40 years since demonstrations in Kosovo: The breakup of Yugoslavia began in a student cafeteria

Milivoje Mihajlović
FOTO: Milivoje Mihajlović

By: Milivoje Mihajlović

Kosovo, March 1981

The most important event on March 11th, 1981, in Pristina was a friendly football match Pristina-Partizan. Partizan won, but the local fans were not angry because the only goal that brought victory to Belgrade’s Partizan was scored by Xhevat Prekazi. On that sunny March 11th, 40 years ago, no one suspected that the breakup of Yugoslavia would begin in Pristina, less than a year following the death of the Yugoslav communist leader Josip Broz Tito.

Several broken plates in the student cafeteria „drove“ hundreds of students to the streets, who marched through the city center – Marshal Tito Street, at around 9 pm, shouting slogans demanding better conditions in the student city.

All the side streets were soon blocked by groups of policemen wearing helmets. Flabbergasted regular visitors quickly disappeared from Pristina’s promenade, and the „dialogue“ between the police and the demonstrators ended at around 5 am, with the help of tear gas, billy clubs, stones, and a few shots fired.

That evening, a visibly excited JNA (Yugoslav National Army) officer rushed into the gym of the „Dom armije“ in the center of Pristina, interrupting the training session of about fifty karate fighters, and told us to pack up quickly and go home. The main street was full of protesters and police.

„There are a lot of injured students and police officers. Two police officers were injured. One was shot at from a handgun and one was hit by a rock in the eye. Some people were arrested,“ my neighbor, a police officer who took part in the clashes, told me that morning. There was no news in the media. In the following days, this event was only whispered about in Pristina.

Beneath that silence, tensions in colleges and high schools were at boiling point. Approximately 100 participants and organizers of the protest were identified, as was later claimed, 80 of whom were from Kosovo and 20 students who were from abroad (mostly from Albania).

Several days later, on March 16th, the lodgings of the Pec Patriarchate monastery were set on fire, where valuable books and icons burned down.

The spiral of violence continued on March 25th in Prizren, where students stoned the Teachers College, while in Suva Reka, high school students threw stones at police forces, injuring a police officer.

The next day, March 26th, almost a thousand students left the student city for the center of Pristina, and several hundred high school students took to the streets. A reception on the occasion of the Youth Relay was organized in the center of the city, the first of its kind after Tito’s death. Protesters carried photos of Tito and clashed with strong police forces in several places across the city.

Tally: 32 demonstration participants and 12 police officers were injured, 200 protest participants were arrested, and 20 were detained. The next day, students of the Faculty of Economics, Law and Natural Sciences, and Mathematics boycotted classes.

The largest demonstrations took place on April 1st and April 2nd in all major cities in Kosovo.

In Pristina, workers from the shock absorber factory, the Ramiz Sadiku Construction Plant, and the Electric Power Industry of Kosovo joined the student protests. On that day, the slogan „Kosovo Republic“ was heard for the first time, as well as the slogans „Trepca is working – Belgrade is being built“, „Long live Adem Demaci“, „Long live Enver Hoxha“, „We are the children of Skanderbeg and soldiers of Enver Hoxha”… The police assessed that there were approximately 4,000 protesters in Pristina. Strong police forces, led by the Special Unit of the Federal Secretariat of the Interior, broke up the demonstrations during those two days. The city was shrouded in tear gas.

According to official data, 8 protesters and one policeman were killed in the clashes. A total of 130 demonstrators (55 firearm-related injuries) and 135 policemen were injured.

Various sources state that there were many more victims of the riots.

In Pristina, in the very center of the city, between the Faculty of Economics and the old Technical Faculty, four high school students were killed, including Naser Hajrizi and Aslan Pireva, students of the technical school.

That day, I was on duty at my faculty (Faculty of Philosophy in Pristina), around which fierce clashes took place between the police and the protesters. The police blocked a group of about two hundred protestors, and they gathered in front of the faculty, as the tanks of the Yugoslav Army marched down the main street. At one point, the barrel of a tank started turning toward the faculty, and the students fled into the building. Dean Dr. Fehmi Agani (later the main ideologist of Ibrahim Rugova’s party, the Democratic Alliance of Kosovo) told me to take off the red ribbon (college students on duty wore red ribbons around their sleeves) and wait for him in the office. He managed to calm down the students who then dispersed. Professor Agani, one of the best politicians among Kosovo Albanians (in a specific way he belonged to the Praxis school), who was always the voice of reason and usually calm and cheerful – was frightened.

On that day, a curfew was introduced that lasted from 8 pm to 5 am in Pristina, Podujevo, Lipljan, Vucitrn, Kosovska Mitrovica, and Glogovac, and the gathering of more than five people in public places was forbidden.

News arrived that gravestones were destroyed in some Orthodox cemeteries, that many shop windows and gas stations in the entire province were broken. A total of 12 police vehicles were set on fire, and one Serb-owned house burned down.

