Longform | Education

The rector who wouldn’t give up on the future

By - 19.10.2020

Remembering Ejup Statovci — jurist, professor, visionary.

On an April day in 1940, a humble farming family in Prugovc welcomed their sixth child into the world. They had no idea at the time, but the newborn would go on to become the most renowned person to emerge from this small village in the northeastern corner of Kosovo, then part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia

He would grow up thirsty for knowledge, which he’d absorb with great vigor throughout the years, and as he settled into his middle age, he’d share his wisdom with a whole people.

Ejup Statovci was a child of few words. He would remain that way his whole life, preferring to bury himself in books and steadily embracing the credo that his work would speak for itself. And his work has indeed spoken volumes. 

From his days as a law professor, to drafting legal objections to changes to the Serbian Constitution that would withdraw Kosovo’s hard-won autonomy within socialist Yugoslavia, to the pinnacle of his life’s work: playing a crucial role in keeping Albanian language education afloat as the rector of the underground University of Prishtina that operated in the bleak and uncertain decade leading up to the war in 1999.

Many of those who weren’t old enough to remember those times could perhaps identify Statovci from a famous image taken on the streets of Velania, Prishtina, on October 1, 1997. Hands in the pockets of his long, gray overcoat, he is seen between four young students, in the front row of thousands of protesters in the demonstration that would mark the end of the years of Kosovar Albanians’ peaceful resistance against Slobodan Milošević’s regime.

Others may recall some vague familiarity with the name through passing references in their studies, or from news stories of his former students — many now politicians — paying homage on anniversaries of the 1997 protest, or of his death.  

But for a man whose legacy is one that could inspire generations to come, two decades after his passing, generations are growing up knowing little of the university rector who was at the very heart of a pivotal time in Kosovo’s recent history. 

A walk around the main University of Prishtina campus today reveals not even the most modest testimonial; no memorial bench for the students that he so adored to sit and reflect, nor a tree planted in his memory to provide them with a little shade. 

Just across the street, unmarked, is the unassuming family apartment from which Statovci resumed his professional duties after being expelled from the Law Faculty by the Serbian regime at the start of the ’90s, and where his widowed wife still lives.

To find out more about the leader of the peaceful movement to take back the Albanian language university at the end of the ’90s, K2.0 spoke to many of those closest to him and turned to archives of his interviews and published works.

Unchained melody

The youngest of six children, Statovci — alongside his three older sisters and two older brothers — was raised by his mother. In the aftermath of World War II when he was just 5 years old, his father, a mejtep teacher who secretly taught his students in Albanian, died*.

His childhood years coincided with the bleak Aleksandar Ranković era in Kosovo. After the war and until the mid-’60s, Yugoslavia’s deputy prime minister upheld Serbian minority control in the province through repressive policies toward the Albanian population, carried out by the secret police force. 

Statovci went to primary school in the nearby village of Besi, before leaving home as a teenager to start at the Normale pedagogical academy (a type of high school at the time) in Prishtina.

“He was the only one [of his siblings] to branch off, the youngest, in a situation where his family didn’t have much wealth or well-being — he was supposed to work, to take care of the lands,” explains his first-born, Anila. “At that time, as a part of the labor force he left them, but on the flipside he didn’t burden them and they did not have any great worries for him since he got his education through scholarships.”

A career in music may perhaps have offered Statovci more glory or prestige, but he didn’t care about any of that.

After finishing Normale in 1960, he worked briefly as a teacher in Besi village before registering as a student in Zagreb, Croatia. It was a moment that, at just 20 years of age, would shape his life. 

“He played the violin and wanted to undertake music studies,” Anila recalls, hinting at his deep connection with music that formed a constant theme in his life.

In Zagreb, he would have the chance to see his first opera, which he enjoyed so much that he became a regular visitor, his second-born daughter, Brikena, remembers him telling her. “He was a fan of operas; even in Prishtina, those few theatrical performances, whatever there was, concerts, he used to always visit them,” she says.

