The Trepça Miners’ Strike began on February 20, 1989 and ran for eight days. Miners demanded their constitutional rights and protested against the abolition of the autonomy of Kosovo, as guaranteed by the 1974 Constitution of the Socialist Yugoslavia. Miners’ labor culture was quintessential in the ideology of Yugoslav socialism. Because mining was such an important dimension of the country’s economy, when the miners went on hunger strike, economic life nearly shut down. 

The oral histories with miners are intended to place this event within a broader historical context, as well as capture the human dimension and present lesser known stories that happened in between. 

The interviews were produced in partnership by ForumZFD Kosovo program and BMZ.

Faik Bllata

Surgeon

[Radio] Television of Prishtina gave us the news that the miners have entered the mine pit. Me and a lot of other physicians, with doctor Adem, with a lot of general physicians. Trepça had its own in-house physicians. I remember the first day when I went there, we took the elevator down Trepça’s levels. It’s not a good feeling to go into the elevator, and go down 700-800-900 meters in the mine pit. But, I was always thinking of going to help the miners down there. I was their in-house physician in the ‘80s, so all the miners knew me. They were really happy to see me. I took a bag of medicine, [as] I told you, at the time the medicine and the check ups were free of charge. We stocked enough medicine, antibiotics against fever, against coughing, against throwing up, against poisoning. And I went to check on them with my bag full of medicine. But there weren’t any health issues the first few days. […] It’s worth mentioning, it’s very interesting, many miners whose health worsened didn’t want to leave the mine after we told them they must leave it, they didn’t want to. They said, ‘Only dead. Four people can carry my body and separate me from my striker friends.’

Nexhmi Zeqiri

Cardiologist

I was a witness, I was the main doctor. I worked there in Stari Trg and the day the strike began I was working in the first shift. Around 8:00, we received the information, because the ambulance was close to the mine, they said, ‘The miners have started a strike.’ My father was still alive, my mother and other family members. They were living in Mitrovica. And they said, ‘The miners’ strike has begun. The miners are dissatisfied. From today on they started a strike and they promised they won’t go out until their demands are met.’ It began around 8:00. I got the news that it was happening around 8:00. […] A sort of hunger strike, they expressed dissatisfaction through demands. Kosovo was alarmed, Yugoslavia was alarmed, as well as Serbia and the European and international community, [they heard] that a big miners’ strike began in Stari Trg. We as doctors joined them, since we were also there on duty to help the miners with whatever they needed. They were tired at first, exhausted. One night, two nights [passed by], their health began to worsen. We sent some [of them] to Mitrovica hospital, but they didn’t want to go to Mitrovica. They wanted to stay there, the ones who were sicker. […] Nobody wanted to go to Mitrovica because there were some Albanian doctors, some Serbian doctors who were against the miners’ strike and against… and they used to mistreat them.

Vjollca Meha

Geologist

When the news came, they said, ‘The miners are locking themselves in.’ We were close because the technical service building is close to the mine entrance. We were young and we felt that something was ending, some uncertainty because State Security was around, we knew their faces. They would always follow our every move. And we told a colleague, we discussed it more and more, the miners’ situation, the political issues. And then we told a colleague, ‘Can we go there and join them?’ He said, ‘Do you want to join?’

When we went there with our colleague and he said, there were duty shifts, they started to appoint the duty shifts. We had the red ribbons {touches her arm}, they put the red ribbons on their hands and they were responsible for how things run, who came in, who left. […] And then we went in, we visited them, the situation, it seemed like a whole different world somehow, like we were isolated, no news, no nothing, I mean no good news. The delegations would come one after the other, with Kolgeci and Stipe Šuvar, Morina, and all of them in order, […] the ones outside would say, ‘You’re going to stay there with them,’ the ones in the mine would say, ‘Don’t let them come down because they’re pressuring us.’

[…] We continued to support them, when the workers came out [of the mine] we helped them, we helped them with cleaning, medication, stuff like that. Because there they were… and we had the Ambulance in Stantërg and the physicians from there came, the medical workers of the ambulance and they joined us in the mine. We had a team formed. The number of people leaving increased, people left the mine tired, overwhelmed, and the technical service where we were became a medical station, there were two stations.

