UN agencies have housed Roma refugees next to Europe's largest lead mine, resulting in the worst cases of childhood lead poisoning ever seen.
Sunday, April 26, 2009 - 21:30

Gypsies have been violently persecuted across Europe throughout history but now gypsies - also known as Roma - living in UN refugee camps in Kosovo are being persecuted by neglect.

This week, Dateline examines the plight of the refugees in Mitrovica, where many children are sick and have dangerously high lead levels in their bloodstreams.

The high lead levels are not surprising because the UN chose to house the 150 families, who had just escaped ethnic cleansing during the Kosovo war, next to Europe's largest lead mine nine years ago.

The Jahirovic family survived the ethnic cleansing but their children might not survive the lead contamination of the UN's refugee camp in Mitrovica.

There's no safe level for lead in the human body. Brain damage is thought to start at around 10 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood. Their children have four to five times that amount.

The United Nations Health Officer in Mitrovica took the first blood tests back in 2000 - and his report recommended moving them. The World Health Organisation took more blood tests and called for the UN to immediately evacuate the camps in 2004. Two of the camps were moved to a former French NATO base that had been abandoned because of high levels of lead poisoning on the site; but the rest of the refugees remain.


Many of you have contacted us asking what you can do to help the Roma families in lead-contaminated camps. Paul Polansky, who featured in our story, is the regional Head of Mission for the international NGO "Society for Threatened Peoples (STC)", and he's provided us with the following details:

You can send an e-mail to roma@gfbv.ch to request further information or you can transfer your donation directly to this bank account:

Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker
BEKB Bundesplatz 8 CH-3001, Bern, Switzerland
Account No: 16 264.732.5.52
IBAN: CH7700790016264732552

Please add the keyword "Roma".

You can find more information on the campaign to evacuate the Roma at www.toxicwastekills.com


If there is one group of people who always seem to get the proverbial pointy end of the stick, it's Europe's gypsies - or Roma - as they're otherwise known. They've been harassed and reviled in pretty much every country they've gone to. Recently reporter Amos Roberts was in Kosovo, where he unearthed a particularly shameful story about the shabby treatment of these unfortunate folk and their families.

REPORTER: Amos Roberts

FLANZA JAHIROVIC (Translation): Cover her ear so the draft won't get her.

FERUZ JAHIROVIC (Translation): Hug, Daddy. Give me a big, big, hug. A big, big, big one. Will you kiss Daddy here? Kiss Daddy. Honey-bunny;

Feruz Jahirovic knows that any given morning might be his daughter's last.

FERUZ JAHIROVIC (Translation): Did you sleep well, my girl? Did you sleep well? Are you my baby?

All nine of his children are slowly being poisoned.

FERUZ JAHIROVIC (Translation): Gzimi, hey;Up you get my boy. Look at the time.

GZIMI JAHIROVIC (Translation): Oh, my neck hurts.

FERUZ JAHIROVIC (Translation): Go wash your face.

Many parents know how tall or how heavy their kids are. Some may even know their IQ. But Flanza and her husband, Feruz, know how much lead is in their children's blood.

FERUZ JAHIROVIC (Translation): Venera Jahirovic - she has 50; she has 55.56 micrograms of lead. Musa Jahirovic - he also has high levels; 43.8, I think - of lead.

There's no safe level for lead in the human body. Brain damage is thought to start at around 10 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood. These children have four to five times that amount.

FERUZ JAHIROVIC (Translation): Emina is also ill. I think she has 47.11. Sara Jahirovic is three years old - she has heart problems; She has three types of heart murmur and other health problems. God forbid, they could die any moment.

FLANZA JAHIROVIC (Translation): Now my children have lead poisoning, I feel so bad.

Sadly, the Jahirovic children are not unusual among the Roma refugees living here in Mitrovica.

REPORTER: In 2005 you took hair samples from all the children in the camps and sent them to a laboratory in Chicago for testing. What did they say to you about what they found?

DR KLAUS RUNOW, ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH EXPERT: They called me. They didn't believe the results. They did it three times. They told me these are the highest levels they've measured in human hair worldwide.

