When the Yugoslav authorities decided to abolish Kosovo’s autonomy and put Serbia in total control in 1989, min
One Friday morning, three days before the workers at the huge Trepca lead and zinc mining complex in northern Kosovo launched a mass underground hunger strike on February 20, 1989, more than 80 of them met at a café in the city of Mitrovica before they started their shift to discuss their plans.
One of the miners who was at the meeting was Shyqyri Sadiku. “Because we were afraid of exposure and reprisals, we did everything shrouded in secrecy,” Sadiku told BIRN.
Sadiku, who was 25 years old, was the supervisor of the first of the working day’s shifts. It was decided that his shift would start the strike.
“I called my colleagues who were the supervisors of the other shifts. When the time came to leave, we declared a strike. The next shift joined us so we were all underground,” he said.
More than 1,200 miners joined the strike at the Trepca complex to oppose constitutional changes that would abolish the autonomy of Kosovo within the Yugoslav federation, therefore giving Serbia more control over the province, against the wishes of its ethnic Albanian majority.
The strikers were also opposing the forced retirement of ethnic Albanian university professors, and calling for the resignation of three senior leaders of the Communist establishment: Ali Shukriu, Hysamedin Azemi and Rrahman Morina, who were seen as loyal to Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of the all-powerful Serbian ruling party, the League of Communists.
The mineworkers remained underground in freezing temperatures for a week, enduring what Sadiku described as terrible conditions without food and proper water supplies.
Burhan Kavaja, now 81, who was the director of the Trepca complex at the time, trembled as he recalled two of the most difficult moments of the strike for him.
“Fearing they would cut off the electricity, we decided to open the backup exit shaft. It was unimaginable for the miners to work in that state of starvation and without the proper devices to open the escape hatch. But they activated it,” Kavaja said.
Two miners’ health deteriorated seriously but they refused to quit the strike and go back to the surface, he said: “One of them was lying on a rock and waving me away. He had an illness even before this. I told the doctors to take him, don’t ask him, take him and let him die outside. At least not here amongst us.”
“There was danger from the lack of oxygen, dampness and infections, but also the possibility of power outages causing the air ventilators to stop functioning,” said striker Gani Osmani, who was a supervisor on the first shift at the mine.
“If the power stopped and we ran out of air, some miners decided to use the explosives we used for drilling. We were prepared for death from the moment we started the strike,” he insisted.
The electricity wasn’t cut off, but the director of the Kosovo Electricity Corporation was later among those arrested for collaborating with the strike.
Osmani recalled that despite the miserable conditions, the miners were determined to maintain their resistance.
“I remember a Croatian doctor came to visit us and a foreign journalist asked him how it was possible for miners to stay there for so long. He told him that this was a syndrome called the ‘collective ego’,” he said. “It was true. We were swallowed up by the collective ego.”
Discontent grows, demonstrations erupt
Kosovo was granted substantial autonomy within Yugoslavia in 1974, as a province of Serbia. In 1981, there had been mass protests by ethnic Albanians demanding even more local control. But Serbian nationalists wanted to reassert their hold over the territory that they considered to be a cradle of Serb history and religion.
When the Serbian leadership in 1986 proposed to reconsider the autonomy of Kosovo and another Serbian province, Vojvodina, the head of the provincial committee of the Kosovo League of Communists, Azem Vllasi, was opposed to the idea of giving more control to Belgrade.
“We in Kosovo and Vojvodina rejected this idea as unnecessary,” he said. “But the old aspirations for Kosovo as the ‘cradle of Serbia’ were revived.”
Vllasi quit his position in 1988, the year that a campaign of street protests by supporters of Milosevic began, which became known as the ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’. The protests led to Milosevic loyalists being installed in the provincial governments of Kosovo and Vojvodina, giving the Serbian autocrat more power as he sought to take control at the Yugoslav federal level.
The announcement of the constitutional changes to remove Kosovo’s political autonomy was also made that year. Burhan Kavaja said that on October 16, 1988 at 5am, a team from the commission for constitutional changes came from Belgrade to inform the Trepca mineworkers what the changes meant and what the benefits would.
“I gathered three shifts of miners in the hall to hear about the amendments. The miners refused to accept the constitutional changes to revoke Kosovo’s autonomy,” Kavaja said.