Alije Gashi Tmava

Economist

When the miners locked themselves in the mine pit, I was in my office. So I showed solidarity with the miners and joined them. Day one, day two passed, the miners would not leave the pit. They requested to meet the leaders, political leaders of the then Kosovo Province. The Trepça employees who were not in the mine pit transformed the production hall into an improvised hospital. Miners’ health condition began to deteriorate. 

[…] There we had a role, we took the role of the nurses. We had our on-site doctors, they worked as doctors for the Trepça enterprise. Nurses were there, but a greater number was needed. The miners were in the pit from February 20 ‘til 28. When they came out… day and night I was there and did not go home, not even once. The day I went home to take a shower, they came out of the pit. 

After they came out only the miners with a poor health condition remained and were transferred to the Mitrovica hospital. Afterwards, the Serb State Security of that time mistreated the miners though they were already hurting. Everything ended. The violent measures set in, we were interrogated. Everything was bleaker after the miners came out of the pit.

Adem Vokshi

Lawyer

In the judges panel was Ismet Emra, he was the presiding judge. A member of the panel was Jusuf Mejzini, a senior judge. Shaban Binaku, a former miner and a wonderful man, who at the time was very ill, and we would meet often with Uncle Shaban and beg of him, now he is deceased, beg of him, ‘Please remain in good health until the trial is over.’ There was another judge from Montenegro, Milutin Zubov, and he had a balanced attitude. 

So we really hoped and believed that the final verdict will be balanced and that they [miners] will be free of all charges. […] There have been big protests in Croatia in support of the miners. […] There were lawyers from Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia that were part of the trial. They were the lawyers that together with us defended the miners. They were Doctor Miha, no, Doctor Peter Ceferin, he was Miha Kozić with whom they met in Vienna. 

[…] Also, I do not believe that there was any suggestion made by the government to release these men, but surely there was no suggestion that these men should be punished. Fortunately, in the end, the miners were released, after 14 months of detention.

Bahtije Abrashi

Educator

Linda was, they did not let her get close [the courtroom], she was in the city center. She put on the radio, she listened to Musë Preniqi, he was a journalist at the Radio Prishtina. I saw him run through chairs and tables of the courtroom to get out and broadcast the news as soon as possible. She ran so fast to the courtroom that the security was surprised […] They said to her, ‘He’s free!’ She wanted to see her father. All the citizens were out, people were on their balconies, but we were surrounded by the police. So we decided to use the transit road that passes by the Dudin Krš to come to Pristina […]. 

In five minutes people gathered and it was as if a large gathering was taking place in front of the house, there were so many people. We lived next to the elementary school in Sunny Hill, and there is a large plateau. When we arrived there were hundreds of people. The entrance of the residential building had a red carpet that the residents and our friends placed. On top of it all, it was a time when lilacs bloomed, so there were a lot of lilacs. 

He went out on the balcony and saluted everyone. There were children, school children. I had two-three chocolate boxes, and I sent a kid to buy all the candy there was in the store. From the balcony he showered them all with candy. They somehow calmed down, and there was police presence everywhere. Perhaps I am describing this with ease, but this was not easy.

Avdi Dinaj

Jurist

If I am not mistaken, it was March 13, ‘89. After work, I went to my apartment. In the late hours of the night, the former head of the District Court Kapllan Baruti had sent his chauffeur to drive me with his car. I asked the chauffeur, I said, ‘What’s up?’ He said, ‘The Head of the Court wants to see you.’

Kapllan was an extraordinary man, extraordinarily good. He invited me to his office. He said, ‘I am asking you to take on Vllasi’s case…’ he told me this and that and how he is being brought in from Bijeljina, and that they want to start investigative procedures. The prosecutor had already filed the request to start the investigations. Counterrevolution, counterrevolution back then was the highest sentence, 20 years for counterrevolution or death sentence. I know that we discussed it with Kapllan, he said to me, ‘Please take over the investigation.’ I said, ‘Kapllan, I don’t want this case to cost me my job. I will not take over. Until now I never investigated political cases, I don’t want to do it now.’

