Sunday, October 10, 2010


This is a photo of Ergin and his brother Robert, both victims of acute lead poisoning.  I received a more recent picture but I could not get it to copy on the blog.  Robert is almost 8 now and he is still as tiny and his eyes are sad and dulled.

This is an excerpt from a message from my friend Rachael, with the United Kingdom Association of Gypsy Women.  I had asked her what she knew about the movement of Romani from one of the lead camps.
"... i believe 44 families have moved to new Roma Mahalla, but certainly, no-one is being treated for lead poisoning yet and there appear to be no plans for treatment of those who moved to mahalla several years ago who were contaminated. It is still a very bleak situation I have attached Roseanna McPhee report on her Fact-finding in Kosovo which is an update on the camps, and a Romany Poem which I think would be nice for your blog..."


By Roseanna McPhee

In July 2010, I undertook a fact-finding visit to the lead-poisoned camps of Osterode and Cesmin Lug in the town of Mitrovicia, Kosovo under the auspices of the UKAGW.

As a reporter/presenter in conjunction with an experienced journalist; namely Derek MacKay. By doing so, I was afforded the opportunity to see for myself at first-hand how appalling were the conditions on Osterode and Cesmin Lug and the effects thereof upon the daily life of the residents.

It also allowed me a window of opportunity in so far as I interviewed not only residents on the sites and the new Mahalla to which they are being repatriated, as well as those Roma families currently living on the Oblic Mahalla, but also a number of officials including the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) representative; the UN Mission In Kosovo (UNMIK) representative, doctors at the local hospital, a leading toxicologist, health workers, aid workers among whom was a Roma activist working for the Swedish International Peace Foundation (SIPF), a Roma broadcaster and Roma primary teacher; not to mention the Deputy Communities Minister/Minister for Returns from the Kosovan Government.

The level of poverty was excruciating; even in the 5 year old Mahalla at Oblic where young children had no food for days because their fathers could not access any kind of employment whatsoever and were reduced to scavenging in the bins which were full of metallic objects carrying large amounts of lead.

At the camps themselves, we had it confirmed that residents had been placed there by the UN for an initial period of 6 months in 1999. This was despite the fact that the KFOR French troops had been removed from these camps on discovering the ridiculously high levels of lead contamination which was deemed to present a risk to the troops’ health.

Moreover, the condition of the old army barracks left little to be desired; particularly at Cesmin Lug where there were corrugated iron roofs on the ‘huts’ which each contained 1 room for sitting, sleeping and eating an a small annexe for cooking/toilet and washing near the door as we entered. There was no hot water and heating was by gas bottle.

There were disturbing similarities to my own site, Bobbin Mill, which also consisted historically of old army barracks with tin roofs, riddled with asbestos and some 60 years later were similarly hanging in bits – an epitome of dilapidation.

If anything, conditions on Cesmin Lug were even worse than on Osterode, where the condition of the barracks was slightly better; being built of stone and cement, albeit small, cramped and over-crowded inside.

However, the level of contamination was believed to be worse on Osterode than on Cesmin Lug, according to anecdotal evidence. Certainly the children we saw appeared to be in a worse physical state, more frail than the children we encountered at Cesmin Lug and with obvious markings on their skin which attested to the level of lead poisoning afflicting their small bodies.

Nonetheless, there was sickness on Cesmin Lug also which was attributed to the same cause – lead poisoning from the disused mines and accompanying factory which was clearly seen over the wall from Cesmin Lug. On a windy day, the heavy clouds of pollution could be clearly seen above the site.

On Cesmin Lug, I spoke to an Albanian family which were living on the camp because they had been herded there historically for safety on returning from Montenegro. They were quite angry about the conditions they had been left to live in on the site and laid the blame for this squarely at the feet of the UN. However, unlike the family of Latif who was an indigenous Kosovan Roma, they felt that the Kosovan Albanian Government did not deliberately discriminate against Roma.