A career in music may perhaps have offered Statovci more glory or prestige, but he didn’t care about any of that.

“When he got further in the application process, the scholarship he was offered was for legal studies, and so he switched to law,” Anila explains. 

And so began what would turn out to become a lifelong career in legal studies.

A pivotal period

It was around this time that a series of developments began to shape the young academic’s future on both a professional and personal level.

After completing his undergraduate studies at Zagreb’s Faculty of Law in 1966, Statovci returned to Prishtina and worked in accounting for a short period, before taking a job in the Provincial Finance Secretariat as a legal official for property relations. In that decision would lay the foundations of his professional and academic profilization in civil law, a subject that he stayed passionate about and advanced through an extensive range of theoretical work published in Prishtina, Zagreb, Belgrade and beyond.

Two years later, he started working as a teaching assistant in the Law and Economics Faculty in Prishtina — at the time not yet a university of its own — and simultaneously registered for postgraduate law studies back in Zagreb. 

The start of his academic career coincided with the 1968 wave of student protests in Kosovo and globally. This marked the first student protests by Kosovar Albanians, who at the time were requesting, among other things, their own university and constitution within Yugoslavia.

This was also a pivotal time for Statovci on a personal level. 

In 1969, the same year that the law that would form the University of Prishtina was issued, a 29-year-old Ejup Statovci met his future wife, Drita Halimi. She was working as an Albanian and Serbian languages interpreter at the Provincial Council and also getting ready to start her postgraduate studies in Elements of Regionalism.

“A colleague introduced us, very quickly we dated, very quickly we got engaged and got married. It was not long-term dating like the youth do today,” Drita recalls. “I had such a fate, the circumstances were like that, the moment was like that; within a month we were engaged and married, then we both continued working.”

Ejup Statovci completed his undergraduate and postgraduate legal studies in Zagreb, Croatia during the 1960s, a time of student protests around the world. Photo courtesy of the Statovci family’s private archives.

When asked what attracted her to him in those early days she tries to divert the topic, and answers pensively only after playful nudges from Anila and Brikena sitting either side of her. 

“His seriousness, certainly. We read each other’s characters and the nature of our thoughts,” she says. “His pedantry, strong character, accuracy — we’d set a time to meet and he’d never be more than 2-3 minutes late.”

They would go on to form a formidable partnership, with Drita not only pursuing her own academic career but also supporting Statovci as his “right arm” that helped in every realm of life. They would raise three children together, all girls.

Their first child, Anila, was born in 1970, the year when he started teaching three civil and property subjects in the newly-formed University of Prishtina. 

Over that first decade of married life, they really got to work. Both completed their PhDs, he in jurisprudence in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and she in social sciences in Zagreb. They had another daughter, Brikena, and with the help of their parents, managed to juggle their young family and their academic careers. 

“There weren’t many obstacles, or even there were many opportunities to help each other,” Drita recalls. “When I had my first two little girls, I would ask him to photocopy this and that for me [at the library].”

She reflects how their professional interests complemented each other, with his particular focus on property and social economics as a lawyer intertwining with her ethnologicial interests as an anthropologist. “That’s why our muhabet [communication within the relationship] went so well, because we could talk about the field and our research,” she says.

In the 1970s, as Kosovo was granted autonomous status within the Yugoslav Federation, Statovci completed his PhD and started lecturing civil law as an associate professor at the University of Prishtina. Meanwhile he went on several months-long study visits in renowned universities, such as those of Cambridge and Oxford in the UK. Drita would sometimes go with him, and occasionally they took one or both daughters along. 

Drita recalls the trips fondly, with her husband following his studies while she spent time in the library — so much richer than back home — researching literature for her own academic purposes. 

At the Law Faculty in Prishtina, Statovci began to gain a reputation among his students as the punctual and quiet professor with a serious zeal for education.

Erdogan Haxhibeqiri, one of Statovci’s students from the end of 1970s who is now a judge in Kosovo’s Supreme Court, remembers him fondly. 

