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

Kosovar DU Fears

After weeks of indifference, Kosovars are expressing concern over depleted uranium.
By Nehat Islami

The international uproar over NATO's use of depleted uranium bombs in Kosovo has, until recently, left Kosovars themselves curiously undisturbed.

"I'd rather die from uranium, if that's my fate, than be killed by a Serbian policeman," said an old woman from Orahovac.

The view was fairly typical when Western newspapers earlier this month warned of the danger of radiation deaths among people who ventured near the site of a DU explosion.

Now Kosovan opinion is drifting round to anxiety at the prospect of health risks. But there is still none of the frenzy seen elsewhere.

NATO confirmed that over 100 Kosovo locations were bombed with depleted uranium. Most of these sites are located in south-western Kosovo, in towns such as Prizren, Peja, and Klina next to the border with Albania, where Yugoslav heavy armour was concentrated. Around 31,000 DU bombs fell on Kosovo.

When the air war against Serbia ended, Kosovars welcomed NATO soldiers as heroes and liberators. Their arrival signalled the retreat of Milosevic's forces, paving the way for more than 800,000 refugees to return home.

The gratitude felt by Kosovars towards NATO inhibited them from truly comprehending the warnings issued by foreign experts over the depleted uranium radiation peril.

When stories about DU first started circulating, Kosovars dismissed them as Serb propaganda. They said it was a trick to force NATO troops out of Kosovo. The general attitude was a mixture of irony and indifference.

In an interview for a local radio station, one old man who receives no pension laughed at recent press stories about the radiation threat. "If there is any depleted uranium in the food chain, it cannot harm us old people," he joked. "We are so rarely in contact with food".

The DU stories failed to stir local rumours, unusual for this rumour-prone region. One of the few that surfaced was that Djakovica hospital had experienced cases of deformed babies born to mothers who had been in direct contact with DU. The stories were unconfirmed and soon forgotten.

Now, though, the indifference is slowly evaporating. The media daily publish contradictory reports: NATO headquarters in Brussels delivers soothing statements while

countries whose soldiers served in the Balkans publish alarming stories about the dangers of depleted uranium.

The growing uneasiness in Kosovo is still a long way from panic. Anxieties have been assuaged by reassuring messages from local politicians, doctors and scientists.

Dr Pleurat Sejdiu, a co-president of the UNMIK Department for Health in Kosovo, stated in the Pristina Medical Centre that everyone who thinks they had contact with DU will receive a free medical check up.

Teams of health experts, equipped with gas masks and radiation detectors, are travelling around Kosovo searching for evidence of radiation poisoning.

The World Health Organisation is to examine children who played on the wreckage of Yugoslav army tanks and lorries close to Klina.

In Klina, one resident, Sul Berisha, said the children were always messing around the burnt out vehicles, but, as far as he knew, had not fallen ill. He said KFOR troops had recently removed some of the wreckage. Other locals said people came across the border from Albania and took away parts of the damaged tanks for sale as scrap iron.

Kosovar doctors and scientists believe that depleted uranium has not so far caused major health problems.

They began researching the effects of DU long before the matter became an international issue, according to Dr Shaip Muja, a senior figure in Kosovo Defence Corps.

He said that Kosovar doctors investigated blood and urine samples of children and soldiers living and traveling in the bombed areas, Pristina University Hospital became the centre for collecting data on DU health risks.

The doctor's investigation, which was conducted in secret, concluded that there was no call for alarm. This was backed by hospital haematologists who said the number of leukemia sufferers has not increased over the past three years.

Some experts warn, however, that the first signs of the illness may not appear for another two years.

In the spring, NATO and the World Heath Organisation will come up with the first definitive results on a possible link between DU and diseases like cancer and leukemia. Until then, nobody can really be sure.

Nehat Islami is the IWPR project manager in Pristina

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