In-depth | Photo story

The Trepça mines in photos

By - 15.05.2024

The workers of the Trepça mines are a symbol of lack of integration in Kosovo.

The Trepça mining complex is a striking symbol of the internal division afflicting Kosovo. These lead-zinc and silver ore mines near Kosovo’s northern border with Serbia are the largest in Europe. In the 1980s, they represented about 70% of Yugoslavia’s mineral wealth and employed over 20,000 people, Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs alike. 

Through the 1960s and 1970s, the Trepça mines grew to be Kosovo’s economic powerhouse. They also reflected inequities in Kosovo’s economic structure and place in socialist Yugoslavia. Serbs held a disproportionate number of the administrative positions, while Albanians were significantly underrepresented in the white collar workforce. This situation birthed the slogan “Trepça works, Belgrade builds.”

Throughout the 1970s, the number of Albanians in higher positions in local political and economic structures throughout Kosovo increased, thanks in part to constitutional reform and the creation of the University of Prishtina. This didn’t prevent the Trepça mines from becoming a venue in which Kosovo’s future would be contested. 

Yugoslavia’s 1974 constitution made Kosovo a Socialist Autonomous Province, but by the end of the 1980s, Slobodan Milošević’s regime sought to revoke this autonomy. On February 20, 1989, 1,200 Kosovar Albanian miners began an underground hunger strike, protesting against the proposed revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy and demanding that their rights under the 1974 constitution be respected. Activists concerned about Belgrade’s increasing consolidation of authority in other parts of the country held assemblies in support of the striking miners.   

Trepça had covered its operating costs through cheap bank loans, as did many other large economic entities in Yugoslavia. However, this came to an end in the 1980s. The strikes had an additional devastating impact on an already challenging economic picture, as many strikers were arrested, fired, or both. Other Albanian miners left in solidarity. From 1989 to 1991, employment at Trepça shrank by 57%. 

The persistent disparity between the ethnicities in management and labor positions meant that the departure of so many Albanian workers resulted in a massive shortage of laborers and an oversupply of office staff. Foreign miners were contracted to come from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Poland, as were refugees from Krajina, in Croatia. Environmental concerns also rose during this period; the quantity of lead in the air ultimately reached 125 times the amount deemed acceptable by the European Union. 

The outbreak of war interrupted mining activities for the first time. The post-war period has not led to the integration of Kosovo Serbs and Albanians at the mining sites, where they continue to work separately. 

2024 marks the 25th anniversary of the end of the war. Every anniversary is a good chance to consider topics that may have been set aside, intentionally or unintentionally. 

Kosovo had been in the back of my mind for years. I remember being a teenager and living a serene and peaceful life in Italy. Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, TV and news magazines started talking about the wars in Yugoslavia. We didn’t have any clue of what was happening on the other side of the Adriatic, even though it was just a few dozen kilometers away. The scarcity of Italian correspondents in the area led to a lack of clear information in Italy and we grappled with unexpected questions about the wave of migration. 

Basic research on Kosovo’s Gross Domestic Product led me to focus on mining extraction and the Trepça enterprise, which is central to Kosovo’s economic past and present. In any socio-political analysis, especially in countries like Kosovo where frictions are still present, a lot can be learned from the economy and which industries and sectors dominate. Additionally, the working class is a good litmus test to understand how things are. 

In February, I received free access to the Trepça sites through a simple procedure with the Ministry of Economy. Freely talking to directors, employees and miners — both Serbs and Albanians — gave me the opportunity to compare the situations on the two sides and gain insights into the workers’ lives. The company’s availability to formally answer questions completed the information picture needed.

As I visited the Stan Terg mining site in the Mitrovica region, Shyqyri Sadiku, an Albanian miner who is now the director of the mining site, told me about the work situation before the war, the week-long hunger strike in 1989 in which he participated, the years of effort to open the flooded mine after the conflict and the 20 million euros that the Kosovar government intends to invest in the coming years. That money won’t be invested in equipment or improvements, but rather will be mostly used to pay miners’ suspended pension contributions. 

Before entering the lift and descending 900 meters below the entrance level, I asked my guide about the percentage of Serbs and Albanians present at this particular mining site. “No,” he casually responded, “there are no Serbian workers here, and we hope it stays like this because we don’t want them.” Whether it’s miners going down in galleries, administrative employees, or support workers like cooks or cleaning staff, all workers at the site are Albanian.

When I was applying to visit the company, I asked the Trepça representative about potential security issues in Serb majority municipalities, where most of the company’s sites are. He serenely replied that they had “never had any problem with mining activities because the sector is not managed by the single municipalities, but regulated by the government.” 

A few tens of kilometers north of Stan Terg, the situation at the Leposavić refinery and Crnac mining site is the exact opposite. Here, 100% of the workers are Serbs. The majority of the Serb community in Kosovo lives on the north side of the Ibar River. The river longitudinally divides the city of Mitrovica and also splits the Trepça sites. 

Sinisa Milutinović, the director of Leposavić refinery and Crnac mining site, told me his version of events; they match the Albanian director’s only when talking about the peaceful working coexistence before the war. Today, his production sites only have Serb workers. There is no hint of change here either. 

Milutinović’s list of difficulties and problems is long. Like the director of the mine where Albanian miners work, he only wants his employees to have the opportunity to work and receive their full salaries on time. 

Underground, the situation is clear. The work of a miner is hard and tiring. The conditions are not dramatic or prohibitive, but difficult to sustain in the long term. Arben Halili, a 45-year-old miner, tells me that “The hardest bread is the one earned in the mine.” Humidity, dust, noise, fatigue and the risk rate make the work highly demanding and significantly shorten the workers’ lives. 

When I asked about their payment, most of them complained about how their salaries are insufficient for supporting their families due to rising prices and a clear change of lifestyle in the country, as globalization and social media spur increased consumerism.

The internal divisions of the Trepça workers disappear when talking about their future; they all wish politics could be removed from the equation because they simply want to work, support their families and avoid having to emigrate.

Photos: Matteo Placucci.

Additional reporting by Nicholas Kulawiak

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