Saturday, March 13, 2010




Scientists announce results of latest lead testing at toxic camps and Roma mahalla in Mitrovica, Kosovo. New film "Lead Mountain Refugees" points finger at French minister, Bernard Kouchner. Another camp death brings the total to 86, since UNHCR set up camps for Roma families on deadly toxic waste.

Thursday 11th March:

A British team of scientists from Aberystwyth University has just published their findings after completing a series of tests in the lead contaminated camps and their vicinity. They reveal high levels of toxicity in both Osterode and Cesmin Lug. Among their recomendations is a call for urgent closure. Other tests showed that the destroyed Roma Mahalla, once home to over 8000, had one of the lowest levels of pollution in the area.

Wed 11th March: A new film, "Lead Mountain Refugees" heavily criticises the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner for his role in setting up camps for displaced Roma families.

Tuesday 9th March: At the lead contaminated camps of Osterode and Cesmin Lug set up for displced Roma families by UNHCR, camp representatives announced that yet another death had occurred, that of a one year old baby. This brings the total number of deaths to 86.

Meanwhile, in spite of numerous calls from the World Health Organisation, Human Rights Watch, and activists' groups for immediate evacuation and proper medical treatment, only long term resettlement plans with no evidence of medical treatment are being considered for the victims suffering from the world's highest levels of lead and other heavy metal poisoning.

The report, latest film and full details can be found via

History of Kouchner's Camps: Witness Paul Polansky Historian, Author and Poet

Although the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and ethnic Albanian extremists started this senseless tragedy during the summer of 1999, they only succeeded because French NATO troops allowed the ethnic cleansing to take place. It did not happen overnight. It took three months for all the Roma and Ashkali families (about 8,000 people; the largest Gypsy community in Kosovo) to flee their homes.

A month after it started, I heard about the diaspora from Mitrovica Roma seeking refuge in the UNHCR camp by Obilich where I worked as an advisor to the UN on their “Gypsy” problems. I borrowed a car and drove to the scene. It was heart wrenching to see terrified parents carrying crying children, dragging suitcases and whatever else they could carry: a cooking pot, a mattress, a radio. When I arrived, many Gypsies were pleading with the heavily armed French soldiers to save them. I joined in, demanding that the French soldiers intervene. One French officer harshly explained that NATO troops were not a police force. Then I was detained and taken to french army headquarters in a downtown hotel. French Intel took my photo and then told me I did not have permission to return to the French sector of Kosovo.

A week later I did return, using a press pass in a different name. I found about 800 Mitrovica Gypsy refugees in a Serbian school house the other side of the Ibar River . They had no food, no soap. The toilets were overflowing. No aid agency had discovered them yet; or, according to some accounts, was ignoring them. I got Oxfam in Pristina to bring them drinking water and hygiene products, and then reported their plight to un mISSION IN kOSOVO (UNMIK). A few days later UNHCR brought the Gypsies food parcels.

By the middle of September the Serbs wanted their educational facility back for the school year. So French troops and UN police moved the Gypsies to tents on toxic wasteland near the village of Zitkovac .

This time I protested directly to Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG), Dr. Bernard Kouchner. David Reilly, the head of UNHCR, came with me. Toxic slag heaps surrounded the Gypsy camp. You could smell the toxic elements. When the wind blew, lead dust covered everything and made breathing difficult. Dr. Kouchner, a famous French humanitarian activist, assured me the Gypsies would only be on this site for 45 days. By then they would either have been taken back to their homes and protected by French troops or taken to another country as refugees. He said he was a doctor. He understood the life-threatening dangers of living on or near toxic slag heaps. He said, “As a doctor, as well as the chief administrator of Kosovo, I would be derelict if I let this threat to the health of children and pregnant women continue for one more day.” He also stated the situation was a crime.

In November I returned to the United States to write about my experiences in Kosovo. When I came back the next spring to visit the minority settlements in Kosovo and report on their conditions for Society for Threatened Peoples (GFBV), I visited these Mitrovica Gypsies. They had not been taken back to their homes or to a third country. They were now being housed in temporary barracks in three camps, all on toxic wasteland.

I was also shocked to find out that my friend David Reily, 50, had died in his Pristina apartment in January from a heart attack. His replacement, a New Zealander by the name of MacNamara refused to receive me to discuss the plight of these 800 Roma/Ashkali in the UNHCR lead polluted camps. However, I was encouraged that Dr. Kouchner had ordered his UN medical team to take blood samples of the Gypsy children living on the toxic dumps to see if there was any danger to their lives.

I returned to the States before the results were known. But when I returned to Kosovo the next spring (2001) and found the Gypsies still living in these three camps, administered by the Swiss aid agency ACT and their implementing partner, Norwegian Church Aid, I presumed Kouchner’s medical team had found the sites safe.

