A tribute to Albanian-American director, Stan Dragoti
By Ruben Avxhiu
October 4th, 2005 – Stan Dragoti, first made a name for himself as a film director of some incredibly successful movies, a number of which brought in over 200 million dollars to their respective production companies.
He then became known for his advertising brilliance in creating successful campaigns for the giants of the airline industry, the automotive industry and even helped New York City to get back on its feet with the I LOVE NEW YORK campaign. But what makes him the hero of this story is the critical role he played during the tragedy of Kosova of 1998/99 with his “Stop the Killing in Kosova” public awareness campaign that sensitized the nation.
James Pettifer, who had been a reporter in Kosova throughout the 1990’s, has written about how difficult it was to get the news from Kosova to appear on the pages of important newspapers.
To some editors Kosova was too small or too far to get to the top of the news. Some of them had closed the “Balkan chapter” since the Dayton Agreement. However, the brutality and bloodshed escalated and soon it became more difficult to avoid the issue.
Nevertheless, the international audience was missing the most touching dimension of the story: An unarmed civilian population was defenseless in front of the criminal paramilitary groups who had already proved their scheme of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia. Massacres of innocent civilians were taking place in Kosova and finally photos documenting them were made available to the Western media. Yet, no mainstream newspaper or TV network was displaying them. They were said to be too graphic for the general audience.
To those who knew the situation well, there was no other way to make public opinion feel and understand the truth of Kosova without facing its ugliest side.
Many supporters of the Albanian issue in US were becoming frustrated by the lack of information on the Kosova reality that the American public and political decision-makers were getting.
Here entered the genius of Dragoti. When he was shown photos that documented the massacres he was so moved, he immediately decided to act. However, he also understood that a more professional approach was needed. He was also blessed with a group of carefully selected talents in his team. Dragoti took these graphic color photos and changed them to black and white. That change took off the weight of the gruesome effect but left the substantial message. What was more important, it made these graphic views publishable and they were reintroduced to the media but this time as in the form of an public awareness campaign. When The Washington Times and New York Post agreed to run the ads, the campaign had officially started. Sponsored by the National Albanian American Council (NAAC) and titled “Stop the Killing in Kosova” the campaign proved to be a great success. It was October 1998 and the worse was still to come for the people of Kosova. However, from now on, their tragedy was not going to be hidden from the eyes of the world.
“Soon after Washington Times began running the ads, we got a call from The New York Times,” Stan Dragoti recalled as he spoke in front of an Albanian-American audience a few years later. “They wanted to run them too and they did. Then CNN called and we ran a special on the campaign”.
He also mentioned Illyria newspaper, which offices had been turned into a receiving station for phone calls and contributions to support the campaign.
There was something in these black and white images that would be reminiscent of the notorious tragedy that fell upon the Jewish nation 50 years earlier. To Dragoti this helped the story stick. The TV screens were flooded with bold images of various dramatic events either local or around the globe. But nowhere were entire populations of town and villages were put in trains by armed military as if Eichman was resurrected in a Serbian uniform. There was nothing abusive about pointing to the similarities. The Holocaust when unique as a tragedy to the Jewish people, was still being copied in Europe in smaller dimensions but similar in substance.
Dragoti remembers that the first call to the offices of Illyria newspaper came from a Jewish Holocaust survivor who simply said, “How can I help”? It made so much sense to all those who were following closely the events developing in Kosova.
“That ‘Never Again’ never sounded more meaningful”, Dr. Anna Cohen said once to me during an interview for Illyria. Both her parents and her husband were Holocaust survivors. Her parents were a part of that fortunate Jewish community of the Balkans who either were living in Albania or moved to it for refuse during the war.
Albania was one of the three countries in Europe where 100% of the Jews were saved from the Holocaust and the ONLY country in Europe where there were more Jews at the end of WW II than at the start. The country was occupied first by Italy and later by Nazi Germany.
As the ad campaign took pace, Albanian Holocaust survivors came out and began to tell their stories. It was not a surprise later when the Jewish-American community was in the front line to help when the refugee crisis in Kosova exploded and a million civilians were deported within three days in a Nazi style by the Serbian national-communists of Milosevic.
In the Spring of 1999, a US-led NATO bombing campaign was launched to stop the Serbian genocide on the Albanian population of Kosova. A few days before the war, President Clinton remarked that he had seen the ad campaign and had been impressed. Dragoti and his team had been tireless. Now every member of Congress had received a mailing containing the ads and the information on the crisis.
There are so many tragedies that go on in the world. It is not easy to get world public awareness. While other factors helped as well, one of them being the fear of the repetition of the Bosnian or Rwandan scenario, the Albanians can call themselves lucky to have had such a talented and generous leader as Stan Dragoti. This campaign turned to be the right move at the right time. That extra mile may have made the difference.
A year later, when Kosova was liberated and more than one million people had returned to their homes, the National Albanian American Council recognized the work of Stan Dragoti at their annual dinner who was honored with the Hands of Hope Award. (Among previous and later recipients of the award include Former President Bill Clinton, Secretaries of State James Baker and Madeleine Albright, Senator Bob Dole and other notables).
Humble but proud, Dragoti received his award on behalf of a long list of close collaborators to whom he expressed his deep gratitude. Among others he mentioned his “brilliant partner Charlie Moss”, longtime friends George Coney and Eli Fleedman and colleagues of the Moss/Dragoti team, Phil Weiner, Pat Carella and the “spectacular effort” offered by Craig Moss.
Albanian-Americans as Avni Mustafaj, Fadil Berisha, Art and Hope Lika, Donika Bardha and many others were mentioned by Dragoti for offering their time and resources to the success of the campaign.
Today, the future of Kosova is again in a crossroad, as the final status is pending. The world runs fast and six years ago may seem like a long time. That is why it is important to refresh the memory of those who may have forgotten the suffering of the Kosovars and what makes them today insist on independence. We have what to show and we have Stan to thank for it.