© 2002 Friends of Bosnia  

The sprawling Trepca mines and metallurgy complex, a conglomerate of 40 mines and factories, contain the most important mineral resources in the former Yugoslavia. The lead, zinc and gold made it one of Milosevic’s prized Kosovo treasures. But ownership of the mines remains highly controversial—some claim Belgrade owns it, others say it is publicly owned. For now, it is under UNMIK control.

In the early 1980s, Trepca employed more than 20,000 workers. Today, experts say the decrepit communist-style factories will never be productive in a global market-driven economy. The Serb managers claim that Kosovar Albanians ruined the mines, but for twenty years, Serbia neglected Trepca and the Albanians viewed it as a symbol of Serb oppression. In 1988, Albanian management and workers were expelled from Trepca after being accused of stealing large amounts of silver and gold. A huge mineworkers’ union march and hunger strike followed, in the likes of Poland’s Solidarity movement, though not nearly as successful.

Following the war, rumors spread that Serbs had buried Albanian prisoners in mass graves in the mines but, to date, no bodies have been found there.

This lead smelter in Zvecan, a Serb enclave north of Mitrovica, was billowing thick pollution the afternoon we visited and 600 workers, mostly Serbs, were at work in highly toxic conditions. A month later, KFOR seized control of the plant and closed it down due to dangerous levels of lead emission—200 times greater than World Health Organization safe standards. Soon after, sulfuric acid leaked from an industrial plant in southern Mitrovica, polluting the Ibar River.

UN officials have begun cleanup operations and raised $16 million to assess the complex in hope it will attract foreign investors.