Demaci spent 28 years in various prisons in former Yugoslavia for his passionate advocacy of Kosovo Albanian rights, later becoming a symbol of the national independence struggle – despite this, he remained a sworn opponent of the politics of revenge and national hatred.
Adem Demaci was born in August 1935 in Prishtina, in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. As a result of tough living conditions and lack of healthcare, of the seven children, only three survived. Unsure whether Adem would also survive, his parents did not even register his birth until February 26, 1936, six months later.
Demaci started elementary school in Prishtina during the Italian occupation of 1941 to 1943, continued it under German rule in 1944 and finished elementary school in 1946, now in communist Yugoslavia. By 1953 in Prishtina, he had graduated from high school.
As a high school student, aged 17, Demaci got some of his short stories published in the Rilindja newspaper and in magazines Jeta e re and Zani i Rinise. When he finished secondary school, Demaci registered for a World Literature degree at the University of Belgrade. But at the end of his fifth term, Demaci’s mother fell seriously ill. He was forced to interrupt his studies and return to Prishtina. There he started work as a literary editor for Rilindja.
From 1953 to 1958, Demaci confirmed his reputation as a writer of short stories. Kthimi, or ‘The Return,’ one of his best-known stories of that time, was a denouncement of the deportation of Kosovo Albanians to Turkey.
In the first half of 1958, he published his first novel, The Serpents of Blood, which was the first Albanian-language novel published in Kosovo. In it, Demaci attacked the blood feud tradition, summarizing his ideas in the dedication, “not to those who would bravely pull a trigger for crime, but to those who bravely offer a hand for reconciliation.”
Although not a member of any illegal organization at the time, on November 19, 1958, Demaci was arrested for “hostile propaganda against the regime of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.”
After his arrest, the distribution of his novel was prohibited. Years later, The Serpents of Blood started to circulate among students and activists in illegal movements, often bearing the cover of the novel The Bridge over the Drina, by the famous Yugoslav author Ivo Andric.
In detention, Demaci told the investigating authorities that his group of friends had agreed on the need to form an illegal organization, but said that the establishment of such an organization had been prevented by his own arrest. He admitted that the main aim of the organization would be to hinder the forced deportation of Albanians to Turkey, stop the campaign of collecting people’s arms and the imprisonment and punishment of a range of student groups.
On March 17, 1959, Demaci was declared guilty by the District Court in Prishtina and sentenced to five years heavy imprisonment. On June 9, 1959, the Supreme Court of Serbia reduced the sentence to three years, however.
A few days later, Demaci was locked up in the Belgrade Central Prison, and, hours later, was sent to the Sremska Mitrovica prison in Vojvodina, built during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where he would spend the rest of his sentence. Demaci was set to work in the production of heavy vehicle wheel rims. Later, he was sent to work in the kitchen.
Two years after his release, on November 28, 1963, Demaci founded an illegal organization with a group of friends, the Revolutionary Movement for the Albanian Unity, LRBSh.
Its goal was “ensuring the right to self-determination, even to the point of full secession, for areas with majority Albanian populations that lie within the Yugoslav administration.” To achieve this, the LRBSh stated that it would “use all means and resources possible, from politics and propaganda to armed warfare and widespread popular resistance.”
LRBSh members on April 12, 1964, flew 99 Albanian flags in the main streets of Kosovo’s towns and cities. In every city where the action was carried out, activists also wrote the slogan: “Long live Albania, our mother” on walls.
On June 8, 1964, two months after the flag action, more than 300 members of the LRBSh were arrested. After a trial in Prishtina, held from August 27 to 31, 1964, Demaci was jailed for 15 years. Around 100 other activists were jailed for four to 13 years. Some 200 other members were released after a few months.
Demaci spent the first four-and-a-half months of his prison sentence in Nis. He was then sent to the prison in Pozarevac, Zabela, where he spent nearly a year in solitary confinement, in a cell full of bedbugs, that he gradually started to befriend. As well as having to share his cell with non-political prisoners and endure prolonged solitary confinement, Demaci also had to do heavy labor. At first he was sent to make models for melting metal plates, and later he was allocated to a group fitting stoves with kerosene.
