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
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
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."