Latif Musurica, who impressed me as a very straightforward and honest person, felt that all of the authorities and agencies were complicit in the appalling treatment and that there was indeed a high level of discrimination. He did, however, reserve his worst criticism for the UN because he told me, with a hint of bitterness, that they had been placed there initially by the UN for a few months but when people fell sick on the site and it came to light that it was due to lead poisoning, the UN eventually placed the responsibility at the feet of the new Kosovan Government.

He couldn’t understand why the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Organisation for Security & Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) or EU had done nothing to remove the families when the World Health Organization (WHO) tested the soil and then the children’s blood which showed the level of lead poison to be in the range of 45mg per decilitre – the safety limit being 15mg per decilitre.

His friend, Qasim, who had moved in recent months to the new Mahalla, was similarly angry when asked about the UN and pointed out to us that they must have known about the potential health risks to the families placed there when they were aware of the risks to the French troops and promptly removed them from the site. The UN appeared to have simply left the people there to stagnate for 11 years without taking any effective action to evacuate the families concerned.

I later interviewed Russell Geekie, UNMIK, and although he seemed apologetic and said that this shouldn’t have happened he sought to explain the UN’s actions by pointing out the initial dangers of war and the fact that the placement had been intended only to be for 6 months. He further attempted to explain the lack of effective remedy to the problem in terms of the difficulties posed by political tensions which, he contested, made it problematic to get agreement even on land to which the families could be evacuated; let alone who would pick up the financial tab.

This was in part due to the fact that the Serbians were refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the Kosovan Government which is mainly Albanian and therefore there is an uneasy power-sharing going on in the sense that many of the Municipalities are Serbian- run, making it difficult for the central Kosovan Government to enforce anything. Russell Geekie pointed to this as being a hurdle to overcome, even if aid was forthcoming from outside, because it was necessary to arrive at agreement between the Albanian run central government and the Serbian municipalities or worse still, those municipalities for which both Serb and Albanians had joint responsibility in respect of day-to-day management.

He further pointed out that we must look forward and in doing so, the Mahalla ought to have a further 50 homes ready for allocation to the sickest families on Osterode and Cesmin Lug.

We visited one of the sickest families on Osterode; namely the Sahili family whose children Ergin 9 and Robert 7 became the focus of an international campaign to help the children by providing them with a special diet to alleviate the effects of the lead poison. It was this campaign in which the UKAGW played a vigorous lobbying role and, indeed, one of its leading lights ended up sponsoring the special diet for these children that drew me to Kosovo and particularly to Osterode on a fact-finding mission for the UKAGW.

Safeeta Sahili called her two small children into the impoverished hut where they lived so that we could see their pock-marked faces which clearly showed large white patches not unlike vitiligo, on a surround of yellowish-tinged skin. She spoke to us of the problems faced by the younger boy, Robert, whose growth was stunted – he looked like a much younger, smaller child – and who was suffering from a degree of brain-damage and faced potential fertility problems as his genitalia had been adversely affected by the level of lead poisoning.

Despite all of this, she would not be drawn upon the apportioning of blame to the Kosovan Government; simply saying “I don’t know what to tell you,” and looking at the figure in the doorway of the Albanian aid agency Kosovo Agency & Advocacy Development (KAAD) representative before answering.

She was much more enthusiastic about blaming the UN and although there was no doubt that the UN must accept the lion’s share of the blame, I couldn’t help thinking as I went round talking to the families on the both sites and the new Mahalla, that it was almost as if it was politically acceptable to blame the UN and people were wary about criticising the new Kosovan Government.

Moreover, while the Sahili family state that they did not want to remove themselves to the new Mahalla for fear of retaliation by the Albanians, although their children were now enrolled at the local Albanian school and one of the girls I interviewed was working as a trainee teacher in the school.