“We never had to wait for the professor; sometimes he waited for the students, but not the other way around,” he says. “I had this affinity for criminal law at the beginning of my studies, but he gave me the will to orient myself more in the civil field, specifically in property rights. I have his complete literature [and I use it] whenever I need to orient myself to a problem that requires legal doctrine.”

With a burgeoning academic record, the professor was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in the U.S. and joined Harvard University for the 1979/80 academic year as a visiting scholar. 

Calm amidst the gathering gloom

While Statovci’s academic career was flourishing, back at home, persistent political and economic crises were already beginning to signal the slow and violent disintegration of the Yugoslav socialist federation that would follow over the next two decades. 

In 1981, Prishtina once again became the heart of popular outbursts as student protests spread throughout Kosovo, the culturally isolated and poor Yugoslav province with the highest proportion of both students and illiterates in the Federation at the time. 

What started out as a small protest for better quality food and living conditions in the Prishtina dormitories was forcefully dispersed by the police. But in the coming months, ruptures swept through Kosovo and increasingly took on demands for self-determination in a Kosovo Republic and some even for unification with Albania. 

Abdulla Aliu, Statovci’s close colleague whom he had chosen as his assistant in the mid-’70s, recalls that these more troubled times signalled the beginning of things to come for the now-regular law professor, as well as the majority of Kosovar Albanians.

“After the year ’81, after the demonstrations, difficulties began for Professor Statovci,” says Aliu, who would go on to become a respected law professor in his own right. “He was part of the political unorthodoxy at certain times, although he wasn’t very involved with politics and always had his own head; he usually dealt with the scientific aspect.”

Statovci had three daughters, Anila (bottom), Brikena (right) and Ardita (left). As a professor, and later as rector, he often spoke of the importance of girls receiving the same educational opportunities as boys. Photo: Tringë Sokoli / K2.0.

Amidst the gathering gloom, in 1982 Statovci became a parent for the third time with the birth of his youngest daughter, Ardita. 

She would ultimately become a classical pianist, trained in Austria, where she moved at the end of the 1990s. Anila recalls that her youngest sister’s career choice was “the fulfillment of a dream” for their father, given his own enthusiasm for music that he instilled in all of his daughters, whose concerts he tried to never miss. 

“Every day he played the piano, in a self-taught manner — it was somehow his meditation. The melodies he used to play were not written anywhere, they just sprang from within,” she reminisces. “He used to play for hours — half an hour certainly, up to an hour, until he elaborated all the thoughts in his head. This is how we interpreted it; it was his calmness.”

Besides all things music, his preferred activity to do with his children was to go and check out the bookshop in the center of town. “It was a very important activity for each of us to see if a new book had come out that we hadn’t read yet and to buy it,” Anila recalls. 

These trips happened regularly, and sometimes as a stroke of serendipity. 

“When he gave good grades, he rejoiced — he himself rejoiced, like a child. When he entered the house, [the girls] knew it, they saw it in his face: ‘Daddy, you gave good grades!’ they would guess, and then they would go together on a stroll,” Drita remembers.

“They would go to Elida [the sweet-shop inside the Palace of Youth and Sports] and then to the bookstores; they’d come home with 3-4 books each,” she says, her home still overflowing with books to this day. “And days later, he would still be saying, ‘How well [the student] knew [the material].’”

Working in the wings

As the last decade of the 20th century drew nearer, and with it the cruel end of Yugoslavia, Kosovo’s fate was on the brink. 

Nationalist Serbian politicians headed by the then leader of the Serbian Communist League, Slobodan Milošević, began to forewarn of the repression, bloodshed and ethnic cleansing that would ultimately follow. At the beginning of 1989, Milošević announced his intention to strip Kosovo of its autonomy as a province through amendments to the Constitution of Serbia. 

