled with print newspapers––Koha Ditore, Zeri, and Gazeta Express––but daily newsprint publications are gone, replaced by online news portals that get their content to the public via social media. For 1.7 million Kosovars there are 2.1 million cell phone contracts. Journalists struggle, said Abit Hoxha, one of Andresen’s colleagues. 

Government and religious leaders accused Xharra of being paid by the US or Israel to write propaganda. They labeled her an Islamophobe. Hoxha is dubious about her reporting––in a country so small, he says, surely others would have heard of these jihadists. 

The US Embassy paid attention to the social media storm of threats that came with it. Ambassador Tracey Lee Jacobson nominated Xharra for the 2015 Women in Courage Award. Xharra flew to Washington, D.C., to receive the framed state-department plaque from First Lady Michelle Obama. She was also praised by Secretary of State John Kerry. 

“Arbana is exceptional because of the position she’s taken on Islamism,” said David Phillips, Program on Peace-building and Rights Director at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, “and in particular Turkey’s insidious influence in Kosovo.”

At the height of her coverage of radicalism, Xharra’s social media posts earned more than twenty thousand likes. She was all over everywhere on television news channels in the region. On good days, readers thanked her personally, stopping her in airports or outside Zeri’s office complex.

The attacks against her stories and her family intensified on social media and in text messages. On her phone, in 2015:

…WE WILL BREAK EVERY BONE that you have in your body. One by one, we will f— everyone in your life. …

And on Facebook that same year:

@Arbana Xharra the whore of the Jews. She is an evil of Kosovo. Go away, whore, because … ERDOGAN is not listening even to America, and listening saying one whore sold out to the Jews. Go away, along with your family [unknown slang] Jewish whore.

A Facebook post featured a photo of a decapitated body. Another message: “I know how much you love your own children. We’re going to find you.” All written in pristine Albanian. “These people weren’t ignorant,” Xharra said.

In 2017, vandals painted blood-red crosses beside her family’s apartment door and on the parking lot cement wall under the building. Their implication: she had ties to the same Serbians who attacked her family during the war. Otherwise, why would she be so anti-Muslim?

And their other message: they knew where she lived. Police told her not to worry: “If they wanted to do something, they wouldn’t tell you first.”

But her investigations weren’t making a dent in how the PDK party––running the country since independence––dealt with terrorists. Xharra began to lose faith in the power of journalism.

“As journalists, we are not police or prosecutors,” said Lavdim Hamidi, her colleague at Zeri. “We can write the story but we cannot arrest people and make change.”

I know how much you love your own children. We’re going to find you.

In 2017, she began to discuss, with government contacts, creating an anti-terrorism office. She had a network of experts within the US and Europe. Maybe she could make more meaningful changes within the government, despite its failures.

Her colleagues told her not to risk her journalistic reputation on any promises from politicians. Politics, especially the PDK party in power, would taint her for the rest of her life. But she felt all governments have good and bad people, and maybe working within the party would allow her to do something good.

“Trust me,” she told her colleagues, friends and family. “I can do this. Just give me a year.” She resigned as Zeri editor on May 9, and joined the party the next day. 

Three days later, on her son’s birthday, and moments after her security detail had left, a small group of men jumped Xharra in her apartment parking lot. One man pulled her hair, covered her mouth, pushed her up against the cement wall.

“I thought someone would rape me,” she said. “I couldn’t breathe from the panic (and from the assailant covering my mouth), so I didn’t feel the pain from the attack.” Another man, or maybe two other men, clubbed her legs. She fell and the men disappeared.

She called her security team, not her family upstairs celebrating the birthday. That night, hospital photos of her bruises and welts flooded the media. She still doesn’t know who attacked her. She doesn’t even know who took the photos.

Kosovo, US, and UN leaders condemned the attack and demanded justice. No suspects were arrested, and four years later, police still refuse to share any report or investigation documents with her. Using her sources, Xharra says she learned a traffic prosecutor was assigned to the case. To Xharra, that’s a clear message that officials aren’t serious about finding her attackers. Prosecutors also refused to provide documents or comment on the dormant investigation for this story.

Between 2013 and mid-2016, police received sixty-two reports of threats or attacks on journalists. In 2020, someone tried to light journalist Shumbin Kajtaji’s car on fire with gasoline, and four months later, someone shot six bullets into the same car on the same street in Mitrovica, just north of Pristina.

Visar Duriqi, Xharra’s colleague at Zeri, had three assailants beat him with tactical sticks outside his apartment this winter. He was carrying a knife and said he stabbed two of them before they ran away, but not before they knocked out his front teeth. (He’s happy with the new teeth.)

The journalism community rallied around Kajtaji and Duriqi, but only a few did the same for Xharra. “I think jealousy is a big part there,” said Gjerg Filipaj, a public broadcaster who worked with Xharra at Koha. “Because she was a young woman reporting freely and saying what she thinks is the right thing to be said.”

Xharra says she’s still stunned by how quickly people turned on her with one decision.

A few months after the attack, representatives from Freedom House––an American nonprofit that advocates for democracy––reached out to her. It gave her money to move to the US for a month. During that time, a contact in the US intelligence community told her that, on a tapped phone line, an Albanian terrorist living in Germany had made threats on her life.

That credible threat felt much bigger than the horrible messages and fake news stories she saw online. She moved to New York and now works at New York University, for Professor Alon Ben-Meir––doing research, social media, co-authoring articles and other communications––for his peace institute that focuses primarily on the Middle East and Balkans.

In darker moments, in the second-floor apartment she shares with her sister and her boys, she can understand the outrage against her. “Maybe I would (criticize) a journalist who had been criticizing politics and then joined them,” she said. On brighter days, she’s still resolute about her reporting. 

Translation and reporting help in Kosovo from Visar Duriqi, reporter for Insajderi.com.

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Scott Winter is an English and journalism associate professor at Bethel University in Minnesota. He taught at the internationally-supported Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communication periodically between 2007 and 2011.

TOP IMAGE: A photograph of Arbana Xharra that appeared online after she was beaten. Photographer unknown.