The Common Good
July-August 1999

Creative Courage

by David Hartsough | July-August 1999

Before the war, a vigorous nonviolent movement sought justice for Kosovo. Their call for support from the world went unheeded.

The world lost a crucial opportunity to support the massive nonviolent movement in Kosovo and Yugoslavia before the conflict erupted into the tragic war engulfing the entire region. Part of the problem was that media did very little to tell about the nonviolent movement that was taking place.

Kosovo was an autonomous region from 1974 to 1989. The 80-percent ethnic Albanian population lived almost as first-class citizens alongside the Serbs there. Albanian and Serbian were the official languages and both were taught in schools and the university. Albanians held about 90 percent of the key positions in the society. The rights of all people were guaranteed regardless of nationality. In 1990 Slobodan Milosevic abolished Kosovo’s autonomy and subsequently the Kosovo parliament, and 80 percent 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 a 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.

First, thousands of lead miners marched from their mines to the Kosovo capitol in Pristina. Hundreds of miners—who worked in a lead mine nearly one mile underground with temperatures surpassing 120 degrees—later went on a hunger strike that lasted more than a week. Through 1991 hundreds of thousands of Kosovars marched nonviolently in the streets of Pristina and other cities of Kosovo demanding a return to autonomy and respect for their rights as citizens.

During this time a number of other creative and courageous nonviolent actions took place. There were half-hour general strikes called daily by the Association of Independent Trade Unions. People lit candles in their windows at night as a symbol of their determination to be free. At demonstrations people jangled their house and car keys, saying, "We hold the keys to unlock our prison."

After a brutal crackdown by Serb police, hundreds of thousands participated in a "Funeral for Violence" in which they carried a coffin labeled "violence" and buried it in the local cemetery. After the schools and the university were closed to Albanians, hundreds of thousands of students, professors, and teachers armed only with flowers attempted to peacefully return but were confronted with lines of Serb police. Police repression increased and many demonstrators were killed.

AFTER 1992, the Kosovar Albanians decided not to hold any more large demonstrations. Instead, they focused on another important tactic of nonviolent resistance—building parallel civic and political institutions. Their hope was to keep their spirit and culture alive, to educate their children, and to get medical care for their people.

The professors and teachers who had been fired from their jobs set up alternative schools where hundreds of thousands of children and students were able to continue their education even if only in makeshift classrooms in private homes and storefronts. These "freedom schools" 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 Teresa" medical clinics throughout Kosovo to provide medical care for the Albanian population. According to the Center for the Defense of Human Rights in Pristina, more than 100,000 young Albanian men left the country rather than serve in the Serbian armed forces at war with Croatia and Bosnia. Conscription has been used as another form of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. These men sent nearly all their earnings back to support their families (most of whom had lost their jobs) and to provide income for the parallel institutions.

Since the Kosovar Albanians did not feel the Serbian government represented their interests, they also established a parallel government. They elected a president, Ibrahim Rugova, and 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 United States to alert the international community about the situation in Kosovo and the need for support for their goal of self-determination and freedom.

Rugova, who has been called the "Gandhi" of Kosovo, promoted a totally nonviolent policy in relation to the Serbs. His principle 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." This was adhered to almost universally. The Albanian population showed a great deal of discipline and self-restraint in the face of severe police harassment and even killings. If they achieved independence, Rugova promised a Kosovo without an army so that it would not be considered a threat to its neighboring countries.

However, the situation in the makeshift schools, the university, and medical clinics was extremely difficult. Beginning in 1996, Adem Demaqi (who spent 28 years in prison for his political beliefs and has been called Kosovo’s "Nelson Mandela") began calling for more active nonviolent resistance to the Serbian repression. Stronger action was needed to alert the international community to the seriousness of the situation. Demaqi called on people around the world to support the nonviolent struggle and intervene with moral, social, economic, and political pressure to help change the situation before it exploded into violence and war. He and others invited the international community to accompany them in their nonviolent movement. The Kosovars hoped these accompaniers could be the eyes, ears, and conscience of the international community, and they could give protection to the Kosovar Albanians in their nonviolent resistance and encourage dialogue between the Albanians and Serbs.