Kosovo erupted in protests. Then in February 1989, a month before delegates of the Kosovo Assembly would vote on Milošević’s proposals, more than 1,200 miners from the Trepça complex in Mitrovica staged an eight-day hunger strike.

Abdulla Aliu recalls that Professor Statovci, ever the institutionalist, tried to do his part to stop the constitutional amendments that he considered “a deprivation of autonomy” and “a curtailment of justice.” 

“He wrote a letter to the Assembly not to accept the constitutional amendments — not on his behalf, but on behalf of the Faculty of Law,” Aliu recalls. “As far as I know, a large number [of professors] signed it, though some may not have signed it.”

But on March 23, 1989**, with armed police officers and tanks surrounding the Kosovo Assembly building, the majority of deputies ended up voting in favor of the changes. It sparked further, bitter protests that still linger in Kosovo’s collective memory. 

Milošević would subsequently be elected president of Serbia, and in June that year gave his infamous speech in Gazimestan, doubling down on a hostile nationalist discourse and cementing the regime’s strategy of divide and conquer, both among Albanians, and between Albanians and Serbs. It was a precursor to further repression that would intensify in the following months and years and would ultimately signal the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia.

While the prospects for Albanians in Kosovo looked increasingly bleak, some, including Professor Statovci, hadn’t given up the fight for complete political and territorial independence from Serbia. 

On July 2, 1990, Kosovo Assembly delegates adopted a Constitutional Declaration, in a move that is widely considered to have represented the people’s will for a republic, and to have paved the way for further actions. Drita recalls that her husband was part of the group that compiled the Declaration. “When it was declared [in front of the Assembly building], Ejup Statovci was there but upstairs, with colleagues who had drafted the statement,” she says.

Images from Statovci’s personal copy of Përparimi journal.
Statovci meticulously updated his own published works.
Statovci meticulously updated his own published works.
Statovci meticulously updated his own published works.

A couple of months later, on September 7, delegates gathered clandestinely in the far south of Kosovo — the Serbian Assembly had dissolved the Kosovo Assembly back in July — and declared the Constitution of Kaçanik, which set out the formal basis around which many aspects of life in Kosovo under apartheid began to organize. 

Once again, Statovci was one of those who had helped to compile it behind the scenes. 

“I know that in the Constitution of Kaçanik they worked until late at night,” Drita recalls. “One night he came home at 2 a.m. and I told him, ‘Aman Ejup Statovci, do not wander at night — stay put where you are. Once the police catch you and…,’ and he just started laughing, and that was that.”

The process of drafting the Constitution was full of peril — not only for the people who were directly involved, but for those around them as well.

“There were hand-written parts [by Professor Statovci] that I took over myself,” Drita recalls. “I’d go out to the promenade as if for a stroll, with a girlfriend so as not to be found out, because it was horrible, you cannot imagine it. And slowly, under arm and under sleeve, I would pass on those papers to be added to the Constitution.”

Into the fray

Soon enough, Milošević’s regime in Kosovo would cease Albanian-language broadcasts, dismiss large numbers of Albanian civil servants and escalate the suppression of the Albanian population’s rights in a violent police state. Albanian students, professors and administrators were ejected from school buildings as the Belgrade-based regime brought in its own stooges to run institutions, including the university. 

Meanwhile Albanians would organize around the newly-formed Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) headed by Ibrahim Rugova, who embraced a policy of peaceful resistance. In a 1991 self-organized referendum in which the vast majority of Kosovar Albanians participated, around 90% voted for an independent Kosovo — Rugova became de-facto president, and a government in exile was formed.

In the midst of these developments, Professor Statovci was identified by the Serbian authorities as a potential troublemaker for the regime. They weren’t wrong.

“He was one of the first to be removed from the faculty as ‘inappropriate,’ then the process continued with the departure of others,” says his colleague Abdulla Aliu. “Soon, others got out and integrated in schooling outside public facilities.”

“It wasn’t like today. It was to accept the risk of the time for the interest of the students and the nation.”

