Roma from Mitrovica in Kosovo.

Displaced, poisoned, ignored. Justice denied by United Nations
After the end of the war in Kosovo, in June 1999, up to 100.000 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians were forced to flee their homes. The Fabrička Mahala neighbourhood in the town of Mitrovicë/Mitrovica in north of Kosovo was a lively place with up to 8.000 inhabitants until it was attacked, burnt to the ground on 21 June 1999. People were killed and thousands were expelled while international "peacekeepers" belonging to the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) stood by and watched. The United Nations set up temporary camps for the expelled people. Originally planned for three months, Roma were forced to stay in these camps for years. On toxic grounds. Only in 2013, after thirteen years of exposure to lead contamination the last camp has been closed.

“I don’t know how much lead was in my blood, I just remember that in the camp my children used to take pills that they gave us, but since we came back there’s no-one looking after us and no-one has done any tests on my children … I didn’t know who to ask to test my children and I’m sick myself and can’t do anything.”

Fetija S., a widow with 10 children, has no idea how badly she, her late husband and her children were poisoned by their exposure to perhaps the most toxic environment in Europe, the lead-contaminated land next to the Trepca Mine complex in Mitrovicë/Mitrovica on Kosovo where Roma fleeing violence in post-war Kosovo found temporary shelter.

Drton C. tells a similar story.  He and his family spent over 10 years in camps in Mitrovicë/Mitrovica.  Whenever the wind blew he breathed in airborne dust particles and swallowed them.  He remembers a prickling sensation, “like something walking over me, like an ant”, as well as a pain in his stomach that he says was like something moving around inside him.

“My children had headaches and stomach pains, vomiting and very high fever. They were very weak and dizzy, they could hardly raise their arms.”

Fetija S. and Drton C. and their families are members of the Roma, Ashkali and Balkan Egyptians from the Fabrička Mahala neighbourhood in Mitrovicë/Mitrovica who were forced out of their homes in June 1999.

Hundreds of residents found refuge in emergency accommodation set up by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Žitkovac/Zitkovc, Kablare/Kablar and Cesmin Lug/Llugë and Leposavić/Leposaviq/ IDP camps.

The first three camps were built on land polluted with heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and cadmium at concentrations many times higher than nationally and internationally permitted limits. The camp in Leposavić/Leposaviq was a one-room hangar not suitable to host families.

In the camps, a limited effort was made to provide remedial nutrition as Drton C. states, “they gave us food, in the same way they would feed dogs.” The families had to return their empty juice cartons before they would be given their next ration. And then after they were rehoused, “nobody gave us any aid or medicine.”

The United Nations were from the year 2000 on, fully aware of the high level of lead contamination in the camps and the area around. The UN took precautious measures for its staff but didn’t inform the Roma living in these camps who continued to be exposed to poisoning for more years.

In 2004, Roma activists brought for the first time, cases symptomatic of lead poisoning among the children living in the camps to the attention of the authorities and the media. The World Health Organization (WHO) tested the same year, children and warned about the chronic irreversible effects of lead on the human body and urged UNMIK to immediately evacuate children and pregnant women from the camps.

In 2004 the death of a young girl in Žitkovac/Zitkovc, Jenita Mehmeti, was blamed on lead poisoning.

Blood tests of children in 2006 revealed in some analyses that lead levels went above the amount which could be measured.

In 2006, UNMIK relocated 560 camp residents from Žitkovac/Zitkovc, Kablare/Kablar and Cesmin Lug/Llugë to Osterode camp, a former army barracks almost next door to the Cesmin Lug/Llugë camp.

Osterode was overlooked by waste heaps from a shut-down lead smelting plant. Every breeze carried toxic dust into the camp. While the other camps were gradually closed down until 2010, Osterode camp was closed only in 2013.

Drton C., pictured sitting with his wife in front of his house in south Mitrovica.
Photo by Argentina  Gidzic. 

The warning of WHO on the long-term, chromic consequences became reality for many of the former camp inhabitants.

Fetija S. has never had a full medical examination, but she knows that she’s unwell. “I’m not well, I have a heart condition and blood pressure problems. I have difficulty breathing.”  She has to care for her children who suffer from a range of medical conditions.

In 2016, the UN Human Rights Advisory Panel found that United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) had violated the victims’ rights to life and health and recommended that the organisation should “take appropriate steps towards payment of adequate compensation”. The United Nations, however, didn’t only fail to pay compensation, they didn’t even apologise until today.

Drton C. picking up aluminium cans to sell for recycling. 
Photo by Argentina Gidzic.

Fetija S. struggles to cope with the hardships of poverty.  She rummages through piles of garbage in order to be able to feed her children – otherwise it’s a choice between buying food or paying the heating bill. 

Like Fetija S., Drton C. struggles to make ends meet.  “Everything is so expensive and we don’t have enough money even for everyday groceries and bread.” And when the money you earn from collecting empty Coca Cola cans and selling them on to an aluminum recycler (3 euros for a day’s work) is just enough to buy bread, you can’t afford the medical treatment you know you need.  “That’s how my young brother Vebi died and left 3 children and a wife.”

In 2017, the Society for Threatened People surveyed the long-term health effects reported by 50 families (including 213 children). Interviewees reported a long list of symptoms including neurological disorders, impaired immune systems, kidney and heart disease, respiratory disorders, impaired motor skills, memory problems, etc. The survey also recorded the long-term impact of illness and neglect – educational under-achievement, reduced employment prospects, poverty and discrimination.

Organisations and journalists promised to bring aid and even resettle them in another country, “but they never came back”. After the families were rehoused they were told that they would be seen by a doctor in the village, but “they let us down, like everybody else.” Four members of D.C.’s family – his father, mother, brother and niece – died with symptoms of lead poisoning: respiratory problems, vomiting blood and cancer. Drton C. has a cancerous growth on his hand that needs to be removed but he can’t pay for an operation.

If it would have been for individual activists and human rights organisations, the fate of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians exposed to lead poisoning by the United Nations would have gone unnoticed. However, even with the attention the activists and organisations could raise, justice remained undone. People have died, people still suffer and United Nations doesn’t assume the responsibility it carries and disregards the findings of its own body, the UN Human Rights Advisory Panel.

Fetija S. with her son in front of her house in south Mitrovica.
Photo by Argentina Gidzic.

Written by: Argentina Gidžić, Owen Beith, Jasna Causevic (Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), Germany)