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.

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

Teacher

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.’

Ibush Jonuzi

Mining Engineer

The charge was very grave. I said, I said earlier during the conversation, we got thirteen verdicts for execution, I read them and I still have the verdicts somewhere. They said, ‘There’s no chance of easing the sentence.’ There was an Albanian director then, Shera, Sherafedin Ajeti. […] I was the only one from the group of 14 people who was sent to Belgrade. Why? My lawyer came, Adem Vokshi was my lawyer, I said, ‘What’s the situation like, lawyer?’ I asked him. He said, ‘Well, they said Ibush, two of them without a soul, one without a head.’ But he didn’t dare speak either, in the cell, those halls of the prison, everything was spied on.  

And he looked like this {looks around} to give signs that… he said, ‘122 witnesses,’ he said, ‘have testified against you,’ he said, ‘and the testimonies,’ he said, ‘are’ he said, ‘I can bring them and read them,’ he said, ‘they’re horrible.’ I said that they testified that no one could go inside the mine if Ibush didn’t allow it. So, it was a very grave testimony, so they threw all the responsibility on me. He said, ‘But, we’ll see.’ One had testified, an infamous Serbian for not working, who, “No, the organization of the strike, he even knows the shoe size of the miners.

Ramadan Gjeloshi

Mining technician

We organized a second strike, ‘Either free them, or we will not get out of here alive. We will not get out of here alive!’ On October 27, ‘89, yes ‘89, on October 27, ‘89 the second strike began. […] And we went and broke the cupboards, I said, ‘Let’s go downstairs and break the cupboards’ there were some stairs there, we thought maybe we’ll find something. When I went there, I found a kilogram, a jar, a glass jar of salt and a jar of sugar, and we were happy we found those. We came upstairs and said, ‘We found them, and this and that.’ I swear to God I often remember it, I get goosebumps, I get goosebumps like a child, ‘Give me more salt’ {opens his palm}. But that’s what kept us going, the salt, because people weakened without eating, drinking, dark, no water, we drank water from the machinery, from the ground. And we kept going with that salt for three days and three nights until… 

As long as we stayed there, on the second day, they blocked our phones, they blocked them, when they wanted to talk to us, Qazim Shala would come to talk to us, he answered the phone and said, ‘I know how many people are down there, how many workers, your names and last names, I found your documents, you are fired.’ Islam Xhafa said, ‘Director…’ his [maternal] uncles were from Vidishiq, he was from Vidishiq, ‘Uncle,’ he said, ‘Bring us a sack of break down here, we’re not asking for anything else.’ ‘There’s no bread,’ he said, ‘for terrorists.’

[…] There’s a manhole, so another elevator, Germans had built it in the past, it’s up there at Mažić {points right}. We thought someone would come down from there, but some said, ‘It rotted, it’s too old, it’s broken.’ The police got us out of there through that manhole. We thought it was too old, the Germans built it back then.

Avdi Uka

Miner

‘Ukë, charges against you are grave, take care of yourself,  take care of your society.’ For me it was important advice, ‘Take care of yourself and society’ you know… the son of Shera came at 11 p.m, the son of the head of prison at the time, he worked as an inspector, Nexhmedin Ajeti, he was called or something like that. He brought a yellow sheet of paper and said, ‘Ukë,’ he said, ‘you have to go to prison,’ I said, ‘I am in prison, so no problem.’ The police came and handcuffed me and sent me to my cell. […]

I had five lawyers, all five of them worked pro bono. I did not hire any of them, but they asked my brother, ‘Authorize us to represent him.’ The Slovenian came on his own, he chose me. He said, ‘I chose you,’ he said, ‘I heard you have ten children, you have no education, you have nothing’, he represented me. 

[…] on April 14, 1990, they released me. On August 15, 1990, they closed the gate of Trepça. In a span of four months, I was visited twice by UDB inspectors, as they were called at the time. Both were Albanians, they had Albanian names. They came and said to me, ‘Look Ukë, you cannot go back to the mine, if you do, we will lock you up right away.’ {locks his hands} ‘Give this to me in writing, I will not lose20 years of work experience over this .’ They said, ‘We are the police, we don’t hand things in writing. We are saying this as directly as possible in Albanian, don’t go there.’

I took my leave of absence twice, Burhan [Kavaja] gave me annual leave. He gave me days off from the upcoming year, and from the year we left behind. I no longer had any annual leave days. Two months, two months I went to the doctor to give me medical leave. I handed over the documents and did not enter the mine yard, I did not go in until after the war. After the war I went to the mine and worked there for three more years, this is after the liberation. Soon enough we realized that, even through strikes, we cannot change things and we joined the Kosovo Liberation Army, 52 miners from the Stan Trg were killed in war, 52 in war.

Isuf Beqiri

Mining Technician

We were talking and decided that we will not come out alive, until they resign. And we stayed there for eight days and nights. Some were getting ill, they forced them to go out and seek help, some elderly, who were tired and would not go out. They would go out to take a pill and come back to the mine. […] whoever got ill, you know we had a medical center there. They would get very weak and still come back, some stayed at the medical center. Let’s make this clear, the Reconciliation of Blood Feuds Campaign started there inside the mine. A man came up and said, ‘I forgive the blood of the Trepça miners.’ People were in feuds, you know someone killed someone’s family member, and they forgave it. There were women, sorry, a woman came and gave away her jewelry. A man came to the entrance of the mine and tied his cow as a gift for the miners. It was, people gave away whatever they could, we had support, we had support from all over Kosovo, from Albanians, I mean. From the students, the students barricaded themselves in the university departments, there were students who ran a hunger strike in support of the miners, they too did not eat.