High on a hillside in northern Kosovo there’s a little English village. The 1930s style houses, billiard hall and cinema wouldn’t look out of place in suburbia — if they weren’t in ruins now — and they are surrounded by bungalows that are still inhabited by the families of miners working at the huge Trepca mine nearby.
They were built at beginning of the boom decades for the mine that, with a hiatus during the Second World War, continued under socialist Yugoslavia until the 1980s. This obscure corner of northern Kosovo became the site of one of Europe’s largest mines. Yet since Kosovo’s war of independence, efforts to revive production have been patchy and largely unsuccessful.
The English architecture is a relic of the 1920s and 1930s when the Selection Trust Ltd. took over management of the mine. The British company carried out an extensive exploration programme, then secured the concession in 1926 under the leadership of American-born industrialist Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, nicknamed the ‘King of Copper’.
As well as working the mine, the British company opened one of Kosovo’s first cinemas for Trepca’s workers and introduced tennis, jazz and billiards to Kosovo.
Selection Trust was just one of many incomers to work the mine that lies on the immensely rich Vardar zone over the centuries, says Lulzim Hoti, executive director of Kosovan NGO 7Arte, who recently started leading tours to Trepca.
Trepca is Europe's largest lead-zinc and silver ore mine. The area is known to have been mined as early as Roman times — the remains of the Roman mining town of Municipium Dardanorum were found nearby — and possibly long before that.
Later came Saxons, who brought their expertise in mining and left behind a 14th century church that still stands on the hillside behind the English village. Then came the Ottomans, and the English who mined here until Yugoslavia’s conquest by the Nazis in the Second World War.
Post WW2 Trepca was nationalised and became one of the leading industries of socialist Yugoslavia. Not only were there the mines across northern Kosovo, there were also numerous industrial subsidiaries scattered over the Yugoslav federation.
“Trepca was a big institution with a lot of subsidiary companies. There were companies in [North] Macedonia, Montenegro, Zagreb … there were even buildings in Belgrade with the Trepca name. We used to say ‘Trepca digs, Belgrade grows’,” Hoti tells bne IntelliNews.
By 1985, Trepca had Europe’s biggest facility for raw lead smelting, and the fifth-largest in the world. It was also a major zinc processor. However, due to the closure of numerous mines and factories during the late 1980s and 1990s, the Trepca mining complex in Kosovo has now dwindled to only a handful of local mines and processing plants.
60 years of reserves
Despite the relative lack of activity these days, the sheer wealth of the deposit that lies under the densely wooded conical hills and deep valleys of northern Kosovo can hardly be overestimated. One study has put the value at as much as €13bn.
According to Trepca geologist Fidaim Sahiti, the main mine’s reserves amount to approximately 58mn tonnes of lead and zinc and other valuable minerals.
“It would take 60 years to take it all out even with the capacity of the Yugoslav era, when there were around 22,000 people working here,” Sahiti says.
Today, the production capacity is just a fraction of that; there are only around 1,500 workers, some of whom were just coming off their shift when we arrived at 3pm on a warm October afternoon. As the upper levels of the mine have already been exploited, miners are currently working at a depth of around 800 metres underground.
While bne IntelliNews wasn’t able to visit the underground mine, Hoti and Sahiti described it in detail. There are currently 15 levels, each around 60 metres in depth, and more than 200km of underground paths have been dug.
The museum at the mine has row after row of red display cases showing the wealth of minerals found underground. Despite being looted during the Kosovan war of independence at the end of the 1990s, it has over 2,000 rocks, more than 90% from Trepca. They include zinc, lead, silver and gold as well as lesser known minerals.
There is also a display case with the products that used to be manufactured by Trepca’s subsidiaries, that include the huge industrial park close to the nearby city of Mitrovica as well as others across former Yugoslavia.