In fall 1997, university students demanded the right to return to their university buildings, to have classes conducted in the Albanian language, and to use their own curriculum, not the one dictated by the Milosevic government. In October of that year 20,000 university students and professors demonstrated in front of the University of Kosova in a nonviolent and disciplined way. After allowing the march for 10 minutes, Serb police in full riot gear blocked the demonstration, using armored personnel carriers with tear gas and water cannons. The students stood in total silence for 40 minutes. No stones or eggs were thrown. There was no epithets or name-calling to the police. The students carried only flowers and banners. Without warning, the police moved in, beating up and arresting the student leaders and the rector of the parallel university, which had been operating out of private homes the past six years. They fired hundreds of rounds of tear gas into the crowd and at supporters observing from a hillside. Hundreds of demonstrators were badly injured. Similar demonstrations took place in six other cities in Kosovo with similar results.

Rather than give up, the Kosovar students invited students and other concerned people from around the world to join them during their nonviolent demonstrations. They hoped that the presence of internationals would help prevent police violence. It would also enable others around the world to experience directly what the Albanian people were experiencing. They hoped that when the international community found out about Kosovo they would organize to challenge Milosevic’s apartheid regime, similar to what had developed in response to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Massive, nonviolent demonstrations continued through the spring of 1998. Finally in March the Yugoslav government signed an agreement allowing the students back into the university buildings, though it took 13 months for it to be implemented. Unfortunately, by this time the violence between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the police was escalating out of control. Violence began to overtake the resistance movement.

AFTER THE MARCH 1998 massacre in Drenica in which more than 80 Kosovar Albanians were killed, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, again calling on the international community to intervene before Kosovo exploded into war. In a single day 100,000 people marched through the streets of Pristina carrying candles and pictures of Mother Teresa, many of them attending an interfaith service for the victims of the Drenica massacre at Pristina’s Catholic church. Another day, on a very cold morning, 20,000 women carried bread 30 miles from Pristina to Drenica to feed the thousands of refugees who had fled into the mountains because Serb authorities were not allowing them to receive food or medicine. The International Red Cross received death threats for trying to get medical assistance into the area.

During this time there were also large-scale nonviolent demonstrations in Serbia proper. In the winter of 1996, the Serbian opposition coalition to Milosevic won mayoral elections in Belgrade and in a majority of cities in Serbia. When Milosevic did not acknowledge these victories, 1.5 million Serbs took to the streets to demand that their candidates be allowed to take office. They demonstrated in the bitter cold for 87 days in a nonviolent manner before Milosevic finally gave in.

Unfortunately, there was no strong support from the international community for either the nonviolent movement of the Albanians or the Serbian democratic movement. It was not until the KLA began killing Serb police and the Serb police and military stepped up their terror that the international community finally began to take notice. The violence by the KLA and the Serb police and military, along with the NATO bombing, has driven the broad-based nonviolent and democratic forces in both Kosovo and Serbia to the sidelines, where they are struggling to recover.

The international community must be concerned about oppression and dictatorship and apartheid and ethnic cleansing. But we must learn not to deal with fire by pouring on gasoline; we must understand how to deal with violence without inflicting more violence. The international community must learn the importance of responding to nonviolent movements before the situation escalates into violence and war as it has in Kosovo.

There are presently nonviolent movements in Tibet, Burma, East Timor, Tabasco and Chiapas in Mexico, and many other places. People of faith, the peace community, and governments need to acknowledge and support these nonviolent movements. We must listen to the concerns, needs, and problems these activists are presenting.

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, learn about their needs, and help amplify their voices to the rest of the world. We can accompany them when they request our presence as we did with Witness for Peace in Nicaragua. We can work to bring moral, social, economic, and political pressure to bear as we did successfully in South Africa.

If the world can learn this crucial lesson, the courageous and determined nonviolent movement of the Kosovars will not have been in vain.

DAVID HARTSOUGH is a member of the San Francisco Friends Meeting and is the executive director of Peaceworkers. In March 1998 Hartsough was one of six Americans arrested in Kosovo by the Serb police while supporting the nonviolent movement. He was jailed and later expelled from the country.

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