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U.N. admits doing little to halt Gypsy lead poisoning
by Bruce I. Konviser    The Philadelphia Inquirer
Entered into the database on Monday, September 05th, 2005 @ 10:42:06 MST


Untitled Document

MITROVICA, Serbia and Montenegro - The graphite-colored lines running across the childrens' teeth highlight the neglect of hundreds of Gypsies suffering from lead poisoning.

The children and their families are living here in three camps run by the United Nations for displaced people, and the U.N. acknowledges it has failed to protect them from lead-related illnesses.

"It is true that the internationals let this go on for too long," says Laurie Wiseberg, the U.N.'s Minority Rights Advisor in Kosovo, who reports directly to the head of mission, Soren Jessen-Petersen. "We should not have, and I think Soren Petersen has acknowledged that we haven't moved fast enough on this."

Many aid agencies are calling for the immediate relocation of the Gypsies, or Roma, as they prefer to be called, who were first settled into camps at the end of 1999 after Kosovo Albanians razed their homes during a bout of ethnic cleansing.

Downplaying the urgency of the health crisis, Wiseberg instead is pursuing a long-term solution: returning the Roma to their original settlements.

The three encampments were supposed to be temporary shelters - for 45 days at most. But six years later the Roma are still living in the shadows of disused, industrialized, smelting operations where, with every gust of wind, the giant slag heaps sprinkle lead-laden dust particles on the camps.

The World Health Organization reported on the crisis last summer and has since completed two further studies. An executive summary of the latest report, due out soon, says that the children, comprising about a third of the more than 500 displaced Roma, are particularly at risk.

Among the WHO's conclusions:

In the Zitkovac camp, 23 of 26 children under age 6 had blood-lead levels greater than 65 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dl), the highest level the on-site blood lead analyzer could register.

Children suffering from acute lead poisoning (defined as above 70 ug/dl) are not getting adequate medical care.

Even those with the lowest measures have three times the permissible blood lead level for children (10 ug/dl).

Rokho Kim, a WHO epidemiologist, visited the affected camps in February and contributed to the latest report. "Relocation is the only fundamental solution," he says.

Four of Ashima Avdija's eight children are suffering from life-threatening levels of lead poisoning. She wants to leave the Zitkovac camp as soon as possible.

"The kids vomit, they walk like they're drunk, and they are easily annoyed," Avdija says, speaking outside her dilapidated home. "For the kids, it can never be good here."

Paul Polansky, director of the Kosovo Roma Rights Foundation, has chronicled more than two dozen deaths in the camps. Although autopsies were not performed, he believes those under 50 died of lead-related illnesses.

Among the victims was 4-year-old Djenita Mehmeti. The little girl was admitted to a Belgrade hospital last summer with a blood-lead level of 65 ug/dl. She died shortly after being returned to the Zitkovac camp.

"Every child conceived in these camps will have irreversible brain damage," Polansky says.

The U.N. Mission In Kosovo (UNMIK) has known about the health hazard since 2000, when its own report confirmed the dangers. It documented lead in soil and locally grown food at more than 120 times acceptable levels. Further warnings came from a French Army Health Services report, which recorded similar lead levels in the air, and a U.S. Army recommendation that international security forces limit rotation lengths and returns for soldiers serving in the area.

UNMIK responded to the report by doing virtually nothing, critics say, even though a U.N. resolution gave the agency ultimate authority in Kosovo.

Pascale Meige, head of mission for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kosovo, is among those clamoring for quick action.

"We fully support the recommendations of the WHO that there should be an immediate evacuation of those camps," he says.

The province remains under U.N. control until it can administer itself, either as a largely autonomous region within Serbia or as a sovereign state.

Mitrovica remains an ethnic flash point, divided by the Ibar River, with ethnic Albanians in the south and Serbs and Roma in the north. Given the protracted ethnic tensions, aid agencies want UNMIK to separate the repatriation issue from the lead-poisoning crisis.

But Wiseberg continues to navigate a thicket of political, social and economic obstacles in the hope of returning a majority of the camps' inhabitants to their prewar homes across the river.

The Albanians insist a local housing estate that was home to 8,000 Roma be rebuilt in three-story blocks, something the Roma, who have always lived in single-family dwellings, oppose. Wiseberg's plan - which she admits relies somewhat on "hope" - is that if the rebuilding begins, the Roma will commit to moving in and donor concerns about financing the $10 million project will evaporate.

Meanwhile, critics say UNMIK is using a cosmetic makeover to create the image that it is taking action.

Since the spring, a UNMIK-backed plan has enabled the Danish Refugee Council to begin distributing low-fat milk and other calcium-rich foods. Kim Vetting, a project manager for the DRC, admits the program is of little value unless the people are relocated.

"We are basically the scapegoat being put here for you [journalists] to say, 'Yes, yes, but UNMIK is doing something,' " Vetting says.

Wiseberg disagreed, insisting that this aid will help reduce the lead levels in the Roma.

But Kim, the WHO epidemiologist, says calcium-rich foods alone are "not a solution to the problem at all."

Most of the Roma have little or no education and don't understand much of the politics swirling about. But they see the effects of UNMIK inaction.

"The children have lead poisoning," Dorija Hajdari says as she holds her 2-year-old son, Duskin. "At first it was 30 (ug/dl) and then it went up to 60. We would love to live in some place clean - some place where the children can go out and play."