An award-winning journalist and TV producer, Elida joined the Associated Press-AP in 1998 covering the Kosovo War. She led the AP team in providing competitive coverage of an unfolding human drama at a time when the very nature of news was undergoing change, a coverage that brought international attention to the situation in Kosovo. Elida and her team's coverage were recognized for their reporting with the Royal Television Society Award and the Rory Peck Award in 1999.
In her stellar 20-year career with AP, Elida covered a wide range of international breaking news and issues ranging from IAEA efforts to verify weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to climate change protests and anti-globalization movements. She rose to the position of Editor for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, the Associated Press's main hub for news coverage worldwide.
She contributes to the annotation of Loca’s Journals through the lens of a participant and observer, an activist and a survivor, helping to contextualize her story, a glimpse of her generation's ordeal through the major changes that shaped their lives and that of their young country.
As far as I’m concerned, the war in Kosovo started on 5 March 1998 in Prekaz.
I did not know where Prekaz was, nor had I ever heard of it. I had heard of Drenica. I had talked about the situation there, but somehow, whenever we talked about Drenica, we all talked in a low voice. On the contrary, somebody would tap you on your back and ask “who do you have in Drenica? Do you have anyone in Dukagjini?” as a way to signal support for or acquaintance with the armed men.
March and the events in Prekaz would become the beginning of a long and personal war, a beginning that I experienced completely alone, stuck between two worlds. In the one world, during the day, I was touching the wounds of the people with my hand, I was witnessing their pain and stepping over the ashes of the houses of their families, who were already dead.
In the other world, at night, in my apartment in Lakrishtë, in Prishtina, I was counting the minutes until dawn, afraid about Edi, Zana and Hana, my three sisters, and our parents. During the day I was studying the Kosovo map to discover the fastest mountain road to reach Prekaz, Qirez and Likoshan.
I was spending the night dipping my face into the pillow to silence my sobs. The war had come to Kosovo, and it was only a matter of time before and how it would come to Prishtina. We had all experienced apartheid for a long time. Yet, none of us knew what war was like. I had already seen it and it was the biggest secret I had to keep to myself to protect others in those long nights in Prishtina. In the following, I want to share an experience, a passage of the Kosovo war and my war.
The beginning of the war in Kosovo found me alongside my father, running our family business, a pizzeria at the centre of Prishtina, which was a meeting place for all the layers of the city during the day, and of the youth of the capital and my friends and generation at night. From early February to early March 1998, pressure from Serbian police began to mount in Prishtina.
The patrols of their men in plain clothes, who we felt like they were tailing us, had become more frequent. In the meanwhile, we were reading the news that in the other parts of Kosovo this pressure was being manifested in incidents. But, as in previous years, we believed that the situation would calm down, amidst a fear we were all sharing again.
That day, on the evening of March the 3rd, on the VOA, at 6 o'clock, the correspondent in Albania reported on a major attack at the centre of Kosovo, without indicating where the attack has taken place exactly. They just said in the centre of Drenica. The next day they reported there was no attack, save a confrontation between the "terrorists." They did not tell that children were there. Nor that there were women and old men.
I don’t know the exact date, but I remember the names we read in the newspaper. The names and birth dates. We already knew the joint date of death. I cried. I cried like a child. Something changed in me that moment and nothing was the same again. I just felt a need to do something, to help somehow. It was not a "call". Just a need. Something that was so close and so unknown to me.
Amid the confusion caused by fake news and unconfirmed pieces of hearsays, the people around me were divided as to whether Prekaz had actually happened.
What I had seen those days would repeat itself in various forms all the time. A group of people were denying the reality in front of their eyes, as the only way for them to keep living, and another group of people were stuck in Prishtina, unable to help. Then, we were not sure if we could trust each other, who we were supposed to ask, and how we could help. We had only two options: to contribute financially or become journalists. That's it.
Prishtina did not experience the start of the war in Kosovo easily.