It crossed my mind therefore, that given the fact that the children might die if the families on Osterode refused to move to the Mahalla, the agencies working with the families could have been doing more to alleviate the fears of the residents on the sites – perhaps taking them up there once a week to meet with other families who had been living there for some time without fear of attack.

Indeed, it was not fear of retaliation that most of the Mahalla residents commented upon but the fact that there was not enough medical, educational or dietary support on the site.

I spoke to Mirusha who had returned from Montenegro to be placed on Cesmin Lug and then the new Mahalla. She said that her children were still ill from the lead poisoning but that there was no medical aid being provided on the new Mahalla and that she could not afford the fees for a doctor, Instead, she told us that if her children were very ill, she normally treated them with vinegar and alcohol. She said that most things were better on the Mahalla but complained of the lack of support, lack of medical aid and inability to access employment; hence the family were often without food.

The children were going off-site to the village schools – a Serbian one in the north of the town and an Albanian one nearer to the site - from the Mahalla which meant that they wouldn’t be getting the sandwich, fruit and milk provided in the UNICEF school on Osterode. Although Johannes Wiedgr who headed up the UNICEF operation on Osterode implied that this constituted a ‘specially designed nutritional diet to alleviate the lead-poisoning’ the fact remained that this was an added meal which proved attractive to a number of children and so brought them into the on-site school where they received lessons from a number of teachers, including a Roma teacher who taught Romany Studies.

Furthermore, books, jotters, pens and pencils were provided in the on-site school at Osterode but Qasim and others in the new Mahalla complained that they could not afford to send their children to school with these luxuries. Indeed, some complained that the government was withdrawing the social assistance and as they could not gain employment, they found themselves often without food.

Others spoke of plans to grow vegetables on the ground at the Mahalla but expressed concern about the level of contamination there too, saying that the whole of Mitrovica was contaminated; something which was borne out by a leading Belgian toxicologist who was researching the level of soil contamination in the area. Thus, this idea to fend off starvation looked like it could be doomed from the start.

In fact, the special diet was being provided to some families by the KAAD Albanian aid agency given the contract by the Kosovan Government and where there was a deficit as in the case of the Sahili family from whom KAAD decided to remove the special diet (despite the fact that Robert and Ergin would die without it) because of economics, the field- worker for the SIPF, Jaffir Bouzoli, brought in the black bread and specially prepared bottled water, fruit and vegetables on a weekly basis; bought by private sponsorship and donations, such as that provided by our own UKAGW member.

Moreover, Johannes Wiedgr also told me that although the UNICEF project may move to the Mahalla with the rest of the residents, they would be looking to withdraw from the site to allow the residents to become independent and able to run their own day-to-day affairs with a view to integrating into the wider community. He also spoke of plans to train and employ 80 Roma through scholarships and traineeships such as pre-school teachers, health visitors on their hygiene programme and builders on apprenticeships building the new homes which will be needed to accommodate all of the returnees from other countries such as Italy, Germany and Montenegro.

In order, to get a glimpse of what life might be like for the families once they had been re-settled in the Mahalla’s, we went to visit a 5 year old Mahalla at Oblic.

The level of poverty was appalling.

We interviewed Riza Berisha and his wife who was nursing a young baby. They lived in a 1 roomed flat with a few cushions on the floor for sitting on, sleeping and eating on.

The baby was crying forlornly when we arrived, and the young man explained that they had no money for food for the children and the baby hadn’t had a bottle for 2 days as his neighbours had no more milk that they could lend them.

He explained that they didn’t pay rent but that the majority of the money given to them in benefits went on electricity and so they didn’t have enough money for food. One of the children was also running around bare-foot. He also told us how he grew up in Germany during the war years and that he could at least get some manual work there. He talked extensively of the inability of all the young men to get any kind of work and how there were no aid agencies to help them. None of the support agencies seen at work on Osterode visited the Mahalla at Oblic.

