Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo covet control of the old
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 Much of the mine's equipment is broken or outdated.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