Kosovo was under full police control, but in the days that followed, news arrived of minor demonstrations in almost all cities. At that time, legends were told about „federal special units“ whose Slovenian commander, Franz Kosin, became a legend in a way.

During the siege of a house in the village of Prekaz in Drenica, 4 policemen were killed and three were wounded in an armed conflict. Two Albanians who clashed with the police were also killed.

The League of Communists classified these demonstrations as irredentist and a counter-revolution.

Albanian politicians from Kosovo were the first to condemn the protests. Yugoslav-minded young politician Azem Vllasi said that „they are not looking for freedom, but Stalinism and Enverism“. Communist leaders Fadil Hoxha and Xhavid Nimani spoke in a similar tone. The Kosovo Communists quickly made the first political sacrifice of the most popular Albanian at the time, the leader of the Kosovo Communists – Mahmut Bakalli. Later, during a conversation with Bakalli, I realized that he had nothing to do with protest organization, that he was very close to Tito, and that he believed in Yugoslavia and significantly contributed to the construction and development of Kosovo.

The Communist Party, believing it to be still strong, took harsh action against, as they said, the counter-revolution. In a revolutionary manner, the communists „put salt on the wound.“ The Kosovo Communists directed all accusations toward Albania, whose leader Enver Hoxha was already ill at the time. They claimed that the „unpleasant events“ were the result of indoctrination from Albania because numerous professors from the University of Tirana taught at the University of Pristina. There was a new escalation of tension in relations between Yugoslavia and Albania. The Yugoslav embassy in Tirana was stoned.

The demonstrations were closely monitored by Western embassies. More than 500 documents, reports, and studies of events in Kosovo were found in the British archives, marked as „strictly confidential“. As it can be observed from those reports, London had a friendly attitude toward Yugoslavia at that time, but it predicted the breakup of the country and pointed out that the protests „demanded unification with Albania“.

The West was looking for evidence of Soviet involvement in the organization of protests in Kosovo. Some Kosovo historians still claim that the protests were organized by the Albanian secret service „Sigurimi“ and the then Albanian police chief Mehmet Shehu in cooperation with „Yugoslav generals of pro-Russian character, in order to provoke the intervention of the Soviet Union and preserve communism in the Balkans.“

The economy was paralyzed by strikes, especially a quiet strike (an interesting example is Trepca’s mines, where mining exploration was suspended, so the ore was mined randomly, which caused the percentage of metal in the ore to decrease by 3-4% to 1.5%, and this doubled the cost of processing the ore).

The process of emigration of the Serb and Montenegrin populations reached its maximum that year. Fear of unrest caused families to move to the north, to more peaceful areas – central Serbia. It was a political earthquake whose strength and effects were not well assessed by the then Yugoslav leadership.

At the first trials led against the participants and organizers of the demonstrations, 232 people were convicted – 61 students, 55 workers, 35 teachers, 44 students, 14 journalists, lawyers.

On July 10th, 1982, the District Court in Pristina sentenced Jakup Krasniqi, Gani Syla, and Hidayet Hyseni to 15 years in prison each. Mehmet Hajrizi, Berat Luzha, Nezir Mirtaj were sentenced to 12 years… Azem Syla and Sherafedin Berisha were also convicted…

In other trials (prosecutors and judges were mostly Albanians – that was the communist style – to „judge their own“), boys were sentenced to several years in prison for writing the slogan KR (Kosovo Republic) on the asphalt.

The only party, probably unwittingly, created enemies during these processes.

Today, 40 years later, several indictees in the proceedings, led by Jakup Krasniqi, are sitting on the dock in The Hague, being tried for war crimes committed in Kosovo in 1999 and 2000. In a strange way, the circle of four decades was thus closed.

In riots in Kosovo from 1981 to 1991, it is estimated that more than 90 Albanians were killed, while several thousand were arrested, 1,500 were charged with a political crime, and 4,500 with violations during the protests.

It is alleged that tens of thousands of Serbs and Montenegrins emigrated from Kosovo in that period.

The March 1981 demonstrations represented the first and most serious blow to the League of Communists and Yugoslavia. These events reopened the Albanian issue, which has long been swept under the rug. That is when the change, as some analysts claim, in „strategic Albanian thought“ appeared. In a media sense, the Kosovo demonstrations were a turning point when the sympathies of the Western public turned to the Albanians. And that trend continues to date.

From March 1981 until today, Kosovo has been the site of many dramatic events. More than ten thousand people were killed, 1700 are still listed as missing, and over 200,000 people have not returned to their homes, NATO bombed Yugoslavia, tens of thousands of houses have been burned down. In the meantime, Yugoslavia violently broke apart. Serbs and Albanians have done a lot of harm to each other.

And it all started in the student cafeteria over cold soup and beans.

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