Abdulla Aliu, Statovci's former colleague

There was a lot at stake, and much work to be done before the underground education system got up and running. Despite the personal risk, thousands rallied to the cause, offering up their garages, basements and living rooms in private homes as they improvised solutions to try and keep young people in some form of education.

Statovci was at the forefront of the efforts.

Brikena recalls how she was in the final year of high school in ’91-’92 when her regular classes were brought to an end. “For some months we didn’t hold lessons, and then my class started [to be held] in our apartment,” she says. 

Toward the end of 1991, as the parallel education system was beginning to take shape, the university held elections and Statovci decided to stand for the role of rector. He won, but it was a promotion that came fraught with personal risk. 

Aliu recalls that after the election, Statovci confided that he was disappointed for another close colleague who had also stood for the role.

“My words to him were: ‘This isn’t something that will serve you well; it will only bring you more problems, more grief. It’s an honor but you will have a lot of difficulties, so he will be happier than you,’” Aliu recalls. “It wasn’t like today. It was to accept the risk of the time for the interest of the students and the nation.”

“For now, the first urgent task is to put the university on its feet.”

Ejup Statovci, quoted in Bujku, 1991

One part of accepting that risk meant to make do for a while without any money to pay professors. Another came as he helped to set up a system to send medical students to Albania in order to provide them with practical experience that was hard to gain in the bare, makeshift classrooms and labs within private homes.

Meanwhile, Statovci simultaneously tried to walk the thin line of establishing an autonomous and parallel university in near impossible circumstances. It required the help of political leaders in the parallel institutions who enjoyed popular support and a mind of their own. But Statovci was adamant that the university must be independent and not subject to undue political interference.

“The university by nature does not tolerate an umbrella and does not want to be the extended hand of anyone. Gone with those times, right?” he said in an interview published in the Albanian newspaper Bujku on New Year’s Eve, 1991, just a month after he was elected rector. “Since the legal bodies of the university have been elected, only they can appear and speak on its behalf.”

In the same interview, when asked his opinion on university reforms across Europe and the wider world putting academic autonomy ahead of all else, he offered the sort of prescient answer that over time people grew to expect from him.

“For now, the first urgent task is to put the university on its feet. This will not be an easy task, we are clear about that,” he said. “But any construction in this plan, must as its foundations have the autonomy of the university. If built on other foundations, it would not withstand the time, nor pluralistic and democratic life.”

Just days later, on January 8, 1992, he sent a letter to the “Imposed Body in the Presidency of the University of Prishtina,” composed of two requests: to leave the university’s buildings, and to turn them back to the state they were in before Albanian students, teachers and administrators were forcefully expelled. 

What the letter would get him was arrested. 

A professor under pressure

For his family, that first arrest during a raid on their home has remained etched in their memory. Not least because as it was taking place, their father recognized one of the Serbian policemen as his former student. 

“They came early in the morning on a Saturday and woke us up with massive commotion; around 11 policemen,” says Brikena, who was a teenager at the time. “We got out of bed in our pajamas, and they wouldn’t allow us to move for several hours while they searched the whole house.”

Her mother, Drita, remembers a particular moment of that day.

“Ardita was not even 11 at the time, and he [one of the policemen] put his rifle to her throat. She was screaming and crying there in the room, the little girl that she was,” she recalls. “I moved her away, and told him, ‘This isn’t a place for you.’ He said to me: ‘To se tako radi, that’s how [raids are] done.’ And then his boss told him to leave it.”

They left with Statovci, as well as several books and manuscripts.

After each stint in prison he became even more determined to share the university’s plight with his colleagues around the world.

He was sentenced to 60 days in prison but initially released after 11 days, “due to diplomatic pressure” as he himself explained in a later fax to the rector of a university in Germany. A year later he was re-imprisoned, and this time they kept him for a month; in total, he was detained for 42 days of his original 60-day sentence.

It would not be the last time he would end up in prison. In 1994, the rector was arrested again and interrogated for two days, and over time the raids, detention and confiscation of his passport became a familiar pattern. 