It should be no surprise that the highest lead levels ever recorded have been found in camps built next to Europe's largest lead mine.

I'm standing on around 150 million tons of toxic waste. Below me are the Cesmin Lug and Osterode refugee camps, where 150 gypsy families breathe in the lead dust that blows through this valley every day. They've been here for more than nine years. Perhaps the most shocking part of this story is the fact that the Roma have been let down by the very people charged with protecting them.

It was the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the UNHCR, which first housed the Roma on toxic land. And it was the United Nations mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK, which governed here for almost nine years.

REPORTER: Why has it taken so long to find a lasting solution for these people?

ANIL VASISHT, UN MISSION IN KOSOVO (UNMIK): Actually, it's a good question, but the answer is very complex.

FRANCESCO ARDISSON, UNHCR: I think the UN had its hands tied by the overall problems affecting the region.

REPORTER: Could you blame them for feeling bitter?

FRODE MAURING, UN DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR: Absolutely, absolutely. I would feel the same. There's no doubt about that.

Over the centuries, the Roma have done their best to avoid persecution by fitting in with their neighbours. Like Kosovo's Albanians, most of the families here are Muslim, but the Jahirovic's faith didn't protect them from ethnic cleansing in 1999. A few years ago Feruz Jahirovic took a film-maker to see the ruins of his home.

FILM MAKER: These two big houses were his. This was his, and the second one was his brother's.

During the war in 1999 Albanians forced Feruz and his neighbours out of their homes, accusing them of collaborating with the Serbs.

TRANSLATOR: They had very beautiful life, they had every possibility. He doesn't want to go, he cannot see it. He feels sorry.

8,000 people lived here once - it was the largest Roma community in Kosovo.

PAUL POLANSKY, SOCIETY FOR THREATENED PEOPLES: Just over the river we're coming up to the old Gypsy neighbourhood called Fabricka.

Paul Polansky has been campaigning for Mitrovica's Roma ever since the war. He first met them shortly after they'd fled to the Serbian side of the city.

PAUL POLANSKY: This is where I found the Roma camped out in August 1999, 800 of them in this school building camped out on the grounds. It was a real disaster this scene, they hadn't had water, hygiene products or food for many weeks.

When the local authorities wanted the school back the UNHCR arranged to house the families in tents just outside of town. That first site was only a few metres away from some of the slag heaps.

PAUL POLANSKY: I protested. I said, "Anybody can see with the naked eye this is toxic waste land. You can't put them here." And they assured me they would only be here for 45 days. I just sort of held my breath and said OK, 45 days. They'll probably be taken to another country. They'll have a better life. And it was left at that in September 1999.

REPORTER: What happened then? What happened to the 45 days?

PAUL POLANSKY: Well, it came and went. And 10 years later we're still here.

The United Nations health officer in Mitrovica took the first blood tests back in 2000 and his report recommended moving the Roma camp. UNMIK didn't heed this advice, but it did show some concern for the wellbeing of the local community. In 2003 the UN built a soccer field, a basketball court and a jogging track, all on toxic land, right across from the lead slag heap. The gypsies were encouraged to exercise here which would mean opening up their lungs and increasing the amount of lead dust they were inhaling. The UN called this the "Alley of Health".

PAUL POLANSKY: They knew something was wrong, but everybody has this great faith in the UN and many times the people would say to me, "If there was something wrong, the UN would save us, the UN would treat us."

It was the death of a child in 2004 that brought home the terrible risk of bringing up children in the camps. 4-year-old Dejenita Mehmeti had started losing her memory and was complaining about pain in her legs. After spending three months in hospital, she died.

PAUL POLANSKY: And suddenly every family realised that they had a Dejenita. They saw their children losing their memories - they saw all the symptoms of lead poisoning. They didn't know it was lead poisoning, but they saw the symptoms and they all became petrified, especially the mothers.

REPORTER: And did they come and talk to you about this?


REPORTER: What would they say to you?

PAUL POLANSKY: Save our children. Something's wrong - save our children.