As well as crooks and ardent nationalists, Demaci recalled meeting principled prisoners like the dissident Mihajlo Mihajlov, who had been jailed for trying to publish an opposition newspaper, and the Serbian cinematic director Lazar Stojanovic, jailed for mocking President Tito in his film, Plastic Jesus Christ.
In September 1969, in the Pozarevac Prison, Demaci wrote a play titled Popu, a word he made up by amalgamating the Albanian words politika – politics – and pushka – gun. A friend sneaked the manuscript out of the prison for him. In this play, Demaci described the struggles of the Albanians in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in the first quarter of the last century. It was his only opportunity to write in prison in all his 28 years he spent there.
Demaci credited the LRBSh with helping to overthrow Yugoslavia’s Serbian Vice President Aleksandar Rankovic in 1966, as well as the adoption of legal amendments that gave Albanian the status of an official language in Kosovo, alongside Serbian. Kosovo Albanians were also now allowed to fly the Albanian flag. Around this time, the sentences of ethnic Albanian political prisoners were reviewed, and Demaci’s own sentence was reduced from 15 to 10 years.
On November 27, 1968, demonstrations took place in a number of cities in Kosovo, demanding that Kosovo become a fully fledged Yugoslav republic, instead of a province.
On February 21, 1974, the new Yugoslav constitution gave Kosovo and Vojvodina, the two autonomous provinces of the Republic of Serbia, a status almost the same as that of the six Yugoslav republics. Three-and-a-half months after the adoption of the new constitution, on June 8, 1974, Demaci was freed from prison for the second time.
In the ten years spent in prison for his second sentence, Demaci realized that he had been wrong to believe that Albanian national unification could be achieved with the help of one of the two major powers of the communist world, China and Russia.
Initially, he thought that the union of Albanian lands could occur with the help of the USSR, which at that time fiercely condemned Tito’s Yugoslavia for political ‘revisionism’ of communism. He lost confidence when he realised that Russia itself oppressed many people within the USSR, and he withdrew his opinion completely in 1968, after the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia.
He also hung his hopes on China, which launched its own anti-Yugoslav propaganda at the time. But in prison for the second time, when he had plenty of time to read and keep up to date, he realized that he was wrong in his assessment of both Russia and China. He now started to think that unification might not be the only solution, since such a project would not win any strong support globally.
However, Demaci said also that while the 1974 Constitution granted Kosovo Albanians some rights, the problem was that these rights could be violated or withdrawn at any time. According to him: “The majority of the Albanian leadership were ready, as was later proved, to blindly implement any order that came from Serbia and Yugoslavia. The only difference was that now these people spoke Albanian. The results achieved during this time were not due to them, but to the students, the workers and the intellectuals.”
In 1975, Tito visited Kosovo and told the Kosovo leadership to arrest members of embryonic illegal Albanian organizations. The Yugoslav authorities compiled a list of the 19 people who should be arrested as a preventive measure. Demaci was duly arrested on October 6, 1975. So, from June 8, 1974 to October 6, 1975, Demaci was out of prison for only 15 months.
The Prishtina District Court’s accusation against Demaci was that, after he left prison for the second time, he met with other accused people and that, together, they planned drafting the statute for an illegal organization.
Demaci spoke about the principles of territorial organization and appointed leaders of groups, and himself as the main leader. On February 1, 1976 ,the trial began, and on February 7 the court sentenced the 19 accused: Demaci was sentenced to 15 years in prison, while the others were given terms of four to 12 years.
Demaci did not even know most of the 19 accused. It was for this reason that during the trial he said to the bench: “I did not commit any of the offenses with which I am charged. I haven’t spoken to any one of the defendants about any organization. You are not convicting me because I have committed an offence, but because of my political opinions. I am for Albania. Yugoslavia is holding on to Kosovo unjustly. By dividing the Albanian people in two, Yugoslavia is damaging its own chances of improvement and of building its socialism.”
