The Nonviolent Movement in Kosov@ and Yugoslavia
By David Hartsough
May 7, 1999
The world lost a crucial opportunity to respond to the massive nonviolent movement in Kosovo and Yugoslavia before the conflict erupted into the tragic war which is engulfing the entire area. Since the media did very little to tell about the nonviolent movement which was taking place, I would like to share some of the highlights.
First, some of the background: In the 1974 Yugoslav constitution Kosov@ was granted autonomy. (Kosovo is the Serbian spelling, Kosova the Albanian spelling, and Kosov@ is neutral.) The 90% ethnic Albanian population lived almost as first class citizens along with the 10% Serbs. Albanian and Serbian were the official languages and both were taught in schools and the university. Seventy to eighty percent of the key positions in the society were held by Albanians. The rights of all people were guaranteed regardless of nationality.
Then in 1989 and 1990 Slobodan Milosevic abolished Kosov@'s autonomy and subsequently the Kosov@ parliament, and 80% of the Albanians were fired from their jobs. These included teachers, professors, judges, media workers, medical workers, and police.
In response to this tragic affront to their status as citizens of Yugoslavia, the ethnic Albanian population began large scale, sustained nonviolent struggle demanding their rights as citizens and a return to the autonomy guaranteed under the 1974 constitution. This nonviolent movement continued from 1989 through the spring of 1998.
It started with thousands of miners marching from the lead mines to Pristina, the capitol. Later, hundreds of miners went on a hunger strike for over a week almost a mile underground in 120 degree temperatures. Then through 1990-91, hundreds of thousands of people marched nonviolently in the streets of Pristina and the other cities of Kosov@ demanding a return to autonomy and respect for their rights as citizens.
Some of the other creative and courageous nonviolent actions included:
- Half hour general strikes called daily by the Association of Independent Trade Unions.
- People lighting candles in their windows at night as a symbol of their determination to be free.
- People jangling keys at demonstrations saying: "We hold the keys to unlock our prison."
- After a lot of violence by the Serb police, hundreds of thousands participated in a "Funeral for violence" in which they carried a coffin labeled violence and took it to the cemetery where it was buried.
- After the schools and the university were closed to Albanians, hundreds of thousands of students, professors and teachers attempted to peacefully return and were confronted with lines of police. There was heavy police repression and many peaceful demonstrators were killed. Thus, after 1992, the Albanians held no more large demonstrations. Instead, the focus was on building parallel institutions, another important tactic of nonviolent resistance. Their hope was to keep their spirit and culture alive, to educate their children, and get medical care for their people.
- The professors and teachers who had been fired from their jobs set up alternative schools where the hundreds of thousands of children and students were able to continue their education even if only in makeshift class rooms in private homes and storefronts. They received no funds from the Belgrade government for salaries, heating in the winter, desks, chairs, or school supplies.
- The doctors and nurses who had been fired from their jobs set up "Mother Theresa" medical clinics throughout Kosov@ where they were able to continue to give medical care to the Albanian population.
100,000 Albanians, mostly men, left the country, partly to resist the draft so they would not have to serve in the Serbian armed forces in the wars with Croatia and Bosnia, and also to earn income to send back to support their families (most of whom had lost their jobs).
The Albanians also elected a parallel government since they did not feel the Serbian government represented them. They elected a President, Ibrahim Rugova, a new Parliament and set up a voluntary taxation system to fund the schools and the parallel university. President Rugova traveled all over Europe and the US trying to alert the international community about the situation in Kosov@ and the need for support for their goal of self-determination and freedom.
Rugova (who had very little real power) promoted a totally nonviolent policy in relation to the Serbs. The policy, which was adhered to almost universally, was: "Do not respond to the violent provocations by the Serb police. Keep your dignity and commitment to nonviolence. Do not use any kind of violence against the Serb police or regime." During these years the Albanian population showed a great deal of discipline and self restraint in the face of heavy duty police harassment and even killings. If it achieved its independence, Rugova also promised a Kosov@ without an army so as not to be considered a threat to its neighbors. But the situation in the makeshift schools, university and medical clinics and in the whole society was very difficult and seemed to be grinding on for years.
Adem Demaci, who had spent close to 28 years in prison for his political beliefs, was known by many as Kosov@'s Nelson Mandela. Starting in 1996 when I first met him, he and many others in Kosov@ were calling for more active nonviolent resistance to the Serbian repression as a means of alerting the international community to the seriousness of the situation and the need to support their struggle and intervene with moral, social, economic and political pressure to help change the situation before it exploded into violence and war.