FERUZ JAHIROVIC (Translation): I didn't even know what the lead looked like. But I have noticed that my children have had aches, in their heads, stomach; nausea, temperature.. And they have been so weak that they haven't had the energy to lift their arms.

In 2004 the World Health Organization took more blood tests and called for UNMIK to immediately evacuate the camps.

PAUL POLANSKY: Two years later they decided to close the worst of the two camps and move them into a former French NATO base that had been abandoned by the French because of high levels of lead poisoning.

This is Osterode, the former French NATO barracks, is only 100 metres from the Cesmin Lug camp. But after laying down concrete and providing clean drinking water, the UN declared it was a "lead safer" environment.

FRODE MAURING: If you compare it to a safe environment in Australia, clearly Osterode is not the best place, but if you compare it to what is currently the case, it is a much better alternative for them, again as purely a temporary measure that can be done immediately.

REPORTER: This seems like only a very cosmetic solution. You say it was short term, but they were originally told in 1999 they were being moved for 45 days, that was short term. In 2006 they were moved to Osterode and this was a short-term solution. It's now three years later.

FRODE MAURING: It is always a challenge for us who are not having our own tax payers, but are relying on international donors.

Vera Obradovic is a local nurse who provides the only health care at Osterode. Although this is Europe's worst ever case of lead poisoning, there are no doctors here, no specialist equipment and no ongoing medical treatment.

VERA OBRADOVIC, NURSE (Translation): Would you take a broom and remove these cobwebs? Tell her, broom and cobwebs.

The nurse stresses the importance of good hygiene, which can help reduce lead contamination. When the families first moved to Osterode there was a program to provide them with a better diet. And for a few months the children received chelating tablets - special pills used to treat lead poisoning.

MAN 1 (Translation): It has been a year since anyone took care of these children, and they have been talking about lead for three years.

MAN 2 (Translation): We have no one and nothing, how long will this last? When I get old.. What will I leave to this child? What? In these ten years, I've lost; I can't even tell you.

REPORTER: There is no food, there is almost no medical care there are families scavenging for food in garbage cans.


REPORTER: Your language is very careful but are you not shocked on some level? Are you not horrified by the situation that these families find themselves in after so long?

FRODE MAURING: Absolutely.

Despite the miserable conditions, the World Health Organization says the move to Osterode was a success, because the average lead levels of the families here have decreased.

WOMAN (Translation): Here, Erbin Selimi.

VERA OBRADOVIC (Translation): This child has 22.3 micrograms.

WOMAN (Translation): Fato Selimi.

VERA OBRADOVIC (Translation): Her other child; 41.09.

But the levels of some Roma have actually risen and the rest still have blood levels the WHO classes as "mildly high".

REPORTER: When you say mildly high, what sort of figures are you talking about?


REPORTER: But given that irreversible brain damage is thought to take place at around 10 micrograms per decilitre, clearly even 17 or 20?

DR DORIT NITZAN: Definitely. It is health emergency. Definitely.

So, how is it that after all these years, nothing has been done? Part of the problem is political. Last year the UN handed over control to Kosovo's Government, but North Mitrovica is in a Serb enclave that wants to be part of Serbia, not an independent Kosovo. The hostility means that whenever Paul crosses the river to the city's north he removes his Kosovo numberplates or risks being stoned by the local Serbs. In recent years the international community has started rebuilding the Roma Mahala - their old neighbourhood - but many Roma don't want to live next to the people who forced them out. They're also worried about losing access to social security and health care in Serbia.

FERUZ JAHIROVIC (Translation): If I went back to the mahala and I could not find treatment for my kids, even if they gave me food or whatever; If I can't heal my children, for me that would be death, and it already is.

The UN, along with Kosovo's new government, is still hoping to persuade the families to move to the mahala. They've even suggested that force may be used if necessary. But they don't believe there's any quick fix to this medical emergency.

FRODE MAURING: A lasting solution for all families will take a couple of years.

REPORTER: A couple of years?