On the subject of his third conviction, much later, after he was released from prison, Demaci said: “The third conviction was fixed. The first time they arrested me for propaganda, the second time it was for setting up an organization. I admit these charges. The third time they convicted me without being guilty of anything. They brought in front of the judge people who I’d never seen and didn’t know at all. The judgment was shameful. A real comedy. I was a victim. But without victims, you don’t get anywhere. I accepted that role. On the other hand, I am happy that it was me that Serbian colonialism selected to break, because I know that I am unbreakable. They created a martyr of me.”
Demaci spent the first nine months or so of his third sentence in Prishtina Prison. Later, they sent him by night to the Belgrade Central Prison, and the next day he set off for Zagreb. From there, he was sent to Stara Gradiska in Croatia, where he spent the rest of his third sentence. Stara Gradiska was known as one of the harshest prisons in Yugoslavia. The penitentiary, built on the banks of the Sava River, was in a marshy, damp region. Much of the time, the place was in fog. At the beginning of his time there, Demaci worked in the carpentry department. He then wove chairs with twine made from spun fibres. Nearing the end of his prison term, he was allocated to a job assembling pens.
On June 2, 1978, the humanitarian organization Amnesty International declared its plan to adopt Demaci as a prisoner of conscience. Amnesty does not adopt any prisoner who has used or endorsed violence for the realization of their aims. Demaci claimed he did not use violence – but was fully aware that things would never be settled with Serbia without violence. After Amnesty, a range of other international organizations demanded freedom for Demaci, including the PEN writers’ associations, and even the Serbian PEN association.
In the last years of his stay in prison, Demaci gave some interviews for Serbian and Croation newspapers. In one for Vecernji List on March 24, 1989, Demaci praised Albania’s leader, Enver Hoxha: “In 40 years, he managed to transform Albania from the least developed country in Europe into a country that can be celebrated. For that, I respect him as the greatest son of the Albanian people. He was a brilliant leader who, of course, also made mistakes, but none of them were strategic.”
After visiting Albania, Demaci claimed that while he knew that supporting Hoxha was futile, he kept his photograph in his house and talked about him in superlatives to prevent any possible confrontations with Albania, which he was trying to unite with Kosovo. In reality, he continued: “we were trying to achieve a union with Albania because we didn’t know what the situation was like there, and it was a very good thing that we didn’t know because if we had, we wouldn’t have done anything at all.”
Years after he left prison, Demaci said Hoxha’s appetite for power at any price, his initial dependence on Yugoslavia, then on the Soviet Union, and later on China, as well as his opposition to the West, wrecked the chances of union for the Albanian people, showing that Hoxha loved power more than the fundamental interests of the Albanian people.
On April 21, 1990, the Yugoslav leadership freed Demaci, five-and-a-half months before his full sentence had expired, although he had asked not to be freed a single day early. In his first public statement, he replied to journalists, curious about how he felt to be free: “Since April 21, 1990, I have been in the largest prison in the world and the largest known to mankind – the prison called Kosovo, where a hegemonistic regime has deprived two million Albanians in Kosovo of their fundamental human rights.”
In December 1991, he was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, established by the European Parliament in December 1988 to recognize individuals or organizations whose life and work is dedicated to human rights and freedoms. In his speech upon receiving the prize, Demaci said: “I am sorry that I am not lucky enough to be able to say a single happy word about the place that is still called Yugoslavia. In Kosovo, with the harshest possible violence, the Serbian authorities are cutting one of the vital arteries of the Albanian people, completely and mercilessly ruining and tearing apart the political, informational, educational, health, cultural, financial, economic and legal system. The whole of Kosovo has been transformed into a mega-prison, where Albanians do not enjoy even the slightest physical or legal security.”
From 1991 to 1996, Demaci was the leader of the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms. In 1993, the Club of University Rectors in Madrid awarded him the Special Prize for Peace against Racism and Xenophobia, awarded to personalities who take a peaceful and tolerant stance and are committed to building a future based on human rights and cultural diversity.
In February 1994, five members of the Norwegian parliament nominated Demaci for the Nobel Prize for Literature, while in September he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On December 14, 1995, Demaci was given the Leo Eitinger Prize for Human Rights by Oslo University. This prize is awarded to people committed to human rights in the name of the Norwegian psychiatrist Leo Eitinger who spent his life promoting human rights and the battle against injustice and racism.