As the conversation progressed, he said, ‘If you don’t take it over, we have to give it to someone else and lose access to the case.’ I know I said to him, ‘Give it to whomever you like, do whatever you like. Not me.’ […] One request after the other to take on the case, I agreed to do the investigation. […] I started the investigation, I took Azem Vllasi, Aziz Abrashi, and Burhan Kavaja into questioning. Then we broadened our scope of investigation. Fifteen of them were accused.”

Nerimane Kamberi

Professor of French Literature

We went there, descended into the mine pit, and from the archives I recalled, but I also remember it myself that I had many emotions, too many… because they have locked themselves in for Kosovo. Not to forget that news of all kinds was being published. We were all eyes and ears interested in the decisions that were about to be taken for Kosovo, and there was news of all sorts. So we were falling prey to news that today we would call fake news. 

[…] I sent my message to the miners, the message that the students stand in solidarity with them, that we are with them. And I remember that… even the archives reminded me of that, that I cried there because it was very touching. We realized that some of them were really in poor health. 

When I returned, I remember this very well, I took the word again as a woman, as a young writer, as a student of the University of Prishtina. I quoted Anne Frank, who said the following, ‘A terrible ending is preferable rather than an endless terror.’ We sent out our message to the miners that we were with them, and they thanked us for that. And really, it was a profound and powerful moment.

Kaqusha Jashari

Politician

The director Aziz Abrashi called on the phone that day before the meeting. He said, ‘Don’t you dare resign because the miners are coming. They decided to come.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I will not resign, but if they dismiss me, I can’t guarantee they will not fire me. I don’t know what turn the discussion will take, but I will not resign.’

They didn’t care, they headed to Pristina before the meeting of the Committee began. As I was holding the meeting, opening the discussion, some Albanians defended us, some Serbians accused us, the Committee members there. And we were divided along ethnic lines, Albanians on one side, Serbians on one side. All Serbs agreed with Milośević’s politics. And when the miners got here the way they did, I don’t think they came all the way from Mitrovica on foot, maybe by bus also. When they came here, they went to the Youth Palace. 

[…] They came in, they came in, they talked, they were organized. Who should hold a speech, all that was said by them in the sense was to defend the nation. I didn’t feel they’d come to my defense, but I felt defended by the  nation, defended by Kosovo, which made me feel good. But if I joined them, who would I be against? I can’t be on the side with those that expressed dissatisfaction in nationalist rallies. So, it was a difficult situation that, even if I went there, what would I say.

Azem Vllasi

Lawyer/Politician

I took Adem and Sellma to Prishtina in my car around four or five in the afternoon to take them to Nadira’s family in Bijeljina, Bosnia, which is 140 kilometers away from Belgrade. I thought they should be safe and spared from the horror that was going to happen. I don’t know, whatever happens, happens. When I… I was listening to the meeting in Belgrade on the radio all day long. By chance, like in movies, while I was driving through Belgrade to continue into Bosnia and Bijeljina at Nadira’s family, I heard them [Slobodan Milošević] talk in the meeting and promise imprisonment, this and that. 

I took my children there. The next day I wanted to return to Prishtina. Whatever happened, I had to go back to deal with the situation, you can’t escape yourself and your country. I didn’t have reason to flee, I hadn’t broken any laws. The next day I talked to Nadira on the phone, she said, ‘Wait for me,’ she said, ‘Tomorrow because there’s a colleague of mine Jelena Lavorić from Zagreb here, she’s coming back by car and she will go through Bijeljina. I will stay, then we will come back together.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll stay one more day.’ Late at night they activated the mechanism for imprisonment. They followed me, they knew where I was going and that mechanism was so that if I weren’t Prishtina, a request was made to the Bosnian police to find me in Bosnia, to bring me to Prishtina.

Late at night the Bosnian police come and knock on Nadira’s family door. ‘We’re sorry.’ ‘What is it?’ ‘They told us to bring you back to Prishtina’. I said, ‘I’m going to Prishtina  tomorrow with my car.’ ‘No, they said you have to come with us’. ‘Let’s go!’ Nadira had already left and I couldn’t inform her. I headed from Bosnia to Prishtina in a police car, Nadira was headed from Prishtina towards {explains with his hands} Bosnia with her colleague, Jelena Lavorić’s car. Later we talked about it, we said, ‘We passed each other at some point, we don’t know where.’