Kosovo Roma seek jus­tice for lead-poi­soned chil­dren

‘Roma mi­nor­ity not treated as hu­mans’

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

Kosovo’s Roma mi­nor­ity “are not treated as hu­mans,” laments Florim Ma­surica, who is seek­ing jus­tice for his disabled son, one of the chil­dren suf­fer­ing from sus­pected lead-poi­son­ing con­tracted at post-war United Na­tions camps. Kosovo’s pro-in­de­pen­dence eth­nic Al­ba­nian rebels saw Roma peo­ple as guilty of co­op­er­a­tion with Serbs dur­ing the 1998-1999 con­flict-a gra­tu­itous ac­cu­sa­tion as Roma largely kept out of the fight­ing.

But some of them faced sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions, while oth­ers were forced to flee from their homes that were looted and de­stroyed after the de­par­ture of Serb forces from Kosovo fol­low­ing a NATO bomb­ing cam­paign. That was the case in the Roma neigh­bor­hood of Ma­halla in Kosovo’s north­ern city of Mitrovica. Around 600 of its in­hab­i­tants were given shel­ter by the UN mis­sion in Kosovo (UNMIK) in five camps, ini­tially meant as a tem­po­rary mea­sure for 45 days, but they ended up stay­ing six years.

Liv­ing near a heavy met­als min­ing com­plex, these dis­placed peo­ple were un­aware that they were breath­ing in air and tram­pling on soil con­tam­i­nated with lead and other tox­ins, as sci­en­tific tests have showed. In 2005, hu­man rights groups be­came con­cerned by the symp­toms of Roma chil­dren in the camps such as black gums, headaches, learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, con­vul­sions and high blood pres­sure. UNMIK then evac­u­ated the camps-but for some of its res­i­dents this was too late.

Ba­jram Baba­jboks, 65, claims that there was no sin­gle mem­ber of his fam­ily four daugh­ters, seven sons and 60 nieces and neph­ews-”who is not a vic­tim of lead tox­ins”. “It’s the doc­tors who say it,” he told AFP, show­ing the lat­est blood test re­sults.

Lead con­tam­i­na­tion

In Fe­bru­ary 2006, a panel of ex­perts ap­pointed by the UN-fol­low­ing com­plaints by 138 Ro­macame up with a 79-page re­port ex­am­in­ing the claims of poi­son­ing.

It cited tests con­ducted by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2004, show­ing most chil­dren in the most ex­posed camps had “above ac­cept­able” lead lev­els in their blood and that “more than 80 per­cent of soils in the camps were ‘un­safe’ be­cause of lead con­tam­i­na­tion”. An en­vi­ron­men­tal medicine spe­cial­ist, Klaus-Di­et­rich Runow, took hair tests in the camps in 2005 with “the high­est ever seen (re­sults) in the val­ues of heavy metal in hu­man hair sam­ples”.

The panel con­cluded that UNMIK had failed “to com­ply with ap­pli­ca­ble hu­man rights stan­dards in re­sponse to the ad­verse health con­di­tion caused by lead con­tam­i­na­tion in the IDP camps and the con­se­quent harms suf­fered by the com­plainants”. Piles of in­dus­trial waste still lit­ter the ground where the now-dis­man­tled tents of the Zitko­vac camp once stood. Con­tam­i­nated dust “cov­ered the camp as soon as the wind blew,” re­called Veli Jashari. “My son was born disabled, with his legs par­a­lyzed,” said the 58-year-old, as his son Je­tul­lah, seated in a wheel­chair, watched other chil­dren play­ing with a small stray dog.

“I dream of stand­ing on my feet some­day. I want to be like the oth­ers. I want to go to school,” said Je­tul­lah, now 16. Jashari said his sec­ond son, fiveyear-old Se­j­dul­lah, was also par­a­lyzed-al­though he was born after the fam­ily left the camp. His fa­ther sus­pects he in­her­ited the lead-poi­son­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the WHO, chil­dren are “par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to the neu­ro­toxic ef­fects of lead, and even rel­a­tively low lev­els of ex­po­sure can cause se­ri­ous and in some cases ir­re­versible neu­ro­log­i­cal dam­age”. But no ex­haus­tive sur­vey of the camps’ vic­tims has been done-which, to the Roma com­mu­nity, is ad­di­tional ev­i­dence of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Im­moral re­sponse

UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res in May this year ex­pressed the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s “pro­found re­gret for the suf­fer­ing en­dured by all in­di­vid­u­als” liv­ing in the camps. As an “ex­cep­tional mea­sure,” he de­cided to set up a trust fund to im­ple­ment as­sis­tance projects for the Roma com­mu­nity. But Ku­j­tim Pa­caku, a for­mer Roma MP in Kosovo’s par­lia­ment, said it was “im­moral to make up for the mass abuse only with money”. Like other Ro­mas call­ing for jus­tice, he wants the case in­ves­ti­gated and ac­count­abil­ity es­tab­lished be­fore send­ing “a mes­sage to ev­ery­one: you can­not treat peo­ple like that just be­cause they are Roma”. — AFP

KOSOVO: This file photo shows Je­tul­lah Veliu, 16-years-old, sit­ting on a wheel­chair along a street in the Roma neigh­bor­hood in the town of Mitrovica. — AFP

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