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1981: Kosovo-Republic!

Hydajet Hyseni (1 April 1981)
Hydajet Hyseni (1 April 1981)

Tito died in 1980 and with his death the Yugoslav polity slowly but surely began to unravel. "In Kosovo," writes Judah, "the first signs of this came in March 1981, when the province was rocked by demonstrations. They began in the university on 11 March, and at the very beginning had nothing to do with politics but with poor living conditions at the university and problems in the canteen."

Daut Dauti who was then a student and later became a journalist, recalls that "actually the food was not that bad. The real problem was the service. There were so many students that sometimes you had to queue up for two hours to get a meal." So, for the first few days, speakers complained about the canteen but then they began raising the issue of the university administration, saying it was run by "parasites" who were building themselves luxury houses in plush areas of Priština like Dragodan. Activists from the tiny Marxist-Leninist groups were moving in on what had begun as spontaneous protests.

Every day demonstrations took place in several different places at a time. As the denunciations shifted from the canteen to other issues, Dauti recalled that the atmosphere "electrified". Speakers began to say: "We are rich enough, we should separate from Serbia. They take all our wealth." Then Hydajet Hyseni, an activist, reputed founder of a Marxist-Leninist group and a journalist from the Kosovo Albanian daily paper Rilindja, who had recently been hiding, climbed a tree and spoke to the demonstrators in front of the Communist Party building and urged them not to stop. In this way he became known as the Che Guevara of Kosovo. Dauti says: "People were saying we should be free from Serbian domination. There was a feeling that [despite autonomy] key positions were still held by Serbs and pro-Serb Albanians."

Arrests now began as the students shouted for a republic and onlookers cheered when demonstrators called for union with Albania.

The situation began to spin out of control. High-school students joined their older brothers and sisters and workers in several factories downed tools. The slogans of the demonstrators were: "Kosovo-Republic!", "We are Albanians, not Yugoslavs!" and "We want a unified Albania!" Beginning to panic, the authorities called in units of special police, tanks appeared on the streets and a state of emergency was declared. When the unrest had been quelled the Yugoslav press reported variously that nine or eleven people (including policemen) had died and that 57 had been injured. However, the true casualty figure is unknown. Some insist that as many as 1,000 were killed, which is certainly an exaggeration, but the real figure might well have run into hundreds.

In the wake of the demonstrations thousands were arrested, interrogated, interned or reprimanded. "Seven thousand," writes Judah, "were jailed, hundreds more dismissed from school or university and work."

It is vitally important to remember, however, that, at this crucial juncture, and indeed until 1989, it was not Serbs who were in charge of Kosovo. It was Albanians. This fact was to have enormous significance later on, as Western diplomats could never understand why it was so hard to bring together a Kosovo Albanian negotiating team which would represent a fair spectrum of opinion especially since they all agreed on the basic demand of independence. The answer often lay in who had done what, in and after 1981.

[pp: 39-41]

Kosovo: War and Revenge. 2002, Second Edition. [Yale University Press]

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