All that changed with the breakup of Yugoslavia. Now, without investments into modern equipment, miners are drilling by hand. The ore they produce pays their salaries — an important contribution in Kosovo’s poorest city, which also had the largest number of people on benefits — and the mine recently got back into the black after many years of operating at a loss, according to Hoti. It has relied heavily on subsidies from the government over the years.
Despite the better financials, it is operating far below its potential. Among the many metals extracted here, Sahiti says, Trepca used to produce 1-2kg of gold every day.
It’s not hard to see how this scale of production could benefit Kosovo, a small landlocked country with a population of just under 1.9mn and one of the poorest in Europe. Income per capital was $5,760 in 2022, just over one tenth of the EU average of $54,249.
Not only that, but associated smelters and factories used to turn the ore both into metals and finished products such as fertilisers and batteries, which were once sold as far away as Australia, India and the US.
The vintage batteries on display in Trepca branded boxes contrast starkly with the the big jars of greyish pellets, the concentrate that the mine produces and exports today. It is sold mainly to European countries including Germany, the Netherlands and the UK.
“We are selling concentrate but it would be better to produce metals and other products in Kosovo and sell them to the world market,” says Sahiti.
“The metals are extracted but not produced here, only in concentrate. We can’t separate it because we are missing the technology. We need investment,” adds Hoti.
As new industries have been born in recent decades, there is now growing demand for some of the other metals found in Trepca, such as indium, which is used to produce mobile phones, computers and other electronics.
Trepca’s heyday was in the Yugoslav era, when the Trepca name was seen all over Yugoslavia. Its importance was such that after the death of the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito it was given the name Mitrovica e Titos in Albanian or Titova Mitrovica in Serbian.
Back then, Mitrovica was a thriving town with Albanians, Serbs and other minorities living together harmoniously. There was a vibrant music scene, partly inspired by the jazz imported by the English managers of the Trepca mine back in the 1920s and 1930s.
For those more into sports than music, the Trepca football club was founded by miners in 1932 (it split into Serb and Albanian teams after the war) and the KB Trepca basketball team was created in 1945.
But after Tito’s death, the state he built began to deteriorate. When Slobodan Milosevic came to power, he adopted Serb nationalist republic that alarmed the other ethnic groups in Yugoslavia, and increasingly removed the autonomy given to the Kosovo Albanians and other peoples. Powers were stripped from Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, and Kosovar politicians were arrested, while state workers were purged.
This led ultimately to the Trepca miners’ strike of 1989, seen as one of the decisive events precipitating the breakup of Yugoslavia.
In February 1989, workers from Trepca started a hunger strike, protesting against the abolition of Kosovo’s autonomy. Among the strikers’ demands were adherence to the 1974 constitution, an end to nationalist politics and amnesty for strike leaders.
Miners held out for eight long days in the punishing heat more than 800 metres below ground. Hundreds of miners were carried out and hospitalised, but a hard core of around 50 stuck it out to the final day. As the strike gathered international attention, the authorities in Belgrade offered a deal meeting some of the demands. But when the striking miners finally emerged from the mine, they were arrested.
Shortly afterward, the Yugoslav presidency declared a state of emergency in Kosovo and the repression of Kosovo’s Albanian majority continued. At Trepca, most ethnic Albanian miners and management staff were either fired or left in protest, while ethnic Albanians were purged from every state sector.
Hoti, a child at the time, remembers the hardship of that time for Albanians in the region. His own father was among those pushed out of their jobs. A Serbian curriculum was introduced in schools, while Albanian children studied at illicit schools set up in people’s homes.
The end of Yugoslavia
The strike gained rapid support in Slovenia and Croatia, where solidarity protests broke out. This contributed to the rift between the central government in Belgrade and Slovenian leaders, who declared the country independent in June 1991. After 10 days of fighting, Slovenia split from Yugoslavia.
Brutal wars followed in Bosnia and Croatia. In Kosovo, there was peaceful resistance, but also fighting between the Yugoslav army and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The Kosovo War was fought between February 1998 and June 1999, when Nato bombing of Serbia and Montenegro forced Yugoslav troops to withdraw from Kosovo.