In this time of great struggle and tension, when he talked about Serbs in public appearances, Demaci often used the description, “our brothers, the Serbian people,” or “the heroic Serbian people.” People accused him of not seeing what Serbia was doing to Kosovo Albanians and to others in Yugoslavia.
Demaci replied that he was well aware of the terror that was being waged against the Albanians, but considered that the Serbian people were being manipulated by the authorities and that a whole people should not be identified with any political class in power.
“For me, all people are good. There are no bad people. Those bad things that are being done to us today are being done by the Serbian authorities, who could do the same thing to their own people,” he said.
“So we should make a distinction between the Serbian people and the class in power. Albanians shouldn’t muddle these up, even though I understand those who aren’t in a position to make the distinction, because this terror being exercised by the Serbian authorities has no equal in the recent history of mankind.”
He also commended Serbian intellectuals who were “bold enough to find ways to articulate their opposition to Serbian authorities: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milan Nikolic, Zagorka Golubovic, Srdjan Popovic, Lazar Stojanovic.”
“For me, these are the true sons of the Serbian people,” he added.
Many well-wishers commented that if he continued with such descriptions of the Serbs, he would lose the capital he had accumulated with the Albanians. Demaci replied that he did not want “capital’ based on hatred. “It’s not acceptable for those who have served the Yugoslav authorities to stop me, I who have been against the Yugoslav authorities all my life, from using phrases like ‘our brothers, the Serbian people,’” Demaci said.
He added: “I don’t think that my people are an ideal people, a chosen people, who don’t do things that others do. Albanians haven’t done what Serbia is doing because they have never been in a position to do so. They have always been occupied, have always been oppressed.”
Immediately after release from prison, he declared that he would be on the side of all those who were in danger, no matter what this might cost.
“I might go to prison. I could even die, not because I love Serbs and Montenegrins more, but because I love Albanians very much. I am against the idea of revenge, because I have plenty of scores to settle, but I don’t want to settle them. I want to turn my back on revenge.”
Demaci considered that the greatest victory of the Albanian people in recent times was that they had managed to restrain themselves from revenge, regardless of the reprisals and killings.
Just out of prison, Demaci refused to join any political party, saying that he had no ambition for political office and would be politically engaged only while the will of Yugoslavia’s Albanians was not respected: “I have no desire to sit back in an armchair. I am ready to be sacrificed for the people. I consider this a pleasure, not a duty.”
In 1993, interviewed on BK television in Belgrade, he stressed that as a man of peace, he was against war, but that if Serbia threatened Kosovo with war, it would lose. Be aware, said Demaci, that Albanians are not a cowardly people who do not know how to fight.
In the mid-1990s, Demaci started to criticize the pacifist stance of the Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova and to urge Albanians to mobilize and show the world that they were ready to roll up their sleeves and take their freedom. Not with armed combat, Demaci clarified, because this would suit Serbia fine: he wanted Kosovo to start a war with the resources that would least suit Belgrade – with a powerful daily political struggle.
He proposed active peaceful resistance: workers returning to their factories and teachers and pupils to schools from which they had been expelled; likewise, professors and students back to their faculties; doctors to the hospitals; journalists to the television stations, radio and newspapers, and others in the same way.
According to Demaci, the destiny of the Albanians was in their own hands. Demaci called for a review of their political aims, based on the independence of Kosovo. According to him, this independence should have an annex, envisaging that immediately after winning its independence, Kosovo would begin negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro for the creation of a Balkan federal community, which he called Balkania.
At the beginning of May 1998, as violence worsened in Kosovo, the Serbian-language Voice of America set up a telephone call between Demaci, as head of the Kosovo Parliamentary Party, and Vuk Draskovic, head of the opposition Movement for Serbian Renewal. In the debate, Draskovic argued that, “terrorists don’t cross from Serbia to Albania; in fact exactly the opposite is true.” Demaci retorted: “Serbia doesn’t need to train terrorists, because the Serbian state itself is terrorist.” He continued: “We should start from God’s instruction, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you.’”