On November 17, 1988, the miners staged a protest march, walking around 50 kilometres from Mitrovica to Pristina to join thousands of people at a demonstration against the constitutional changes and for the resignation of Kosovo’s Communist leadership.
That day the leaders of Kosovo’s League of Communists had gathered to discuss the Yugoslav League of Communists’ claim that the Kosovo leadership was not doing enough to fight Albanian nationalism.
Demonstrations in Pristina continued for three days and the head of the Kosovo League of Communists, Kaqusha Jashari, resigned.
In January 1989, a Milosevic loyalist, Rrahman Morina, was elected as the head of the Kosovo League of Communists, and the demonstrations were declared to be ‘anti-state’.
However, the protesters decided to continue by staging a strike at the Trepca mines, which at the time were hugely important to the Yugoslav economy. Former Communist leaders Vllasi and Jashari and the mining complex’s director Kavaja and general director Aziz Abrashi decided to join the direct action.
“We tried to organise everything without any figurehead [to avoid the leader being targeted],” Kavaja said.
A short-lived triumph
On the night of February 27, the miners brought their hunger strike to an end and returned to the surface was over after the officially-stamped resignations of the three Communist leaders loyal to Slobodan Milosevic arrived.
The miners believed that they had won, but a day later they heard that the resignations had been revoked by Serbia’s League of Communists.
“We came out of the pit with our eyes closed so as not to damage our sight. We were promised that we would return to work and there would be no punishment, we were betrayed and deceived again,” Osmani said.
Striker Avdi Uka came up from underground alongside the others but his health deteriorated and doctors recommended that he remain for treatment at a makeshift hospital at the mine complex.
But on the morning of March 1, three police officers came to his bed saying they had an order to arrest him.
“They told me the charges against me were grave and you have to go to prison. I said: ‘I am in prison, so no problem.’ The police handcuffed me and sent me to my cell. My unfinished intravenous infusion was still in my arm,” Uka said.
The same day, the police knocked on Kavaja’s door at 11 o’clock at night. “They handcuffed me and told me to go,” he said.
“When I arrived at the detention unit, I saw the general director of the mine, Aziz Abrashi, and 12 miners. I saw Avdi Uka, he had infusion bandages on his hand.”
A day later, Azem Vllasi joined the group of 15 who had been arrested. Fearing retribution after the strike, he had left for Sarajevo to take his children to his wife’s ‘family, but was arrested there and brought back to Kosovo.
All 15 were accused of counter-revolutionary activity, separatism and nationalism, as well as the destruction of the ‘brotherhood and unity’ of the state of Yugoslavia.
On March 23, Kosovo’s provincial assembly was due to vote on the amendments to the Yugoslav constitution that would strip Kosovo of most of its autonomy and return that power to Belgrade. The vote was being held amid a state of emergency imposed 20 days earlier during the miners’ strike.
That evening, while he was waiting for his trial to start, Kavaja said that he was taken by two policemen to another room. “They said to me: ‘What will you defend now? The autonomy is gone,’” he recalled. “My knees were shaking. I couldn’t say anything.”
‘Prelude to further resistance’
Azem Vllasi still is convinced that Kosovo’s Communist leadership bears the responsibility for the revoking of the province’s autonomy.
“The head of the League of Communists [in Kosovo] should not have resigned and paved the way for Milosevic supporters. It was a mistake. We should have resisted more than we did,” he said.
“That way, the Assembly would not have voted [for the revocation], at least not the majority of Albanian delegates. Without their votes, the amendments would not have been valid according to international law.”
More than three decades later, Shyqyri Sadiku lamented that Kosovo’s autonomy was given up by the delegated just 15 years after it was won.
“It was a stab in the back,” he said. “It’s incredible how our society has avoided facing this shameful chapter in its past.”
All the striking miners were suspended from work and sentenced to up to two months in prison for their involvement in the uprising, if they were caught.
Sadiku, Avdi Uka, Gani Osmani and Burhan Kavaja were only able to return to work after the Kosovo war ended in 1999 with the withdrawal of Slobodan Milosevic’s army and police forces from Kosovo.
However, despite the apparent failure of the 1989 miners’ strike, Kavaja insisted that it did have a significant impact on Kosovo’s history in the longer term: “It was a prelude to further resistance, to war and independence,” he said.