In Mexico City, a refuge for world’s writers
Haven from persecution gives chance at better life
by Chris Hawley
Republic Mexico City Bureau
Feb. 24, 2008 12:00 AM
MEXICO CITY – When the paramilitaries burst through his door, beat him and pointed a Kalashnikov rifle at his chest, poet Xhevdet Bajraj knew it was time to get as far from Kosovo as possible.
It was 1999, NATO bombs were falling on the province, and Yugoslav troops were fighting pitched battles with ethnic Albanian guerrillas. Serbian paramilitaries were torching homes and locking up anyone who might be perceived as a leader – even semifamous poets. Bajraj joined the thousands of refugees streaming into Albania.
Then came an invitation from a most unlikely place. Mexico City had just opened a safe house for persecuted writers, one of several social projects launched by the capital’s new, liberal government. Bajraj and his family were welcome to come, city officials said.
And so, shell-shocked and tired, carrying nothing but two packs of cigarettes, Bajraj, his wife and two sons became the first of a string of writers and their families given shelter in the Citlaltepetl Refuge House, a renovated mansion in a leafy neighborhood of the world’s second-largest city.
“I feel like I was reborn in that house,” Bajraj said. Now a naturalized Mexican citizen, he lives nearby and teaches poetry at a Mexico City university.
Since opening in 1999, the refuge has housed writers under threat in Myanmar, Egypt, Chad, Algeria and Serbia. The refuge has room for one or two families at a time and is now in talks to host a writer from Iraq, director Philippe Olle-Laprune said.
They’re part of a long tradition of writers who have found refuge in Mexico City, from Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez to American Beat writer William S. Burroughs, a fugitive from U.S. drug charges.
“We have a history of taking in these kinds of people, and they have enriched us as a city,” said Isabel Molina, director of cultural relations for Mayor Marcelo Ebrard.
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