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.

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, maybe we will 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 them. We came upstairs and said, ‘We found them, and so on.’ 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.

Isuf Peci

Mining Technician

We were determined to get there either dead or alive. To tell you the truth, two or three times they tried, we had our guards, they were in the first row with posters, I was in the first row, I will never forget it. They tried to send us back to Shipkofc, but they couldn’t. When we went to Millosheva, before we got there, I will never forget it, now some buildings were built there, they were there. Remzi Kolgeci came with his white coat. I will never forget it, a long, white coat. ‘For God’s sake,’ he said, ‘Go back because we will also suffer the consequences’ ‘We swear to God,’ we said, ‘alive or dead,’ on both sides, we just yelled ‘Auu {onomatopoeic} ahead, comrades!’ We went through the fields (weeps). Then we went to a hall there. […] We didn’t talk much, I swear. Some got sick, we went however we were, in those clothes, it’s not good to say it now. With those helmets, they smelled like mines. We worked in those, some had helmets, that’s how we went in, dirty clothes.  We didn’t talk, we didn’t talk to each other at all, as if we were in trouble, but that was worse than being in trouble.

Shyqyri Sadiku

Mining Engineer

Trepça at that time, I am talking about 1924, the research started by the English, yes. And in the year 1927, they began working on the mine, while in 1930 the testing production took place, daily production was 500 tons. The method was exploitation, classic methods, very difficult during which there were many accidents, many people died. We even have the statistics of the years ‘48, ‘49, ‘50, throughout the year, twelve people lost their lives at the mine. The cause of it was safety measures, they weren’t at a satisfactory level and the work conditions were very difficult. 

Now the time during which my grandfather worked, you know he worked somewhat until ‘50s. In the ‘50s, he had the opportunity to leave jobs and he did because of the poor work conditions and the work in the mines was really hard, there were no micro-climatic conditions, air conditioning was weak. The work was physically demanding, the loading was done by shoveling in the trolleys. The trolleys were pushed manually. This is probably something that pushed him to leave that job because he could not handle the hard work in those difficult conditions. 

This was during the Second World War occupation, it was forced labor in the mines. It was wartime and really no one really asked them much, they were forced to work and they did work. […] Yes, actually [Germans] forced them at that time, and you either had to join their army or work in the Trepça mine. To tell you the truth, our family was also politically persecuted by the Communist system. […] Perhaps that is the reason he left the job, such pressures he could not handle, our family was known as a Ballist [National Front] family.

Beqir Maliqi

Mining Engineer

It was a point in time in which the miners thought that something good was achieved and that their demands for resignation [of the politicians] were met, and that those were received well. A curfew was imposed, a situation in which you would see people of state security roaming around. The police wouldn’t let people gather, they would mistreat them in different ways, interrogating them, ‘Why you this, why you that?’ In this way they started to tell you the truth. 

After some time, we were all sent home and they started calling us back one by one, one by one, especially the heads of departments, we were not called back to work, we were not called for days on end. More concretely, myself, I used to be Head of Production, I was not given anything to do, absolutely not. I came to the office, but I was not given any responsibility. […]

After that, they gave to workers these decisions, around 1400 workers, the workers were punished with one to three months [of jail time]. I recall that after the strike, for four months I was… I, together with some colleagues, with Xhafer Nuli, with Enver Kelmendi and… we were four months without work. After four months we were kind of called back to work. But the production was going down, the political situation was unstable in Kosovo, so bit by bit they fired us from work. On August 8, 1990, when the first shift came to work, the police were at the main entrance. The third shift got out, and the first shift was not allowed to go in.

Xhafer Nuli

Electrical Engineer

The march to Pristina, the Miners’ March on November 17, 1988, the march began from the mine, from Stantrg. That day, I did not go to work in the morning because I sent one of my children to the doctor. A colleague of mine called me on the phone and said, ‘Come cuz the workers want to go to Pristina.’ I went to join them. […]

Barefoot and poorly clothed in the work uniform, when I saw them I didn’t think they would make it to Pristina on foot. ‘Don’t go boys, you won’t make it to Pristina on foot.’ Swear to God, I said, ‘Let’s try and do something, something, because in Pristina…’ A worker came close to me and said, ‘You mean it?’ To tell you the truth I enjoyed authority among them. He said, ‘But Burhan [Kavaja] says we should go.’ ‘Did he say that?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then go, go!’ I said.

[…] Now the workers had to confront the police. I said to some of my colleagues, ‘Let’s stand in front and lead the workers, because what if… now when they confront them we will calm them down and ask them to stop.’ Because we pushed from behind and broke the police chain and we continued the march. But this happened quite fast because there were some Albanian policemen and the police chain was broken. They did not respond and were not violent with us. They abandoned the police and joined us at the Sports Hall in Pristina.

Gani Osmani

Mining Technician

I remember Burhan [Kavaja] as if it were today, he came out, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘To Pristina’ ‘You’re going to Pristina, I will come to Pristina with you.’ I know, I remember his words. And we walked on foot, there were attempts from here, by the security, there were people here that were from the security, civilians, police came and tried to stop us. But, when they saw they wouldn’t stop, they left on foot.

[…] They said, ‘Go back!’ Someone sent them from there. And there were two cordons of police, we went through the fields and continued [marching]. So, the police didn’t intervene then, they didn’t intervene, they tried to stop us. But at that point, people started joining us, we became greater in numbers. Back then, the system was such that you had to take Tito’s photograph with you, and we took the Yugolav flag and our flags. So, in that way, in a way, we tried to show that we aren’t against anyone. Because back then, if you protested, they would say, ‘They want to take down the country, they want to take down Yugoslavia.’

[…] We went there with work tools, with boots, for some, they didn’t fit while walking. I’ve seen workers taking them off, the boots hurt their feet, because when the boots are bigger, they hurt if you walk for a long period of time, they would take them off. I saw them walking barefoot. They went there, guided us to a hall. I know they asked for Azem Vllasi, Kaqusha Jashari, those who… these… we heard then that they wanted to discharge them and we asked for their protection, our officials, and we asked for the resignation of Rrahman Morina, Hysamedin Azemi, and those who were in power.

Xhafer Peci

Mining Engineer

[The miners] were striking at all levels, the eighth and the ninth. We would go up only to bring in a delegation. Upfront we would consult them, ‘This delegation wants to visit, do you want to receive them or not? No, no. Yes, yes.’ We would accompany the delegation to the ground level and continue [with the strike]. All sorts of people would visit, all sorts of aid we would receive, we received food. ‘Do you want money? Do you want gold? Do you want…’  a poor man offered his cow and tied it to the mine. For the miners this was too difficult… and they did what they did and betrayed the miners. A decision in three envelopes stamped with the red stamp of the [Provincial] Committee, and they read the document that stated that the three leaders resigned. The miners ended the strike, but we had to get them out of the mine at night because, during the day, they would have lost their sight. We got the miners out and they started taking actions against the miners. The leaders were imprisoned, then the workers. […] They were being imprisoned. Then Aziz Abrashi was imprisoned, later Burhan Kavaja, then Azem Vllasi, and fourteen others or more. But what’s interesting is that they were very united while in prison, no one turned against each other.