After each stint in prison he became even more determined to share the university’s plight with his colleagues around the world — with diplomats, journalists and anyone else who would listen.

“We worked at home with him, we printed for him, we translated for him, we sent faxes and we received journalists and people who came to our house at that time,” Anila says. “We sent a fax of seven or eight pages, a piece where we explained the situation of the university, how it came to this, where we were at that point and what we wanted to do next.”

In that frantic time, he also put to use his main calling as a civil law professor specialized, among other things, in property law. In January 1993 he sued the Serbian Orthodox Church after it started building a church — that remains unfinished today — on Prishtina’s main university campus. 

An Albanian newspaper clipping from the time — shown in a collection of Statovci’s works published by his wife, Drita — highlights how such acts had little chance of success, beyond their symbolic value. The article cites a Serbian paper, which reported that the judicial process was not held because Statovci did not appear in court, and — with no explanation of the realities on the ground in Kosovo — that the court had sent the call to the address of the University of Prishtina, but that he wasn’t there to receive it.

Statovci felt the pressures of balancing so many competing duties in a disjointed environment that frequently compelled him to shoulder additional burdens. In an interview for Zik magazine he would later admit that “the rector’s work often lags behind other works, which have little to do with the rector.” 

“In these circumstances, the rector is just a scapegoat, who should alone be responsible for everything that happens at the university and related to the university, and does not enjoy any kind of security,” he said. 

Despite the array of extraordinary circumstances, Statovci was determined to establish an independent “university of the future” based on the experiences of renowned universities around the world. Given his professional background, it was perhaps no surprise that he saw its foundations as a solid legal basis.

“What the professor always demanded was for everything to be in line with normative acts,” Aliu says. “For this purpose, he immediately demanded at the beginning that a law be made for higher education, for which law I was one of the drafting members; it was based on Croatia’s.”

Statovci insisted on establishing the foundations of a top university, despite the many obstacles. Pictured here in 1996 in the ceremonial rector’s chain at the launch of the university’s logo that remains to this day. Photo courtesy of the Statovci family’s private archives.

The result was the 1994 Decree on Higher Education, which was founded on the Constitution of Kaçanik.

“On the basis of that law he also organized the university, meaning rector, senate, dean’s office and so on,” Aliu says. “Then the Statute of the University had to be issued, and every action at the university had legal support.”

Shoring up support 

In the summer of ’94, new UP elections took place, and Professor Statovci was elected for a second mandate as rector. “I entered the July elections, although I wanted others to try this ‘attractive’ post in conditions of occupation and in the absence of your own jurisdiction,” he said in an interview with Bujku newspaper.

A new term meant more work, and to say that help was needed in managing the day-to-day work at the university would be an understatement. Luckily for him and for the university, he found just the person, and right in time for the new school year. 

Ahmet Geci, at the time a professor of machinery and dean of the Technical Faculty, recalls receiving a phone call from Statovci that summer asking him to go to his apartment. 

When he got there, he walked into a family environment, with Ardita playing the piano and Drita hard at her professional work. But they found a corner to converse. 

“He said, ‘I’m planning for you to be pro-rector,’” Geci recalls. “I told him I wasn’t one for talking a lot and making speeches and these kinds of things. He said, ‘That’s what I need you for — work, not speeches.’”

Their collegiality got off to a shaky start, as was perhaps to be expected at a time when trust did not come easily. Geci recalls how Statovci seemed reluctant to delegate important tasks, despite having little time to attend to practical matters involved in running the university that was now scattered throughout Prishtina.

This included their journeys to and from work, which by now meant a makeshift office in a salt warehouse.

As the start of the academic year approached, and Statovci was preoccupied with maintaining the necessary working relationship with Rugova and LDK, things came to a head in a heated exchange between the rector and his deputy, who tried to raise concerns about day-to-day issues such as timetabling and teaching resources. 

