Gypsies relocated by UN remain on toxic land

NORTH MITROVICA, Kosovo — Displaced by conflict and stranded by bureaucratic inertia, dozens of Roma families remain on toxic land 10 years after they were relocated there by the United Nations following the Kosovo war.

Osterrode Camp and Chesmin Lug Camp were established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1999 as a temporary measure, when the 9,000-member Roma or gypsy neighborhood on the southern shore of the Ibar River was burnt down by Albanians in the dying days of the Kosovo conflict. The Albanians had accused the Roma of collaborating with the Serb army, a charge the Roma dismiss as unfounded.

Whatever the truth behind the charges and denials, almost everyone agrees that moving Roma families near the now closed Trepca mining and smelting complex, onto land highly contaminated with lead, zinc, arsenic and other metals, has resulted in severe health problems in the community. 

When the World Health Organization tested the Roma's blood for lead in 2004, the readings for 90 percent of the children were off the scale, higher than the medical equipment was capable of measuring. Such children fall into the category of "acute medical emergency" and require immediate hospitalization.

Instead they have remained in the camps, ingesting lead through the air, the dirt they play in and through their clothes dusted with lead tailings while drying on laundry lines. Even before their birth, lead enters their bodies from drinking water consumed by their mothers.

According to internationally accepted benchmarks drawn up by the United States Center for Disease Control, 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter causes the beginning of brain damage.

The measurements from the camps were much higher than in the surrounding population and at levels that exceeded any region WHO had previously studied. Twelve children had exceptionally high blood lead levels, greater than 45 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, more than four times the amount that causes brain damage.

"The Roma are victimized by lead," said Thomas Hammarberg, European commissioner for human rights. "It is sad the international community has not found a solution 10 years later. It is the single most major environmental disaster in Europe."

Zoran Savich, a pediatrician with the Health Center of Kosovo Mitrovica, saw more than 300 patients in Osterrode and Chesmin Lug between 2005 and 2008.

In that time, Savich said, 77 people died of lead poisoning, many of them children.

"I treated as many I could but they were living in the same conditions and absorbing lead,” Savich said. “When the treatments stopped, their levels went back up. It was useless."

Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations since June 1999, after the NATO bombing campaign on the troops of then-president Slobodan Milosevic, aimed at halting Belgrade's repression of the majority ethnic Albanian population seeking independence.

 "In 1999, we had to respond to an emergency and found the camps as a temporary facility," said Francesco Ardisson, senior protection officer of the office of Chief of Mission, UNHCR. "Unfortunately, we have been unable to find an alternative site because neither the Albanians and the Serbs want them."

Within the U.N., however, questions have been raised about its handling of the Roma.

“The U.N. put the Roma in camps even though the U.N. knew the place was poisoned,” said Ilija Elezovic, the health department director for the U.N. Mission In Kosovo, northern Mitrovika. “The place where the camps are, the U.N. had a plan to build a fence around it and say, 'danger.' But they didn't do that. Instead they put the Roma there."

Mercy Corps, an American aid organization, has budgeted $2.4 million to resettle 50 Roma families — about 250 individuals — this year in either north or south Mitrovica away from the contaminated sites.

Most of the budget would be used to build new housing although treatment for lead poisoning is also included, said Catherine Rothenberger, mission director for Mercy Corps in Kosovo.

"Other donors are interested and could affect 30 to 50 more additonal families," Rothenberger said. "Resources are not an issue but a clear plan is. Donors are risk adverse. People are reluctant to invest unless it results in productive resettlement. We are in regular discussions with other donors telling them here are the gaps in services but nothing is assured."

Meanwhile, after years of waiting, the Roma continue to wait.

"I feel myself losing power," said Muhamud Smajliji, a father of nine children in Chesmin Lug. "I get nervous, start to shake, and it takes a long time to calm down. I am losing concentration. I feel like collapsing."

(Malcolm Garcia and Darren McCollester reported from Kosovo on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)

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