REPORTER: If this situation was happening in Australia or in Norway, do you think that the argument would be the same - do you think it would take a couple of years to sort out?

FRODE MAURING: Well, you know, you have to have facilities to put them in. There are resources that are available in Australia, in Norway, in the Western countries - are fortunately a lot better than is currently the case in Kosovo.

REPORTER: The World Health Organization is now calling for immediate measures and when I sit down and talk to UNDP or UNMIK they're talking about a 2-year time frame. Is two years an immediate measure when you're facing a medical emergency?

DR DORIT NITZAN: No. Immediate is immediate, is now. It's now.

REPORTER: Are you disappointed that they're not talking about doing that?

DR DORIT NITZAN: I am very disappointed that I don't see results. Talking is not enough. I want to see results.

REPORTER: The international community accepted a duty of care for these families and has failed them.

FRANCESCO ARDISSON: I think that some humanitarian relief has been provided in all these years.

REPORTER: They got a better diet for a few months and then the funding for that program was cut. Many of the families I met are still scavenging for their food in the garbage bins of Mitrovica.

FRANCESCO ARDISSON: Believe me, we are not claiming that the situation is ideal. We are not claiming that the situation could not have been dealt with in a different manner.

WOMAN (Translation): Where has all my happiness gone, oh, my dear Enver? I just wanted today with you, my brave boy. He did nothing to anyone. He was peaceful.

Today the Roma are mourning the 80th death in these camps. Enver Rushiti was 33 years old. He suffered from schizophrenia. This morning he died of a sudden attack of diabetes that had gone undiagnosed. The Serbian doctor who treated him says lead, which weakens the body's immune system, could have been a contributing factor. All his father knows is that he's lost a son. Many of the Roma are afraid that life in the camps is a death sentence. Feruz is convinced the only way his children will get the medical treatment they need is if they're resettled in another country.

FERUZ JAHIROVIC (Translation): My main concern is simply to heal my children, if any country would accept us, I would respect that country more than the one I was born in and I would never come back.

But the UN says resettlement abroad is difficult because the Roma are still technically in Kosovo they're not considered refugees.

REPORTER: Do you not think there would be a case for approaching other countries and explaining the circumstances to them?

FRANCESCO ARDISSON: The first reaction probably of those countries would be, that these people could be resettled within Serbia. That a safe site could be identified within Serbia.

REPORTER: Clearly it hasn't been. It's been almost 10 years, a safe site has not been found, so surely you could explain that to them?

FRANCESCO ARDISSON: Easier said than done, believe me.

FERUZ JAHIROVIC (Translation): We are like a bridge, everybody can pass over us, they can play with ys, as if we were a football.

The lead doesn't just kill adults and children. Pregnant women in the camps know how dangerous it can be for the unborn child. Some, despite strong cultural taboos, try to induce a miscarriage or even give themselves an abortion rather than give birth to a brain-damaged child.

FLANZA JAHIROVIC (Translation): I didn't have money for an abortion so I did it myself. I knew that I would harm myself, but I still did it - four times. I would like to give birth - children are never bad - all children belong to God.

Feruz and Flanza pray for their children's health, but after so many years and so many broken promises they're no longer confident their prayers will be answered. Their youngest child, Sara, sometimes loses consciousness, and they take it in turns every night to watch over her.

FLANZA JAHIROVIC (Translation): Sometimes when she cries, or just suddenly, like the other day; she was watching TV;and she started falling down. I'm calling 'Feruz, look at the child!' She was totally lost. She was all blue and limp.

FERUZ JAHIROVIC (Translation): I thought she was already dead. I refresher her with water; How would any parent feel seeing their child dead and trying to revive them?

REPORTER: What's been the lowest point for you in this whole struggle?

PAUL POLANSKY: Burying the children.

REPORTER: What will happen here if the families are not evacuated?

PAUL POLANSKY: We won't have another generation. This will be the end of these gypsies.

REPORTER: Are people surprised when you tell them about this story?

PAUL POLANSKY: No-one believes it. No-one believes it. Unless they see it with their own eyes, no-one believes it.














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