Gold the Serbs are ready to kill and die for

Robert Fisk reports from the rich Trepca mines - the real reason why Kosovo is so dear to Milosevic
Click to follow
The Independent Online
HALF A MILE underneath Kosovo, down corridors which generations of miners have groyned - the walls dripping with condensation and the sweat crawling beneath my miner's overalls - Branimir Dimitrijevic tapped me on the shoulder. The lamp fixed to my helmet skimmed the sweaty walls and the fog of dust between us. I slipped on the narrow-gauge railway, backwards into half-a-foot of mud and water that almost sucked my boots off. The lamplight caught Dimitrijevic's grin. "Now you are in the true heart of Kosovo," he shouted. "And I will show you Kosovo's gold."

I followed him into another seam, panting upwards in the gloom towards a distant yellow light from which came the roar of a monster, a great iron-cutting machine that was hacking away at Kosovo's underworld.

The fumes burned our lungs, but the miners around me, perspiring so much that their faces were streaked with grime, moved like panthers in the semi-darkness. The machine - the largest of its kind in the world - backed away from the cavern's end, howling in the claustrophobia.

Dimitrijevic bent down, picked up a lump of sticky rock and handed it to me, so heavy I almost dropped it in the dust. He took off his lamp and shone the bulb straight onto my hand - in which the rock now glittered with ore. "See what I mean? he asked. "This is Kosovo's gold. You can keep it so that you understand." It was clammy and hot, but the more I looked, the more it glistened, a thousand tiny stars reflected from earth which had not seen light since the day God created the rivers and seas.

Goodbye, then, to the monasteries and churches, the Serb Orthodox graves and mosaics and frescoes and Byzantine naves. Goodbye to the spiritual power of Kosovo. For here, deep within the mines of Trepca, lies the physical value of Slobodan Milosevic's dangerous province, the wealthiest piece of real estate in the Balkans, the treasure-house of Serbia, valued - in proved and estimated reserves of lead, zinc, cadmium, silver and gold - at a mere pounds 3bn. Even if the Field of Blackbirds - the poppy-strewn meadows in which medieval Serbia was crushed by the Turks - could be abandoned to Kosovo's 90 per cent Albanian population, what Serb would ever give up the mines of Trepca?

The Nazis understood their meaning. They gave Kosovo's capital of Pristina to the occupying Italians in 1941, but the Germans moved into the old British-built mining offices north of Mitrovica, using the Yugoslav workers to maintain a steady flow of minerals to the Reich for guns and for Admiral Raeder's U-boat fleets. Even today, the Trepca complex makes ammunition and submarine batteries along with smelted gold and silver.

The German overseer sat in the same office in which 58-year old Novak Bijelic now protects the crown jewels of Serbia, a wooden-floored conference room in which the Serb managing director points to a fading document which proves the Anglo-Serb origins of the mines.

"Memorandum and Articles of Association of the Trepca Mines Limited," it says. "Incorporated the 9th day of December, 1927. Broad and Son. 1 Great Winchester Street, London EC3." Mr Bijelic's white hair tops the tough, sun-burned face of a man who was imprisoned because he refused to accept his own expulsion from Tito's Communist party in 1973; his crime, he says, was to have a mother who was accused of being a wartime Chetnik - loyal to General Mihailovic whose anti-German guerrilla army turned against Tito's Partisans. The son is now as hard as the rock face half a mile beneath his office, with sky-blue eyes that never leave his visitors and a handshake that could force a bear to scream.

"History did not begin with me," says the master of Trepca, spreading his beefy fingers to show his kingdom's domain. "Even the Romans mined silver near here. We have 14 mines in all - and eight flotations - and we have the third biggest smelting capacity in the world and 17 plants for further treatment of metal." He seizes my arm with those steely fingers. "We have no secrets here - I give you the figures now. In the three years up to May of this year, we have mined 2,538,124 tons of lead and zinc crude ore and produced 286,502 tons of concentrated lead and zinc and 139,789 tons of pure lead, zinc, cadmium, silver and gold."

The statistics are shouted at me, sergeant-major style - for this is a lesson in politics as well as science. Bijelic moves like lightning from metallurgical production to the chemical sources of electrical power, to the production of car batteries, submarine batteries, jewellery plants, to the strategic importance of lead and to the hunting ammunition plant - "which doesn't mean it can't be turned over to real ammunition production immediately".

Yes, he needs new investment. "Why don't you British invest? Wouldn't that be better than the Germans? You have rights here. We have experience of you."

Britain, however, would be well advised to look very carefully at the more recent history of Trepca. For it was down in these mines that the Albanian miners - 50 per cent of the workforce at the time - staged their hunger strike against Milosevic's suppression of ethnic Albanian autonomy in Kosovo. Today, the management is still said to be 20 per cent Albanian, but the 15,000 workforce is now only "somewhere between" 15 and 20 per cent, according to Mr Bijelic. And he, of course, is a Kosovo Serb, a proud, even angry Serb who will never give up Trepca.

On his wall is a large photograph of himself, smiling and in animated conversation with a good friend: Slobodan Milosevic. And when I suggest that Serbia's real desire to hold on to Kosovo for the future has more to do with Trepca than with Orthodox monasteries, that iron hand clasps mine.

"Absolutely," he shouts. "We can never give up Trepca ... Serbs would give their lives for Trepca - and they will give them if necessary. This is our destiny. We are not going to leave our homes. I will stay here whatever happens - that is why I compare Trepca to a family home. If necessary I am prepared to be killed for it." And when he brings his fist down on the table, I think for a moment that the wood is going to shatter. So is this an investment for Europe and the West? And what will Trepca's future profits be used for? The Serbian people or the Serbian security forces, those very same militiamen who now haunt the burned Albanian villages of south-western Kosovo?

What checks ensure that the sweat of Trepca does not slide into the pockets of the Belgrade mafia? Mr Bijelic pulls out what he says is a British auditing report on Trepca which claims the mines need no foreign or domestic banking guarantees, that it can have credit for 20 years. "Our major exports are to France, Switzerland, Greece, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Russia and Belgium in that order," he says. "We are international. Our future lies in investment." And to tell the truth, Trepca looks as if it needs it.

My journey to the heart of darkness at the Stari Trg mine is in a cage with bent iron doors that bangs alarmingly against the shaft as it swoops downwards at 18 feet a second. Mud swirls over the underground railways. At one point, a mountain stream passes right through the number 10 shaft, washing our boots as we slosh through the semi-darkness 2,300 feet beneath the earth. Last year, a miner stepped off the track and drowned in mud, dragged under the surface by the weight of his equipment. The oxide creates great heat - there are flies and mosquitoes in the seams - and pipes hiss oxygen at the miners as they sweat.

There are Albanians among us, leaner-faced than their usually taller Serb colleagues. "Beneath the surface, there are no differences - we are all 'kameraden' because we must all help each other," Dimitrijevic says. "We are all brothers in the face of danger."

Beside a rusting set of bells and switches, the message codes are in both the Serb and Albanian languages. Explosions from the other side of mountain walls echo over us as dynamite tears into a mine face miles away.

After more than an hour, I find Dimitrijevic shaking his head. "This is where Kosovo's problems all began," he says. "This is the mine in which the Albanians went on strike and staged their sit-in. This is where it started. And we don't know where it will end."

Focus, page 24