Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Illness Plagues Camps for Displaced Communities

Minorities living in camps beside the Trepca mine fear that their children are suffering from lead poisoning.
By Hajrudin Skenderi

Three-year-old Saban Cosa walks around the Cesmin Lug displaced persons camp with a large sore on his head. His family, along with many others from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities, took shelter in the camp after the 1999 war, when they were driven from their homes by Albanians.

This settlement lies only 500 metres from the Trepca mine – which is currently out of service – in northern Kosovo. Saban’s father, Agron, is convinced that the wound in his son’s head is a consequence of him being poisoned by lead from mine-waste substances dumped nearby.

Kablare and Zitkovac, about two kilometres from Trepca, additionally house Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians – and like Cesmun Lug are exposed to toxic waste from the mine.

Residents there also complain of lead poisoning, saying that it it potentially life-threatening.

Tests conducted by the World Health Organisation, WHO, in June 2004 show these fears may be justified, since 40 per cent of those tested had high levels of lead in their blood.

Gerry McWeeney, a WHO representative in Kosovo, says the lead enters the bloodstream in a number of ways, including through dust and contaminated food.

Agron Cosa says he cannot do much to help his son. “We only found out Saban had lead in his blood when the WHO tested him,” he told IWPR. “They said that he needs to go to Belgrade for treatment, but I don’t have the money for that.”

Local inhabitants say that the terrain has been steadily poisoned by toxic gases – lead and sulphur oxide – ever since 1927, when the Trepca mine started operations.

The WHO report stated that its scientists had detected excessive levels of lead in the ground, air and water.

The UN administrator for Mitrovica, Joe Kazlas, said on December 17, 2004 that the UN was aware of the problem and had taken some measures to deal it.

“The consequences of lead poisoning affect mainly children and pregnant women, so we rented a hotel to accommodate these people, so they would be protected from the endangered area,” he said.

However, Kazlas added that many children and pregnant women refused to take up the offer because they did not want to be separated from their families.

Dr Tatjana Cukic, a pediatrician working in a health centre in northern Mitrovica and who visits the Trepca camps occasionally, said the problems were not only caused by proximity to the mine.

She said people absorbed lead into their bloodstream because they did not wash their food properly, “If people do not wash fruits or vegetables before using them, then they can ingest lead this way as well.”

Many camp residents complain that the authorities in Mitrovica do little to address their health problems.

Cun Hajdini, whose four-year-old daughter Fljurija suffers from lead poisoning, said, “Nobody cares about us, we are forgotten people.”

One suggestion was for the temporary rehousing of camp residents in the southern, Albanian-run, half of Mitrovica but this fell through, as they did not want to move to Albanian territory.

Dr Cukic said the presence of lead in the blood posed serious potential problems, especially to children. After examining Saban Cosa, she warned, “Lead can damage the brain and can cause hearing problems. The hormone-level can also be affected, which may limit growth.

“It is certain that Saban will always have problems with anaemia and high blood pressure. He could also have problems speaking, studying and with memory.”

The doctor said children and pregnant women who knew they had high levels of lead in their blood should eat calcium-rich foods, which help to expel excessive amounts of the element from the body. But access to this sort of diet is not always easy for camp dwellers struggling to survive.

Another victim of lead poisoning is Sadeta Gasnjani, 13, whose body is covered with sores. “In the beginning, they just looked like scratches,” her father told IWPR.

When the sores got worse, he took Sadeta to a doctor, who confirmed she had lead in her blood. “The doctor said she has to take some vitamins and eat special food but I cannot buy these things for her,” he said.

Hajrudin Skenderi is a trainee taking part in an IWPR Primary Journalism Course organised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.