Draskovic insisted that Kosovo “will never be out of Serbia. When Kosovo is at stake, there is no force on earth or the heavens strong enough to force the Serbs to withdraw from their position.”
Demaci asked Draskovic not to use the word “never” in such discussions. “Be careful what you say!” he said.
“My people and I will remember very clearly what you’re saying – ‘never!’ The Albanians don’t ask for anything more than what the Serbian people want. If you say ‘never’ to the Albanians, then you will ‘never’ be at peace. You will always carry that weight around your neck. I beg you to back down from that word, ‘never.’ You can’t deceive us any more. You can’t frighten us any more. You can’t subdue us any more.”
After all-out war erupted in Kosovo in 1998, in August Demaci was appointed General Political Representative of Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA. Demaci agreed to withdraw his personal vision for a Balkan federation, while the KLA abandoned its demand for the union of all the fragmented Albanian territories in the Balkans. They agreed to work toward an independent and sovereign Kosovo in accordance with the will of the people of Kosovo, as was expressed in the unofficial 1991 referendum.
Demaci refused to participate in the internationally sponsored Rambouillet Conference in 1999 because in it envisaged only autonomy for Kosovo, and not independence, within a Serb-led Yugoslavia. The US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright contacted Demaci by phone and asked him to persuade KLA leader Hashim Thaci to sign the Rambouillet Agreement. “Give Thaci your blessing. If you don’t give it, the agreement’s failure will follow you like a shadow while ordinary Albanians continue to be killed,” she warned.
Demaci said that he replied: “We are grateful for your efforts, but we don’t want to be hurried. If it’s necessary for 30,000 Albanians to die, let them die, but we will not hand over our weapons on the basis of only promises. We will never give up our dream of being free.”
Albright then produced an argument which Demaci considered did not hold water. “Serbia is strong and is killing you and destroying you.” Demaci responded: “We didn’t start the war to see whether we could win it; we started it to win it. We are not going to surrender without freedom.”
Demaci recalled when NATO started its bombing campaign. He went out onto the streets of Prishtina three times a day and was stopped more than once by Serbian/Yugoslav forces. “I wanted them to kill me, convinced that if they killed me then the bloody nature of the Yugoslav regime would be better understood,” he said.
He continued: “They were clever and didn’t kill me, because they didn’t want my death to add even more desire for revenge among the Albanians.”
Demaci said that he felt sorry that after Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo, after the end of the war, his own chances of martyrdom for the cause also came to an end.
After the war, Demaci was director of the Committee for Understanding, Tolerance and Cohabitation within the CDHRF. He visited almost every place where ethnic minorities were living in Kosovo, encouraging them to stay, and calling on Albanians not to attack them.
“The Serbian people are a freedom-loving people and I respect that greatly, but the truth about Albanians is hidden from the Serbian people,” he said.
“Every evil that befalls the Serbian people pains me, just as the evil which befalls the Albanian people pains me, because first and foremost I am a human being and then, quite by chance, I am an Albanian. I am now on the side of the Serbs because they are the weaker party,” he added.
“I am thinking about the future and I don’t want my people to live in enmity with the Serbian people. I wouldn’t want my people to be remembered as one who did terrible things.”
After the war, Demaci gave many interviews. In one of them, while speaking about the Serbian minority in Kosovo and the relationship between Serbs and Albanians, he said: “The Serbs in Kosovo are in a bad way, and the majority of them are in a bad way through no fault of their own. I am very sorry for the killings that happened to the innocent Serbs… My mission is to be on the side of the weak. When recently in Kosovo, in front of ten thousand Albanians, I said ‘Now it’s time to protect the Serbs,’ there was hissing immediately. I replied ‘You are hissing me, but I still love you, because you are doing this out of ignorance.’ At that moment they started applauding, because they knew who I was, but I had touched a nerve, asking them to forget the past.”