Those nights at the pizzeria were full of tension. Well-known Kosovo journalists...Shkëlzen Maliqi, Ibrahim Osmani...were coming to our restaurant, but, since it was in the centre, Serbs were coming there too. I remember it was always noisy, but when someone would step into the restaurant, everyone would turn silent and neither dare, not want to speak. But, information always found its way there. Information was coming and going, for better or worse.
I felt like I was at the centre of developments, but I could not find a way to transmit those events further. After the events in Drenica, foreign journalists started to arrive. Very few of them. One could count them in fingers. Among them was a French journalist from the French news agency, the AFP. He had arrived in Kosovo with correspondents from Belgrade. They asked me if I could go with them to help with translation. They asked me if I knew how to send them to Likoshan, in Drenica. Of course, my answer was: "I know it all," without having the slightest idea.
My first challenge was to find these villages on the map. First I found Skenderaj, written as Srbica on the map. I don’t know the exact date, but it must have been less than a week after the attack on the Jasharajs in Prekaz because when we reached there, the houses of the Jashari family were still burning, the smoke was still coming out.
We found it completely deserted. We kept on walking to Qirez and Likoshan because there were many attacks there that day.
We headed back to Prishtina before dark. I had seen so much destruction, so much burning, so many children wandering from a village to another, on foot, asking for help. They would climb into journalists' cars, and the latter tells would them: "We can't help you." In Prishtina, I did not dare tell anyone what I had seen in Drenica that day. No one would understand me. I was afraid for my family. From that day on, I kept my personal experiences of documenting what was happening in every corner of Kosovo locked in myself.
I could not speak about it. I would constantly lie to my family about my whereabouts during the day because I was afraid I would put them in danger and that if I would speak, the others would find out what I was doing and the police would stop my work. Isolated in my mind from not being able to talk about what I was seeing, I began to nurture the feeling that people would not understand me, that people do not want to know, that they do not want to help.
My expectations from others grew and so did my despair of their failure to meet them. In Prishtina, life went on, while in villages houses were being burned for the third time. And I would go and see the horror with my own eyes. We would film and send the material from Prishtina and in the end, I could not tell my people what I was witnessing.
Protests began in Prishtina. People realized that an entire family had been sacrificed. Diplomats began to go to Belgrade to condemn the Prekaz attack, and the people in Kosovo began to change their minds.
The protests became more regular. Arrests intensified. While walking, people were being stopped and arrested, and there was no turning back. At this time, my friends who had left Kosovo were more interested than my friends who had remained inside in what was happening in the villages of Kosovo. But, over time, this dynamic changed, because the war came closer to Prishtina. Prishtina coffee bars began to empty. There were food shortages. This happened gradually. When the war came closer to our doors, near Komoran, people started asking me about the KLA, about who they were. They thought KLA was a conventional army. “No,” I would them. “Very few of them are trained; most are villagers.” They would not believe me. We had moved from denial of the war to the denial of the fact that we did not have a trained army.
This situation was a result of the propaganda: on the one hand, the belief that the KLA was a conventional army and, on the other, it was not at all. I always had the feeling that I was living between two worlds. Everything that was happening in Kosovo villages was so close and yet so far. Even today I wonder why we had this feeling, and I think it has to do with our inability to do something because there was nothing we could change as individuals. Even if one wanted to help, one would not succeed. From Prishtina to Komoran, the nearest place to the war front, there were seven Serbian police checkpoints. The trip took seven hours. It was only 12 miles away.
People were stuck and, in their eyes, these distances were becoming longer every day.
For me, this infinite distance between Prishtina and the war zone grew into a feeling of guilt. It seemed to me that I was failing the people who were experiencing the war because I was not near them to tell what was happening to them.
I have never hesitated to go to war zones. I was never in doubt. Absolutely never. I experienced it like a mission, though I now realize that I was not ready for war. In fact, nobody is ever ready for war. No one is ready to see pieces of human bodies scattered around in front of their eyes.
The war experience will always haunt you. It will always follow you, and you will always carry it with you. You will remember it. I remember the faces of children. I remember the bodies lined up to be buried by their parents. I can still smell people during the summer. They all appear before me when I close my eyes.
Would I do it again? Yes, no doubt.