“One day I told him, ‘Rector, the deans are waiting — they have demands, they want support,’” Geci recalls. “He asked me, ‘Why? Are we not contributing like that?’ And I said, ‘Yes, but I’m talking about something [more].’ Then he told me angrily, ‘So you prepare the teaching [process] and I will deal with the rest.’”

From then on, they ran together like a well-oiled machine and Geci became the person who accompanied the rector almost everywhere he went. This included their journeys to and from work, which by now meant a makeshift office in a salt warehouse near Taukbahçe park, one of the many Prishtina neighborhoods where stopgap faculties, offices and classrooms were now located.

“He always told me, ‘I don’t want to go out alone and for it to be said that he killed himself, or he was killed by Albanians,’” Professor Geci remembers. “He said that he’d be glad for us to work together whenever it was possible. I said, ‘Together, together — let what will be done be done.’”

The grand finale

As the long decade of the ’90s was slowly reaching a crescendo, the patience of students entering a sixth year of underground education began to run out. While the parallel system enabled them to continue an education in some form, there was little prospect of finding subsequent employment in a place where they couldn’t use their “Republic of Kosovo”-issued diplomas and where public institutions were closed to them.

Milot Cakaj, a student at the Electrotechnical Faculty who was also part of the presidency of the Independent Student Union, remembers the prevailing sentiment among students at the time.

“There was an argument that had been repeated to us from high school, that, ‘You’re young, your job is to study, you don’t need anything else; someone else will deal with the rest,’” he says. “In the final years of studies it became clear that it was no longer enough to just focus on studies, because we were starting to think, ‘What about when I graduate?’”

So the Independent Student Union, headed at the time by history student Bujar Dugolli, decided to demand their return to public education facilities through protests.

“The meetings started and we submitted our demands to the rector and he accepted, although he had some requests for us,” Cakaj recalls. “One of our ideas was to not start the academic year, to interrupt our studies — for that to be a form of protest. He was against that, he said, ‘We can protest as much as you want, but do not miss your lessons.’”

Once that compromise was made, the next issue was to bring the professors on board. 

“He was very determined about something from the first meeting — that now there must be no division between professors and students,” Cakaj says.

“The youth is invited to lead the future of humanity. The rest of us adults — need to think deeply about ourselves and our actions.”

Ejup Statovci, quoted by Zeri, October 1997

The former student activist recalls that the university had struggled to overcome the “trauma” of the 1981 protests when students had protested but most professors had failed to join them through fear of losing their jobs.

“That was the main premise of his discourse, that such history should not be repeated, not this time; students should not be beaten and persecuted while the professors watch what is happening from a distance,” Cakaj says.

The stance was typical of Statovci, who even though he by now rarely had the opportunity to teach, never ceased to cherish the students whose interests he tried to serve. He would especially try to keep them at the forefront of his mind in every decision that might impact the Kosovo issue.

“As it were, we sacrifice the young generation quite easily; we easily pass the whole burden to it, as if we want to warm ourselves in its flame,” Statovci told a local newspaper, on the eve of the October 1, 1997 student protest that would go down in history. “The youth is invited to lead the future of humanity. The rest of us adults — representatives, politicians and parents — need to think, to think deeply about ourselves and our actions.”

As the planned protest approached, Rector Statovci closely involved himself in the preparations. Student members of the Organizational Council of the protest remember that all the slogans they used were approved by the rector. 

“Each one was considered about 300 times — he did not release any of them without comment, without analyzing and discussing how they would be interpreted in English,” says then pedagogy student and member of the Independent Student Union Mihane Salihu-Bala, who explains how it was important to get them right in English, because they would be seen by international observers, journalists and diplomats, many of whom he would notify himself. 

On the day of the protest, Rector Statovci and Pro-rector Geci made the journey together, as per tradition. They headed to the university’s improvised rectorate — now seated in a private home in the Velania neighborhood — which was the meeting place for the demonstration. The plan was to symbolically march to the city center campus to which they were demanding their return. 