Demaci called on the Serbs to risk walking freely on the streets, and for brave people to take the lead. He gave himself as an example, going out every day during the war onto the streets of Prishtina while people were being killed. “I walked about freely because I wanted to be free. I wouldn’t accept living like a mouse in a hole. For as long as I live I want to live like a lion. When I have to die, I’ll die. Many Albanians told me not to go out, because the situation was bad, but I went out and I went out again. If there were Serbs who wanted to kill me, I said let them kill me, because I wouldn’t sell my freedom for any price.”
In November 2001, parliamentary and presidential elections were held in Kosovo. Demaci refused to take part. He gave as his reason that real power in Kosovo would remain with the UN authority, UNMIK, which had been appointed to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1244, one aim of which was to protect the overall sovereignty of former Yugoslavia.
Demaci was also against the elections because, in his opinion, Kosovo did not yet have a well-formed political class, only groups that were trying to benefit materially from the chaos. He added that it would take years to create an intellectual political class that would be in a position to form a government for the country.
Demaci directed harsh criticism towards the international community in Kosovo, saying UNMIK treated Kosovo as the object and Serbia as the subject, working together with the latter to return Kosovo to Serbia’s control.
After the war, Demaci wrote frequently. Since 1999, he had been preparing two works that have still not been published, Face to face with the KLA and Albanians between America and Europe.
In 2003, he published a political poem, Hello, my verse. In 2005, in Tirana, the Albanian Esperanto Institute published a volume of interviews with Demaci, titled Kosovo at the crossroads. In 2006, the novel Heli and Mimoza was published; a year later, the autobiographical novel Filan’s quantum love was brought out, and in 2008 the novel Albi Prometheus.
In 2009, the novel Mother Shega and the five girls was published, which was the sequel to the novel Heli and Mimoza. Immediately after this, he began preparing the third in the trilogy under the title Cinders and love.
In 2006, Demaci joined the Vetevendosje [Self-determination] movement, opposing the negotiations with Serbia on Kosovo’s status. Demaci thought: why should Kosovo negotiate with Serbia, which had killed thousands of innocent people, deported around a million people from the country, destroyed around 120,000 homes and raped hundreds of women?
In Demaci’s opinion, the resolution of Kosovo’s status should respect the will of the people, and to resolve something like this, the right mechanism was a referendum. In his opinion, the international community in Kosovo had selected people who had shown themselves ready to give away Kosovo’s land, while in Serbia there was a problem finding the right people. Demaci considered that the international community’s real aim, in the name of the rights of minorities, was to allow Serbia to form a mini-state that was purely ethnically Serb in the heart of Kosovo.
On February 2, 2007, after months of negotiations, Finnish UN negotiator Martti Ahtisaari sent a document to Belgrade and Prishtina in which he set out a basis for the future of Kosovo as a multi-ethnic society in which all communities could live safely.
Demaci said the Comprehensive Proposal drafted by Ahtisaari would free Kosovo from Serbia, but also made power of the Serbian minority over the Albanian majority possible, because two-thirds of Serb representatives in the Kosovo Assembly could block any law. Demaci added that the proposal thus enabled Serbia to meddle in Kosovo under the pretext of supporting local Serbs. In Demaci’s opinion, in the name of defending the Serb minority, Serbia would be able to take control of parts of Kosovo, turning it into the Palestine of the Western Balkans.
In November 2007, parliamentary elections were held, in which Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, came out ahead. PDK entered into a governing coalition with the Democratic League of Kosova, LDK. Thaci took the position of prime minister, while Fatmir Sejdiu took that of president.
On February 17, 2008, the Kosovo Assembly declared Kosovo an independent and sovereign state in full accordance with the Comprehensive Proposal drafted by Ahtisaari. As a guest of the Assembly, Demaci took part in the Declaration of Independence. Since then, Kosovo has been recognized by many countries in the world.
On April 29, 2008, the government, led by Thaci, declared Demaci a symbol of Kosovo’s independence for the contribution he had made through his years of activism. The prime minister declared that Demaci would from now on be looked after by the country’s institutions, offering him a special pension, a car and a driver. The house where the KLA Office in Prishtina had been located was declared a museum. In 2010, Demaci received the ‘Hero of Kosovo’ order from the president.
The original article was published in Balkan Insight.