There was no support network for the residents who were basically starving due to the lack of employment opportunities and they were spending their day’s scavenging for metallic objects in the bins, just as they were doing near Osterode; Cesmin Lug and the new Mahalla at Mitrovica.

This I am sure put them all at risk of the lead-poisoning through contamination by handling rubbish in the bins and although we were told by the residents that there was no lead contamination on the site, we actually saw disused factories and mines nearby, large black clouds close to the site and even some of the children on site had the same markings on their faces as Ergin and Robert at Osterode.

I raised all of these concerns about what would happen to the residents of Osterode and Cesmin Lug once they had settled in at the Mahalla; pointing to the lack of economic opportunities, poverty and lack of community development witnessed at the Oblic Mahalla when I interviewed the Kosovan Deputy Communities Minister/ Minister for Returns, Professor Dr. Ishmet Hashani. He was quick to point out that the Kosovan Government had only been in place since 2008 and already they had started to evacuate people to the Mahalla, that they were also helping some returnees to access private accommodation.

He immediately apologised for the length of time these kosovan citizens had been forced to live on the camps but placed the responsibility firmly at the feet of the UNMIK and explained that the Government had hired an agency called ‘KAAD’ to dispense a special diet to help the weakest on the camps.

He proceeded to inform me that he had actually been instrumental in getting the Municipality of Oblic to agree to fund and build the Mahalla there for the Roma returnees, when he was Mayor of Oblic. He did, however, admit that there were social and economic problems which he planned to address nationally with his government’s National Action Plan for Roma.

This he had produced after a number of fact-finding missions to neighbouring countries, some of which he claimed had a far worse record for its treatment of its Roma population and were not as forward-thinking as the new Kosovan administration.

Contained within the National Action Plans, he explained, were measures to provide educational scholarships, apprenticeships such as trainee construction workers who would be employed in the national building programme to provide homes for the returnees and evacuees from other sub-standard camps. He admitted that even if a high level of education were to be achieved through the scholarships, the Government could not guarantee that this would necessarily translate into employment because there was a wide-spread perception that Roma were a lesser quality citizen but they did hope to counteract work-place discrimination by writing in quotas to any contractors dependent upon government contracts.

The overall plan, however, seemed to be placing emphasis on the need for ‘integration’; something which the more educated residents on the new Mitrovica Mahalla rejected, stating that they preferred multi-culturalism as the way forward. Indeed, this was stated forcefully by Shehezade Mustafa, a trainee infant teacher at the local Albanian school (which also had 2 Roma teachers) who also told me that many people did not want to leave the camps to come to the Mahalla because they often had no water, no electricity and due to lack of work, no food. Riza Berisha on the Oblic Mahalla claimed the situation was the same there and that when the water heater broke down, they waited more than 4 months without water before anyone came to fix it.

What was impressive was the fact that the Kosovan Government a 2 year old administration had carried out an international fact-finding mission by a senior Government minister and had at least drawn up a proper plan with clear aims and objectives and anticipated time-scales. Our Scottish Government has managed to produce a paragraph contained within the Government’s Race Statement regarding its Gypsy Traveller population’s needs.

There was a sense that the Kosovan Government was keen to court international approval and in particular, that it may want to pave the way for entering the EU. This, of course, would account for the urgency with which it seemed to wish to address the problems faced by the Roma population. Obviously, in the short-term this could bring benefits for the Roma people but what would the chances be of sustained community development once the Kosovan Government achieves its aims of UN and European community acceptance?

Would these families simply be left to starve once the social assistance is removed and they are left without any support from agencies to fend for themselves in a grim economic climate against an appalling backdrop of discrimination in the employment field?

More pertinently, would the future returnees from other European countries, intent upon expelling the Roma like France’s President Sarkozy, become the next Ergin and Robert; placed once again on land or camps unfit for habitation? Would these families simply be left to starve once the social assistance is removed and they are left without any support from agencies to die?


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