Nine years later, in 2008, Kosovo declared its independence. After a mass exodus during the war, Kosovans gradually went back to rebuild their ruined lives. Some squatted in the old English houses above the Trepca mine, before being rehoused in a newly built block nearby.
Trepca’s subsidiaries across former Yugoslavia were among the many industrial crown jewels whose ownership became unclear. Ownership of the assets now in independent Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia still has to be resolved.
Serbia, meanwhile, never recognised Kosovo as an independent country. Belgrade is vocal in its insistence of protecting the rights of the Serbs that are concentrated in northern Kosovo as well as religious sites in the region. Moreover, neither Belgrade nor Pristina also wants to give up the vast mineral wealth that lies beneath northern Kosovo. That goes beyond the known reserves in the main Trepca mine. Sahiti says he believes there are “probably two or three more Trepcas” in the area that could be found in future.
Investment has been hindered both by Kosovo’s lack of financial resources and by the political instability in the region. Hopes of a breakthrough in the troubled relationship between Serbia and Kosovo earlier this year were dashed, and relations worsened with violent protests in Mitrovica in May followed by a gun battle between an armed Serb group and Kosovan law enforcers in September.
This has deterred international investors, though there has been some interest in exploration in the area. Despite the challenges and the vast need for investment, Trepca is a significant opportunity for Kosovo, where successive governments have grappled with the issue of reinvigorating production.
In 2018, the then government approved the statute for Trepca, almost two years after the major mining complex was put under government control in a bid to save it from bankruptcy. It is now 80% state owned, with the remaining 20% owned by workers.
However, efforts to change the status of the mine have drawn criticism both from workers at the mine and from the Serbian government, which contests its ownership.
As well as the mine, there is also the question of what to do with the huge industrial park in the city of Mitrovica. The gated complex is guarded, but many of its buildings are becoming derelict after being unused for years.
Looking across at the complex from the city, large tailings dumps are clearly visible, worryingly close to the main hospital on the southern, Albanian site of the divided city. They are close enough that when it’s windy the white dust swirls up across Mitrovica, joined by more dust from other nearby tailings dumps, creating a toxic chemical cocktail.
With the vast complex gradually becoming more dilapidated, Mitrovica residents are still hoping for a revival. Hoti says many of the population of Mitrovica, especially the older generations who remember the Tito era, still hark back to the prosperous golden age of the city.
“They have been waiting 23 years for Trepca to reopen as it was before,” he says, yet given the changes in technology and market demand over the last two decades, this is increasingly unfeasible.
Blendi Hasaj, executive director of the Pristina-based GAP Institute think-tank, also says a return to the old days when the Trepca industrial complex was thriving is unlikely.
“The current government has shown that Trepca remains one of their objectives, so it can become really valuable for the country and for Kosovo’s economy. Until now it has been quite heavily subsidised and we lack a clear plan on how the investments will be done and how Trepca to be restored as an economic engine for the country,” he said in an interview with bne IntelliNews.
“I have higher expectations of the growth that some exporting sectors will bring to Kosovo, such as ICT and some other manufacturing activities in the country.” He refers to the successes Kosovan companies in a range of sectors such as drinks production and mattress manufacturing have achieved.
Hoti also doesn’t believe Trepca can go back to the way it was before, which prompted 7Arte to consider other ways to revive the city.
The Mitrovica-based NGO has drawn up plans to turn the old industrial park, spanning over 100 hectares, into a social and cultural space, aimed at helping to revitalise the city. While there are numerous new residential developments going up in and around Mitrovica, Hoti says there has not been corresponding investment into the social and cultural life of the city. The plan also includes covering over the tailings dump and building a solar park.
That might finally take Mitrovica out of the limbo it has been in for the last 23 years; even the younger people who don’t remember the town in its prosperous heyday are still pinning their hopes on a return to large-scale production at Trepca. It’s not possible to go back in time, but there are still hopes of building a better future for the city.