“We drove by car through the center, and saw the army, the police, the tanks,” Geci recalls. “We got cold feet a bit, you know.” 

Despite their reservations, they carried on, arriving at the temporary Velania rectorate at around 9 a.m. Over the course of the next hour the students started to gather. 

In the meantime, the police arrived, warning the professors that it was their last chance to cancel the protest. “The rector told them that now he couldn’t stop them even if he wanted to,” Geci recalls. “‘We’ve made our decision — you have your duty, we have ours.’”

At around 10:30, Geci went outside to see how things were looking and saw that it was full of students. “The professor asked me how things were, and I said, ‘Things are good,’” he says.

The rest is messy, initially tear-gassed and later much worse, history.

Statovci insisted that professors and students should stand alongside each other in their protests, which marked a turning point in the resistance to years of oppression. Photo courtesy of Koha Ditore archive.

The protest on October 1, 1997 was violently suppressed, triggering the beginning of the end of a painful chapter in Kosovo’s recent history.

As the rector had professed many times throughout the years, it was students who had made everyone think. The coming months and year saw more protests as the systematic oppression by Milošević’s regime morphed into violent crackdowns on whole villages and regions, civilian massacres, and ultimately war. 

As the situation became more critical by the day, students were joined not only by their professors, but by their fellow citizens from all walks of life. 

“The impression was created that something could be done,” Cakaj recalls. “From a situation where the expectation was: There’s nothing to ask for here, you don’t dare, they’re very powerful, they’ll kill us, [to:] Even so, there’s hope. Freedom begins with courage.”

Foundations for the future

Almost two years later, on March 24, 1999, NATO began its bombing campaign that would ultimately bring an end to the Milošević regime’s campaign of ethnic cleansing. 

Ejup and Drita Statovci were in Germany, where they had gone for what would be his final medical check-up. Alongside his public struggles, he had been battling cancer for several years, and things were not looking good. 

“He persistently wanted to return on March 24; we even had the tickets, but everything was suspended in Prishtina on the day that the bombings took place,” Drita remembers. “We barely got his assistant on the phone and she told us, ‘Everyone is looking to leave, there’s no airport or anything here, there’s no way for you to come.’”

They stayed in Germany until the war ended in June, at which point they immediately returned home. “At the first opportunity that the airport was vacated, we came back,” Drita recalls. “Because he wanted to return, like that, in flames.”

“In the October 1 protest, the rector was in the front row with us.”

Mihane Salihu-Bala, former Independent Student Union member

By now, Statovci’s health was in terminal decline, but he got to spend the last four months of his life in a free Kosovo before passing away on October 19, 1999 at the age of 59. 

“He was glad that liberation happened, and that one day the best thing would happen: independence,” Drita says. “And he had a sense of admiration for young people: ‘Young people,’ he used to say, ‘they have achieved this.’”

The young people who knew him widely remember him with admiration. When sharing memories of times spent with their professor, they bring forth aspects of his personality that can be hard to find in leaders today.

“In the October 1 protest, the rector was in the front row with us,” Salihu-Bala recalls. “But he did not put on the [ceremonial] rector’s chain — not that he did not want to, but because it was the university’s property and [he worried], ‘What if it gets lost or damaged? Or what if it’s confiscated by the police and we don’t see it again?’”

Throughout his upstream journey, he held tight to the notion that valuable things, but more so ideals, should be safeguarded at all costs. Perhaps to be cherished by others when he was done fighting, in his own way and despite all odds, to change the course of history — and to forge a better future.K

Feature image courtesy of the Statovci family’s private archives.

* Editor’s note: The originally published version of this article stated that Ejup Statovci’s father “was killed,” but this was incorrect. This information was corrected on 21.10.20.

** Editor’s note: The originally published version of this article stated that deputies of the Kosovo Assembly voted on the amendments to the Constitution of Serbia on “March 23, 1990.” This was corrected to “March 23, 1989” on 23.10.20.