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New Series no.11/12 August - November 1999
The Trepca Mine is Ours!

Interview with Bajram Mustafa, engineer and union leader at the Mitrovice mine in Kosova

The independent miners' union at Trepca in Kosova has played a leading part in the struggle against the Milosevic regime for several years. Now the union has run on to another shoal: KFOR. In an appeal posted on the website of Le Courrier des Balkans, the union's top leader says that `French KFOR troops have occupied our mines and smelting plants; and these troops are preventing our access to the mine' (in which ICTY investigators suspected the presence of mass graves).

In an interview with Le Courrier des Balkans, Bajram Mustafa, an engineer and union leader at the Mitrovice mine in Kosova, tells the story of the mine and its struggles. Bajram Mustafa was scheduled to take part in a meeting in Paris on 18 September organized by Workers' Aid for Kosova, where he hoped in particular to describe the attitude of the French troops at Mitrovice. He was unable to attend, the French authorities having refused to give him a visa. He had applied for one at the French embassy in Skopje. At first he was told that his visa was in the pipeline but would take a little longer than expected. Then after two successive delays he was told his request had been refused. The reason might be disclosed if he made an application in writing.

This interview was conducted in London. Bajram did not get a visa to enter France.

Could you introduce yourself?

I'm 44 years old. My father is a stonemason and my mother was a housewife. I have two sisters, one brother, two half-brothers and a half-sister.

As a child I worked hard at school. That's how I got a scholarship to read engineering at the University of Prishtina. For the eleven years between 1978 and 1989 I worked in the mine as a maintenance engineer. All my friends were in the union. It made sense for me to join too. In any case in Tito's Yugoslavia all employees were unionised. In 1989 the miners went on strike and occupied the deep levels of the mine. The special police were there for three days and I refused to help them expel the miners. I was sacked. I found work at the [clandestine] university of Mitrovice as an assistant professor. Since then I have become a full professor.

What links are there between the national question and the social question?

In the union we didn't want to get involved in politics. But the regime forced us to. The new constitution promulgated in 1974 gave Kosova a new status: it was given the same rights as a republic, albeit remaining part of Serbia. So in the seventies when I was at school and university the local education system, for example, was completely controlled by Kosova itself. But in 1981 tension between Serbs and Albanians grew more intense. There were demonstrations, the police and army fired into crowds, there were dead and injured. People started demanding that Kosova become a fully-fledged Yugoslav republic.

On the other side the Serbs, claiming to be victims of `genocide', started a battle to overturn the province's autonomous status. There was a hysterical campaign. Segregatory laws were established: Albanians were prevented from buying agricultural land, flats or houses that had formerly belonged to Serbs. In 1987 Milosevic visited Prishtina. There were street incidents while he was holding a meeting with the leadership of the Kosova League of Communists. That was when Milosevic emerged from the meeting to announce that no one had a right to beat Serbs, and that the Serbian battle for the reconquest of Kosova had begun. In 1988 the miners at Trepca organized a march over 12 kilometres by 1,000 miners (the rest were in the pits). And the local population joined it. People wanted to stay in Yugoslavia, but they wanted the rights of a republic. We wanted control of our own destiny. People chanted `Tito! Tito!' and `Yugoslavia! Yugoslavia!' We wanted equal rights.

In 1989, from 20 to 28 February, 2,000 miners held a hunger strike in the depths of the mine, 550m down. They were asking for Kosova to be placed under UN protection. The authorities pretended to give way, but when the miners came up and emerged they were seized and arrested.

The entire population mobilised to demand the release of the miners รพ there were as many as 5,000 arrests. But in March Serbia abrogated the autonomous status of Kosova.

A year later, on 28 February 1990, it was decided to establish an independent miners' union, and in June of that year the independent unions of Kosova formed a federation.

In 1990, on 8 August, the Serbian authorities closed the mine and barred the miners from it. On 3 September there was a general strike and 170,000 Albanians were sacked from their jobs for striking.

What are the operating principles of the independent miners' union?

The union has 1,400 members. There are two types of activity:

  • protecting social ownership of the mine;
  • helping the miners and their families to survive.

When the NATO bombing started we believed that we would be able to get back into the mine and resume work. But KFOR (French troops in the case of Mitrovice) is stopping us from re-entering the mine on the grounds that its juridical status is unclear. We registered this argument, but asked permission for a team of five or six miners to go down the pits. We wanted to assess their condition and establish how much would have to be done to get them back in production.

Since we haven't been allowed down the mine we don't know whether the rumoured mass graves are there or not.

What are your prospects?

The miners are fighting and want to fight. The mine is theirs. They want to inspect it and they want to work in it. They need wages to live on.

Translated from Libération (Paris), 19 October 1999.

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