Although Kouchner and I had exchanged letters in 2000 over the plight of other Roma and Ashkali suffering freedom of movement in other parts of Kosovo and a lack of humanitarian aid, I never saw Kouchner again.

Now living fulltime in Kosovo, I kept in regular contact with the Gypsies in the toxic wasteland camps. When ACT and NCA stopped delivering food and hygiene products in 2002, I started taking the Gypsies what little aid I could find. I also hired two Romani sisters (Tina and Dija) to teach the camp women and children better hygiene although it was difficult to keep the children clean from the dust that blew in off the slag heaps since they spent most of the day outside.

I did not realize that something was terribly wrong in the camps until my two Romani sisters told me that the camp women were complaining about a high number of miscarriages and that many of the children were always sick (vomiting and falling in and out of coma). Then some of the children died.

The death that focused my mind on what was happening in the camps was that of four-year old Jenita Mehmeti. She was attending her camp kindergarten when her teacher noticed Jenita was losing her memory and finding it hard to walk. She was taken to the local hospital in Mitrovica, and then urgently transferred by ambulance to a better equipped hospital in Kraguevac ( Serbia ). Jenita was there for three months before she died. The cause of death was listed as “herpes,” a non-fatal infection unless you had no immune system. Like Aids, lead poisoning destroys the immune system especially in children under the age of six years.

Shortly after Jenita’s death in July 2004, a UN medical team led by the World Health organization (WHO) took blood tests of many children in all three camps to see if they had lead poisoning since their symptoms pointed in that direction. The results shocked everyone. The lead levels in many of the children were higher than the analyser machine could measure. By November it was reported by WHO that some of the lead levels among the camp children were the highest ever reported in medical literature.

Within days of the blood tests being released, WHO called for the immediate evacuation of the three camps. A few weeks later International Comm Red Cross (ICRC) joined many other NGOs in calling for an urgent medical evacuation.

On November 25, at an NGO meeting in UNMIK headquarters in south Mitrovica, it was revealed by the Norwegian Church Aid representative that Dr. Kouchner’s medical team had also found high lead levels in the children’s blood in the summer of 2000. A report prepared by the UN medical team at that time recommended the three camps be evacuated. I immediately asked UNMIK for a copy of that 2000 report. I was told it was not available to the public.

Knowing several Albanians working at UNMIK, I tried to bribe one of them to get a copy of the report for me. I was told it was under lock and key and considered “top secret.”

A year later I found the UN medical team report dated November 2000 on the web (not listed as a UNMIK document, but under the doctor’s name that had co-authored the report). I tracked down the doctor, Andrej Andrejew. He was now working for a pharmaceutical firm in Berlin . Over lunch, he confirmed that the lead levels in 2000 had been so high among the Gypsy camp children that the lab in Belgium that analysed their blood samples thought a mistaken had been made because the lab had never seen such high lead levels. Kouchner’s former UN doctor was shocked to hear the camps had not been evacuated and the land fenced off so the public could not accidently wander in, as he had recommended in his report. Shortly after finishing his report, Andrej had left Kosovo and just presumed Kouchner had followed the recommendations of his UN medical team.

Although Kouchner and I had exchanged letters in 2000 over the plight of other Roma and Ashkali suffering freedom of movement in other parts of Kosovo and a lack of humanitarian aid, I never saw Kouchner again.

I was the first journalist to go public with the story about the camps. In an Op Ed piece in the International Herald Tribune dated April 25, 2005, I described the horror and wrote that 25 Gypsies had died to date in the camps, most from complications due to lead poisoning. Despite this international news story, UNMIK still refused to evacuate the camps.

From then on, my GFBV team and I visited the camps several times a week to monitor the health of the children. One day I was told by Jenita’s mother that her two-year-old daughter Nikolina was now showing the same symptoms that Jenita had demonstrated before she died. The UN medical team for north Mitrovica was notified. They requested from their chief medical officer permission to immediate transportation of Nikolina to Belgrade , to the only hospital in the Balkans that treated lead poisoning. The UN chief medical officer in Mitrovica, Dr. Sergey Shevchenko, refused.

The next day I personally called Dr. Shevchenko and begged him to transport Nikolina to Belgrade . He again refused. Instead of arguing with him (an English-speaking optometrist from Vladivostok , Russia ) my team and I took Nikolina and her mother to Belgrade in my caravan. Since they had no passports, not even any personal documents, I had to smuggle them across the Serbian-Kosovo border hidden in my caravan toilet.

