Monday, 20 June 2005

A poisonous environment: conditions for Roma in Kosova

The international community has watched between 1 and 27 Roma children die of lead poisoning in Mitrovice, Kosovo.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) believes that "at least one child has died from lead poisoning", but the Kosovo Roma Refugee Foundation (KRRF) believes 27 children have been killed.

According to BBC News on the 13th of June, "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 United Nations (UN) next to a disused - but contaminated - lead smelter in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo". Labelled an "environmental disaster" by the World Health Organisation (WHO); it has been identified more plainly as a "shameful... disgrace" by independent health experts, though you need no medical qualifications to allow you to reach that conclusion.

The United Nations Mission In Kosovo (UNMIK) has "known about the lead poisoning for at least five years", asserting the need to move the victims at the time - then asserting the same thing again four years later, having the gall to describe the situation as "urgent".

"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.'"

UNMIK have now started to work out how to return the refugees to their homes, "but at the moment there's nowhere for them to live", as their homes have been destroyed and their communities driven out. I can't think why anyone would reject such a generous offer! It's: "temporary" (so they couldn't stay there but could be moved again to another unacceptable site)... and still - but "less" contaminated (so the children die of slow lead poisoning - apparently they thrive on it and it's rapidly catching up with phonics in popularity in British education)... UNMIK head, Soren Jessen-Petersen, did have the good grace to admit that "we... all those who have been involved... have a share of the responsibility" - and even when he tried to mar that admission by blaming what "might have been a lack of co-operation on the ground" on 'the Roma', who "we all know is a particularly difficult group", he conceded that that "would not serve as an excuse for not addressing an acute health problem".

Claude Cahn, from the European Roma Rights Centre (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 (sic) and the local authorities in the area.'"

(This post's original name - "a literally poisonous environment" - was changed to help searches.)

[Mitrovice/Mitrovica and samarkeolog updated on the 25th of October 2007.]

I was delighted to read that, finally,
The UN refugee agency [UNHCR] has helped 92 members of Kosovo's minority Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian (RAE) communities to return to their home district in the divided city of Mitrovica....

The 92 Roma moved into two new apartment blocks in Roma Mahala, which was destroyed after its 8,000 inhabitants fled eight years ago fearing attacks from extremists. The municipality of Mitrovica granted the land on which the new apartment blocks were built....

Returnees receive food and non-food packages for an initial period of three months. The UN refugee agency will help and advise them in areas such as property rights, socio-economic rights, civil registration, and capacity building and income-generating initiatives.
Yet, according to the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC),
Residents of the Osterode IDP camp complained to the ERRC that since December 2006, humanitarian food aid had been cut for residents of that camp. In addition, doctors who had regularly checked the health status of children in the camp had also stopped coming since January 2007....
Former Roma Mahalla Residents' Association for Protecting Roma Rights (APRR) representative and lead-contaminated internally displaced persons (IDP) camp resident,
Mr [Skender] Gusani's primary concern related to the fact that while 57 families had moved into the new flats and houses, only 13 of those families had been living in the IDP camps in Northern Mitrovica. The majority of the families given housing in the new buildings were reportedly Romani, Ashkalia and Egyptian returnees from Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, other parts of Kosovo, and elsewhere....

[Moreover] ownership of the new houses was not being passed to the occupants. Property rights were given to the occupants in the form of 99-year leases. Mr Gusani expressed great frustration with this given that houses were intended for those Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptians who had legally owned their houses in the mahala before the war....

[Furthermore] the houses built under the supervision of Danish Refugee Council (DRC) were of very poor quality.... The red bricks were themselves both the outer and inner walls, with no form of insulation included in the construction; the interior walls had merely been painted white....

The houses were heated by electric heaters purchased by the occupants. Almost all of the homes were constructed on multiple levels, and one house visited by the ERRC had stairs on the outside of the structure which the occupants had to use to move between their sleeping area and their living, eating and sanitary area. Given the winter weather in Kosovo, such conditions are highly inadequate.

.... Rubble and dust had not been covered with grass or stone and in the windy weather on the day of the ERRC visit, dust and dirt filled the air making it impossible to be outside in the area.
(Some quoted paragraphs broken for readability.)

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