They invited the international community to come and accompany them in their nonviolent movement. They hoped we could be the eyes, ears and conscience ofthe international community, and hopefully give some protection to the Albanian people in their nonviolent resistance.
Starting in the fall of 1997 the university students demanded the right to go back to their university buildings, learn in the Albanian language and use their own curriculum, not the one dictated by the Milosevic government. On October 1, 20,000 university students and their professors demonstrated in a totally nonviolent and disciplined way. After walking about 10 minutes, the police blocked the demonstration with helmeted police in riot gear and armored personnel carriers and tear gas cannon. When stopped, the students stood in total silence for about 40 minutes. No stones or eggs were thrown. There was no epithets or name calling to the police and there were no weapons of any kind. Then without warning, the police began attacking, beating up and arresting the student leaders and fired hundreds of rounds of tear gas to disperse all the others.
Rather than give up, the students continued their nonviolent demonstrations and invited students and other concerned people from around the world to come and be present during their nonviolent demonstrations. They hoped internationals would help prevent police violence (by their presence) and enable others around the world to feel at a heart level what the Albanian people were experiencing. They hoped people would then help organize the international community to support their nonviolent movement before it exploded into violence. Their hope was that the international community - when they found out about the oppressive situation in Kosov@ - would organize to challenge their apartheid regime, similar to what had developed in response to the apartheid regime in South Africa. These massive, totally nonviolent demonstrations continued through April '98. In March of 98 the Yugoslav government finally signed an agreement to allow the university students to go back to the university buildings. But by that time the violence between the KLA and the police was beginning to escalate out of control and overtake the nonviolent movement.
By March of 98 (after the first Serbian massacre in the area of Drenica) hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians were again demonstrating in the streets calling on the international community to wake up and intervene before Kosov@ exploded into war. One day 100,000 people marched through the streets of Pristina carrying candles and pictures of Mother Theresa, ending with an interfaith service at the Catholic church for the 46 people who had been killed in Drenica. Another day 20,000 women attempted to carry bread on a very cold morning about 30 miles to the thousands of refugees who had fled into the mountains where authorities were not allowing food or medicine to get to them.
In Serbia there had also been large-scale nonviolent demonstrations in the winter of 96-97 after elections for city governments. The opposition coalition to Milosevic had won the mayoral elections in Belgrade and a majority of the cities in Serbia. When Milosevic did not acknowledge these victories, one and half million Serbs took to the streets demanding that their candidates be allowed to take office. They demonstrated in the bitter cold for 87 days in a totally nonviolent manner before Milosevic finally gave in.
But unfortunately the international community had given very little support to either the nonviolent movement of the Albanians or the Serbian democratic movement. It was not until the KLA (Kosova Liberation Army) began killing Serb police and the Serb police and military stepped up their terror that the international community finally began to take notice. Unfortunately the combination of the violence of the KLA, the Serb police and the Serb military, and the NATO bombing starting March 24 has driven the nonviolent and democratic forces in both Kosov@ and in Serbia into the sidelines.
Hopefully the international community can learn the importance of responding to nonviolent movements before the situation escalates into violence and war as it has in Kosov@. There are presently nonviolent movements in Tibet, Burma, East Timor, Tabasco and Chiapas in Mexico, among many other countries. The religious community and the peace community and governments need to respond to these nonviolent movements. We need to listen to the concerns, needs, and problems. We can help give international attention to these movements. We can work to bring moral, social, economic and political pressure to bear as we did successfully in South Africa.
We should be concerned about oppression and dictatorship and apartheid and ethnic cleansing. But hopefully we have learned not to deal with fire by pouring on gasoline, or deal with violence by inflicting more violence. In the same way Amnesty International brings pressure to bear on behalf of political prisoners, our churches could adopt nonviolent movements in other parts of the world. We can bring them into our prayers, visit them and get to know them, and help amplify the voices of the people in those nonviolent movements to the rest of the world. We can accompany them when they request our presence as we did with Witness For Peace in Nicaragua. If the world can learn the crucial lesson of the need to listen to nonviolent movements before, not after they erupt into violence and war, the courageous and determined nonviolent movement of the Kosovars will not have been in vain.
David Hartsough is the Executive Director of PEACEWORKERS. He has worked in Kosov@ and Yugoslavia over the past three years. In March of 1998, after accompanying Albanians in their nonviolent demonstrations in Kosov@, he was arrested, jailed and later expelled from the country by the Yugoslav authorities.
(This article was published in Sojourners Magazine in July, 1999)
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