Displaced Kosovan gypsies left to live in toxic camps

Roma driven from their homes during the bloodletting in Kosovo have been left to eke out an existence in severely contaminated camps for the past six years.

The three sites now inhabited by the Roma are in the shadow of derelict heavy industry sites and are seriously polluted with lead and other heavy metals.

The World Health Authority (WHO) and United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) have accepted that the situation constitutes and urgent health emergency and urgent action is needed but so far little has been done to help the displaced.

The majority of the 600 Roma living in the three camps were driven out of South Mitrovica in 1999 when their homes were razed by Kosovo Albanians intent on ethnic cleansing.

Since then they have been exposed to lead poisoning well above WHO’s recommended safe levels.

In many cases the children of the camp have over four times the acceptable levels of lead in their blood, leading to irreversible brain damage as well as a host of other health problems including loss of appetite, lethargy, high blood pressure, fertility problems, stunted growth, hearing damage, seizures, pain or paralysis in the legs, dropping in and out of consciousness, anaemia, increased aggression, stomach cramps, and vomiting.

Adults in the camp have described the children as appearing drunk and woozy.

Lead can enter the body through a number of routes – inhalation, ingestion of the soil itself or food grown on contaminated land and a foetus can absorb lead from a poisoned mother while still in the womb.

Poor nutrition and hygiene speed up the rate at which the body absorbs lead.

The problem of the contaminated site is exacerbated by the fact that one of the few sources of income for the Roma is smelting lead from salvaged ore, adding harmful fumes to the already badly contaminated sites.

The only long-term solution to the crisis is relocating the people in the camps, but there are a number of impediments to the process.

There seems little political will to move the Roma, with the local authorities offering to build blocks of flats which do not suit their lifestyle or traditions.

Aid agency Refugees International has recommended that all pregnant women and young children, as well as those with very high levels of lead poisoning, be immediately evacuated to rented flats while a permanent solution is worked out.

But even this has lead to some difficulties, as the Roma feel they have been forgotten and are suspicious that they might have to wait another six years for a permanent home if they accept another ‘temporary’ solution.

Meanwhile, they just wait with little to look forward to but a token effort from a Danish aid agency which is providing milk and other calcium rich foods in an ultimately vain effort to drive down the rate at which lead is absorbed into the children’s bodies.

By Sam Bond

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