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Last Updated: Monday, 13 June, 2005, 16:04 GMT 17:04 UK
Toxic camp angers Kosovo Roma
By Matt Prodger
BBC News, Mitrovica

Roma rights groups are preparing legal action against the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (Unmik) over its failure to evacuate several hundred refugees from camps contaminated with extremely high levels of poisonous lead.

Rukije Mustafa and daughter Cassandra (front)
Rukije Mustafa says she can see the effects in her daughter
Ever since their homes were destroyed during the war six years ago, more than 500 Roma (Gypsies) have been living in makeshift camps set up by the UN next to a disused - but contaminated - lead smelter in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes the situation as an environmental disaster, but the refugees have yet to be moved.

The worst affected is Zitkovac, one of three camps mostly containing children, which is located close to the old smelter. Wooden huts lie within a few hundred metres of a toxic slag heap. The wind whips contaminated dust through the camp.

Rukije Mustafa is eight months pregnant and worried about her unborn baby; her four-year-old daughter Cassandra suffers from blackouts, lethargy and like most of the children born in this camp, her teeth are etched with the telltale grey lines of lead deposits.

"When I look at my child I feel like dying," her mother says. "The dust is killing her, she can hardly walk; she's only got the strength to crawl."

The United Nations created this camp and two others in 1999 to house Roma who, in the wake of the war, had been driven from their homes in neighbouring Mitrovica by ethnic Albanians who saw them as collaborators with the Serbs.

It was a makeshift arrangement meant to last only weeks, but they have been here ever since.

When the WHO tested the Roma's blood for lead in 2004, the readings for 90% of the children were off the scale - higher than the medical equipment was capable of measuring.


According to internationally-accepted benchmarks drawn up by the United States Centre for Disease Control, such children fall into the category of "acute medical emergency" and require immediate hospitalisation.

There might have been - let's be very clear - there might have been a lack of co-operation on the ground
Soren Jessen-Petersen

Gerry McWeeney, a British epidemiologist working in the three camps - Zitkovac, Cesmin Lug and Kablar - says the situation is "critical".

"It's what we would call a child environmental health disaster area," he said.

"We don't have any literature or documentation anywhere that has shown this kind of situation before. They need to be moved.''

Other health experts are more critical. After visiting the camps one world authority on environmental health described them as "shameful" and "a disgrace" that "would not be tolerated anywhere else in Europe".

In fact Unmik, the organisation in overall charge of the province, has known about the lead poisoning for at least five years. An Unmik report commissioned in 2000 recommended relocation of the camps because of it, but was never acted upon.

A WHO report published in June 2004 said the same, describing the situation as "urgent".

The Roma's houses are near a contaminated slag heap
Opinions vary as to how many people the lead has killed.

Most of those who have fallen ill have been treated in hospitals in Serbia, and human rights groups have had difficulty obtaining their medical records.

The WHO believes at least one child has died from lead poisoning, but others put the figure higher. Paul Polansky, an American who heads the Kosovo Roma Refugee Foundation, counts 27 dead.

Several kilometres from Zitkovac is the settlement where the Roma once lived. It used to be home to 9,000 - one of the biggest Romany settlements in the Balkans.

It has been a ruin since ethnic Albanians destroyed it after the war. After months of prevarication there are now plans to return the refugees (or Internally Displaced Persons - IDPs) to this area. But at the moment there's nowhere for them to live.

Unmik officials say the Roma have been offered temporary accommodation in less contaminated areas but turned it down.

'Difficult group'

But the man in overall charge of Kosovo, Unmik head Soren Jessen-Petersen, says he thinks "we all have a share of the responsibility" - the local authorities, the international community, Unmik and all the agencies, "all those who have been involved".

"There might have been - let's be very clear - there might have been a lack of co-operation on the ground. We are dealing with what we all know is a particularly difficult group. But that would not serve as an excuse for not addressing an acute health problem."

The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in Budapest is in the process of preparing a lawsuit against the United Nations Mission in Kosovo.

Claude Cahn from the ERRC said: "This is an extremely grave situation which the authorities have been aware of since 2000. We are in the process of taking legal action against both Unmik and the local authorities in the area."

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