Wheels turn and cables whir as an elevator hauls miners up from the cold, wet depths of the Stari Trg mine. The elevator clanks to a halt just below the surface and the men emerge, their headlamps burning and water streaming from their heavy canvas jackets.
A lead and zinc mine, Stari Trg was once one of the richest in Europe and the centerpiece of the Trepca industrial complex. Yet years of neglect, underinvestment, and political upheaval have left Trepca a decaying monument to a once glorious past.
Today, workers descend almost to the bottom, 2,640 feet below, in an effort to free a jammed elevator.
"I think we can do it," says Aziz Neziri, a rugged, square-jawed man with a thick black mustache.
Confidence comes easily to the Stari Trg miners, who have recently returned to work for the first time since Serbian authorities fired them almost 10 years ago. But a stuck elevator is only one of their problems. Much of the mine's equipment is broken or outdated. Millions of gallons of water have flooded its lower extremities. And the mine's fate is caught up in political and economic uncertainties from which not even the toughest miners can free it.
Trepca's future is one of the most difficult and emotional questions facing Kosovo. In addition to Stari Trg, Trepca includes several lesser mines, processing plants, and dozens of factories that turn Kosovo's mineral wealth into products ranging from batteries to paint. In the former Yugoslavia, Trepca employed thousands of workers and was the pride of Kosovo.
Little of this vast enterprise is operating today. But to many people, it remains Kosovo's most valuable economic asset. For ethnic Albanians especially, in charge in Kosovo after long years of struggle, Trepca stands as a glittering symbol of hope.
"Trepca was the most important industrial engine of Kosovo," says Muhamet Mustafa, president of an economic research institute in Pristina, Kosovo's capital. "I think it will have real importance."
Legacies of the war
Most of the complex lies in northern Kosovo around the city of Mitrovica. Last October, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia investigated rumors that Serbs had hidden the bodies of hundreds of ethnic Albanians in the mines. But nothing was found. A once-mixed community, Mitrovica is now bitterly divided between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
Both sides covet Trepca, but neither controls all of it. The Stari Trg mine lies in an ethnic Albanian area, while the lead smelter that once refined much of its ore is Serbian. Both sides have managers that claim to be the true masters of Trepca.
The question of who owns Trepca is also disputed. The Serbian management says the enterprise, once state-owned, was sold in the 1990s. At least two foreign companies claim an interest in Trepca based on deals made with the Serbian government during that same period. Ethnic Albanians repudiate these transactions and insist that Trepca belongs to its workers.
Trepca's real value
Perhaps the biggest question, rarely asked in Kosovo, is how much Trepca is really worth. Western officials say that the expectations for Trepca exaggerate its true value - a problem, they say, with most state-owned enterprises here. To these officials, Trepca is a Communist-era antique that should be broken up and only the profitable bits salvaged from the dustbin of history.
"The problem is that a lot of people look backward and this is what I don't like," says Renzo Daviddi, head of private sector development for the United Nations administration in Kosovo. "They talk about 1989, about Trepca, about the giants of the past. If they continue to look into the past, they are in trouble."
Kosovo has a long mining past. The region contains the greatest concentration of mineral wealth in southeastern Europe. Silver was mined here even before the Romans came. During World War II, when Germany occupied most of Yugoslavia, Stari Trg supplied 40 percent of the lead used in German war industries. It is widely suspected that the real reason Serbia fought to keep possession of Kosovo is the wealth of the Trepca mines.
In the tradition of miners everywhere, the men at Stari Trg were at the forefront of protests against the Serbian regime in the late 1980s. At the time, Stari Trg employed 3,000 miners, most of them ethnic Albanian. But in 1989 Belgrade began to wrest control of Kosovo away from its ethnic Albanians, and ethnic Albanian miners were fired. Without experienced workers, the mine and the rest of Trepca declined.
So far, Kosovo's UN administration has been unable to shine much light into Trepca's future. Two teams of foreign experts plumbed the question of Trepca's value but failed to reach bottom.
Nor has the UN resolved the rival claims over ownership and management. It has tried, so far in vain, to persuade Trepca's Serbs and ethnic Albanians to work together. An early, ambitious plan to install an international management team came to nothing when foreign donors refused to pay for it.
"Something has to be done with the bloody thing," says Carolyn McCool, head of the Mitrovica office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "The question is, what?"
UN officials have been tight-lipped about their plans. Last week, Serbian officials refused to admit a reporter to their headquarters next to the lead smelter in Zvecan, just outside Mitrovica.
"It will work, but nobody knows when," says a guard at the entrance, gazing up at the clear sky above the smelter's smokestack. "The Albanians have Stari Trg."
Of all the parts of Trepca, Stari Trg may be the real prize. The mine probably still contains valuable minerals, although officials say it will need an injection of capital to be truly profitable.
For the moment, only 200 miners have returned to work, a mere handful of the legions that once labored there. With the UN's blessing, they are assessing the condition of the mine, repairing equipment, pumping out water - preparing, they believe, for the day when Stari Trg will work again.
"I feel optimistic that we can start producing again, to earn money to buy our bread," says Aziz Neziri just before he leaves the mine. "How can I not be optimistic?" All of Kosovo is watching.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society