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Mitrovica Albanians Facing Healthcare Crisis

Serbs in Mitrovica are denying local Albanians proper medical treatment.
By Albert Ademi

"I know that they don't cure me, these once-a-week injections, but what can I do?" says a dejected-looking middle-aged man, in the corridor of an old house in the southern, Albanian populated half of Mitrovica. Along the crumbling, unpainted walls of the building, there is nowhere to sit as he, one of many patients, waits in the gloom for a doctors appointment.


This makeshift medical centre along with a nearby Moroccan field hospital provide limited healthcare for quarter of a million Albanians. The only proper hospital here is in the northern Serb-dominated half of the town, out of bounds to Albanians.


The town is one of the most volatile parts of the province. After the withdrawal of Serbian security forces from Kosovo, Serbs from other parts of the province fled to the northern half of the town. A violent exchange of population ensued, resulting in the division of Mitrovica along ethnic lines.


Last September, Albanians staff and patients were evacuated from the hospital. "We worked there for years," said the hospital's former director, Sinan Prekazi, "Many of us were born in the north, and many of our parents retired there. Now, 250,000 Albanians living here have no hospital and nowhere to get decent medical help.


"Every single day we were attacked as we travelled to work. Many of us were injured. It was the Serbs who then turned round and protested that it was they who didn't feel secure - because of us!


"On September 25, we saw the first serious violence - not from strangers in the streets, but from our Serb colleagues, the very people we'd worked with for so many years. They attacked us with batons and stones. Lots of people were injured."


Since then, French KFOR troops have stopped Albanians visiting the hospital, saying they could no longer guarantee their safety. In December, United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, administrators presented the Serbs with an ultimatum - accept Albanians - or do without UN assistance. The warning was ignored, and aid was limited to the provision of drugs and generator fuel.


Belgrade, however, continues to fund and equip the hospital. And according to local World Health Organisation staff, it pays higher salaries than UNMIK could afford, higher even than health service salaries in Serbia proper.


At the field hospital - in much better shape than the makeshift medical centre - a long and noisy queue of people wait for treatment under the gaze of Moroccan soldiers.


"This isn't a hospital at all, but it's better than nothing," says a youngster sat under the blackened ceiling of the second-floor corridor. If it wasn't for the white medical blouses worn by the uniformed soldiers, it would be difficult to believe the war was over.


The soldiers don't speak Albanian. The patients don't understand Moroccan. Moroccan physicians have learned a little Albanian. Hand-signs have also helped communication. "Even the interpreters have problems with our language," one Albanian man laughed.


The glaring communication problems prompted Albanians to set up their makeshift medical centre. The building has four departments - gynaecology, paediatrics, surgery and a laboratory - none of which are adequately equipped. There are still no hospital beds for patients suffering from tuberculosis and other illnesses. On average, the hospital treats around 50,000 people a month. "That gives you an idea of the chaos here," said Prekazi.


"There's such a shortage of space that there have been cases of mothers giving birth in the street. Others have died because we couldn't get them to hospital in Pristina."


The French government and Medicine Sans Frontiers have provided some assistance, but no-one has come up with a permanent solution. "Many NGOs have arrived here," said Prekazi. "They present us with their projects and disappear again."


Albert Ademi is a journalist for Epoka e Re newspaper in Pristine.


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