A decade living in squalid camps for the Roma of Mitrovica

One of our Observers in Kosovo warns us about the sanitary conditions in the north of Mitrovica, home to a number of displaced Roma communities since the end of the conflict between Serbia and Albania.

Pierre Bonifassi is a French student currently living in Kosovo.

Collateral victims of the 1999 clashes between Serbs and Albanians, the Roma in northern Kosovo are, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), now exposed to one of the biggest public health disasters in the world. During the war, about 8,000 Roma living in "Roma Mahalla", a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Mitrovica, were forced to leave the country. Only a thousand of them remained in the area and were relocated in three camps: Cesmin Lug, Žitkovac and Kablar.

The three camps are located next to the mining complex of Trepča where emissions of lead, arsenic and cadmium have polluted the environment. Lead is a poisonous metal that can damage nervous connections (especially in young children) and cause blood and brain disorders. The sites were built near the mining complex, despite the pollution problems and the potential risks. The exposure to the emissions has had dramatic consequences. In these camps the mortality rate is much higher than normal.

National authorities and the UN closed two of the sites in 2004, transferring the communities to a 'healthier' camp, called Osterode. Located near the Cesmin Lug camp, the new site presents the same risks as the others. Without any help from the government, the Roma are still exposed to lead, arsenic and cadmium.

"The government is finally paying attention to the alarming situation"

National and international associations have called for the help from the government. Only today, the alarming situation has caught the attention of the authorities. The EU and the US have started a project to rebuild the city of 'Roma Mahalla' and gradually close the camps.

Despite the public health problems, the Roma are worried that, after the relocation, they will stop getting benefits from the Serbian government. Unofficially, the northern part of Mitrovica is administered by the Serbs, who still grant subsidies to the Roma. But losing the allocations is not the only worry. The Roma also fear the reaction of the Albanian communities and violence that might follow after they are relocated.

The Roma community hasn’t been properly integrated into Kosovan society. Their social and political rights are certainly recognised by the country's 2008 constitution, as a "national minority", but they are, in reality, largely marginalised and victims of severe discrimination at all levels of society (education, employment, etc.. )."


In the Roma camps of Mitrovica

Photos: Council of Europe, Flickr.


The French Connection

The tragic fact is that if it wasn't for the inaction of the French NATO forces stationed in the N. Kosovo sector and refusing to intervene in 1999, none of this need to have happened.

While troops watched by while families were threatened, claiming it was the responsibility of the local Serbian police who had fled, Albanian extreme elements drove out the 8000 Roma inhabitants from their long term settlement in S. Mitrovica.

Over a short period of a few months all fled, mostly abroad but the poorest remained, only to be housed by UNHCR on the most toxic land in the entire area.

The present French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, a doctor and founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres, who was the UN Secretary General's Special Representative in Kosovo at the time, understood the toxicity of this site. Indeed, he promised to either evacuate the people abroad, or take to safety within NATO camps within 45 days. He did neither and must carry much of the responsibility for the resulting brain and other organ damage to the children condemned to live on Europe's most toxic site, which has resulted in 86 deaths so far. If children in France had been allowed to suffer so much, immediate action would have been certain.

At a time when NATO numbers are being already heavily reduced in Kosovo, there is ample room to house all these families in complete safety in manned NATO camps while the resettlement plans progress.

The French government must act now to ensure these children and taken to safety.

Kosovo Roma families in toxic camps in Mitrovica

It is truly shocking that after 11 years of promises by the international community that the Roma families would be evacuated , they are STILL stuck in these appalling toxic camps.
There has been no medical treatment plan put in place -families already evacuated to the south mahalla have not received medical treatment for lead poisoning.
A seriously ill child currently in hospital has no choice but to return to the toxic conditions in the camps which will result once again in the deterioration of his condition

Regardless of the long-term resettlement plans for the families, the international community by not facilitating the families IMMEDIATE evacuation and medical treatment are therefore STILL actually aiding and abetting the deliberate and ongoing poisoning of children.

It is outrageous that UNMIK who put the families in the toxic camps in 1999 now want their own Human Rights Advisory Panel to reverse its earlier ruling which found ,(June 5th 2009)that the Roma claim was admissible on multiple counts, including in relation to allegations of violations of the right to life, the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment, respect for private and family life, the right to a fair hearing, the right to an effective remedy, the right to adequate housing, health and standard of living, the prohibition against discrimination in general, the prohibition of discrimination against women, and the rights of children.

Human Rights Watch Jan 2010 voiced its concerns regarding "Efforts by the United Nations in Kosovo to weaken and undermine the UN Human Rights Advisory Panel, the only mechanism that allows members of the public in Kosovo to bring complaints against the mission alleging human rights abuse. "

Poison Lead Camps In Kosovo

The European Union, including the United Kingdom, knowing the full circumstances of the history and existing conditions in the camps and the dire plight of the children and pregnant mothers, advocate and support a long term resettlement (3/3.5 years) plan rather than an immediate evacuation, are aiding and abetting the continuous poisoning of children by the United Nations, the UN set up the camps and maintained them till 2008, and now by the Kosovo Government, are still under the higher authority of the UN.

The United Nations Human Rights Advisory Panel (HRAP) in Kosovo made a judgement accepting the admissibility of claims against the UN which detailed multiple infringements of the human rights of these families on numerous counts. In the last few days, the UN Mission In Kosovo (UNMIK) has issued a retrospective executive directive to HRAP to reverse its decision on the grounds that third party claims are not admissible. HRAP has declared that since it is under the jurisdiction of UNMIK, it must comply with that directive and it has therefore withdrawn its previous judgment.
The British Government is a senior member of the United Nations and as such should object to this disgraceful decision.
Rachel Francis