In Belgrade , Nikolina was found to have life-threatening lead levels. After three weeks of treatment her lead levels were reduced but I was warned she probably had irreversible brain damage and that if she were taken back to the source of poisoning she would probably die. With the help of a Dutchman who worked for an international NGO we rented an apartment in the village of Priluzje where Jenita’s family had relatives. Using my caravan, I personally evacuated them and their few meager possessions from their UN barracks. Later I found an American donor who bought them a piece of land. After a year, an international NGO built them a house.

Because I could not get the UN in Kosovo to evacuate the three camps and save these Romani and Ashkali children, I self-published a small book UN-Leaded Blood about their plight and produced a documentary film Gypsy Blood. Although both caused a scandal in Kosovo, the UN still refused to evacuate and medically treat these children.

While making my documentary film, we discovered another family who also had children with the same life-threatening lead levels as Jenita and Nikolina. But before I could do anything, their mother and baby brother died. A doctor I asked to investigate their deaths was convinced they had both died of complications due to lead poisoning. He didn’t think the remaining seven children would survive unless they were removed from the source of poisoning and received urgent medical treatment.

Once again the complacent, callous UNMIK administration refused to do anything. So my German NGO, GFBV, contacted the largest circulation newspaper in Germany and asked them to visit the camp and write a story about this tragedy. Not only did the newspaper, Bild Zeitung, come to Kosovo but they also agreed through their foundation for children (Ein Herz fuer Kinder) to take the entire family to Germany for medical treatment. To help transport this family to Germany and to look after them while they went through their medical examinations, the newspaper asked me and my Romani team to accompany the family.

In Germany it was discovered that not only did the Romani family require medical treatment but also my Romani team and I did. Our lead levels from only periodic visits to the camps were double the level that could cause irreversible brain damage. So along with the seven Romani children and their father, my team and I were also treated for lead poisoning.

Before being treated, all of us had a body scan. When seven-year-old Denis went through the body scan the German doctor in charge pointed out the kid’s liver to me, and said: “That’s the liver of a 60-year-old alcoholic who drinks a bottle of whiskey every day. This kid won’t live to be 20 or 30 years old. That’s what lead poisoning has done to him!”

In 2006, the UN finally decided to do something to quell the outrage my team and the American lawyer Dianne Post, now representing more than 150 of the camp Roma/Ashkali, were continuing to generate about the lead poisoning tragedy. In 2005, the French army had decided to move out of their camp in north Mitrovica. The UN took it over and evacuated two of the three Gypsy camps to the former French camp.

Once again I was shocked by the UN’s callousness attitude to this situation. The French camp, called Osterode, was only 50 meters from two of the lead-infected Gypsy camps. The French camp was also covered from time to time by the toxic dust blowing in off the 100 million ton slag heap hovering over the area. French soldiers, that both I and a New York Times reporter had interviewed on separate occasions, claimed that French military doctors had warned every soldier serving in the camp not to father children for nine months after leaving Kosovo because of the high lead levels in their blood.

However, after spending 500,000 Euros donated by the German government to remodel the Osterode camp, an environmental assessment team from CDC in Atlanta , Georgia , declared Osterode to be “lead safe.” The USA office in Pristina then declared they were prepared to donate $900,000 for lead treatment and a better diet for the children evacuated to Osterode. UNMIK also promised that the Gypsies would only be in Osterode for a maximum of one year. By then they would be moved to new apartments being built for them in their old neighborhood.

Since several NGOs and the camp leaders did not believe that Osterode was “lead safe,” many of the children had their lead levels checked shortly after moving into Osterode. One year later their lead levels were checked again. Not surprising to me and my team, but surprising to UNMIK, many of the lead levels had actually gone up in Osterode despite a better diet and some basic medical treatment for lead poisoning. When those results were released, the local doctors administering the medical treatment stopped, saying they were doing more harm than good. Once again it was stated that people had to be removed from the source of poisoning before they could be treated for lead poisoning.

When I published the first article about the camps in the International Herald Tribune in 2005 I had reported that 27 Gypsies (including many children) had already died in the camps. By the end of 2006 that number had more than doubled, and by the end of 2009 the figure stood at 84. And Gypsies were still living in Osterode and in the next door camp of Cesmin Lug.

UKAGW must question the sanity of the CDC and the US office in Pristina. How could they declare Osterode camp to be 'Lead Safe' when a 200 metre high 100 million tons of Lead Waste was situated within spitting distance?

How do the German and American people feel about their taxes being squandered to aid and support the extinction of a whole generation of Roma people.

Kouchner, his UNHCR cronies and every individual that has taken a hand in decisions that have ensured that the Roma people did not escape the nightmare of living on the toxic waste camps in Kosovo should be tried for the crime of genocide against humanity.

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