PRESS KIT ON LEAD POISONING IN UN CAMPS IN KOSOVO
Latest update: 8 August, 2005
Download press kit:
Name of the camps: Cesmin Lug and Kablare (north Mitrovica municipality) and Zitkovac (Zvechen municipality).
When established: Zitkovac camp was built in October 1999; the other two camps were built in January 2000. UNHCR signed contracts with the local municipalities that these camps would exist for only 45 days. No new contract has been signed since then. These camps are still housing more than 500 Roma, Ashkalija and Egyptians (RAE), mainly displaced from their homes in the neighborhood of Fabricka, south Mitrovica. Although this was the largest RAE community in Kosovo before the 1999 war with more than 8,000 inhabitants, no RAE has been returned to that community in the past five years. All of their homes were burned down by local Albanians on June 16, 1999, four days after French KFOR troops occupied Mitrovica and especially this neighborhood.
By whom: The camps were built by UNHCR and its implementing partner ACT (Action by Churches Working Together).
Location: Cesmin Lug and Kablare are adjacent to one another between the railroad tracks and the toxic slag heaps of the Trepca mines to the west of the city of north Mitrovica. Zitkovac camp is located 7 km away from the other camps and 2 km from the mine, near toxic slag heaps in the municipality of Zvechen, which is in a different administrative region.
Physical size: each camp covers about half a hectare.
Population: There are approx. 505 people living in the three camps. The figures for each camp are the following:
Cesmin Lug total 267
Kablare total 55
Zitkovac total 183
Current Managing Authority: UNMIK and the local municipality.
THE HEALTH CRISIS
Type of toxic waste: lead from the soil around the camps; lead dust in the wind from the nearby slag heaps; lead in the rain water than runs down from the slag heaps; and lead in nearby wells.
Source of the waste: the Trepca mines, partially closed in 2000 by UNMIK.
Who is responsible for public health in the camps? The UN Security Council has
mandated UNMIK to administer the Serbian province of Kosovo. UNMIK has set up a
regional government headed by Kosovar Albanians. This regional government has a Ministry of Health who in theory is responsible for the health of the area where
the IDP camps are located. However, the regional government's Ministry of Health has never attended the UNMIK meetings to discuss a solution for the lead poisoning at the camps
(they Ministry may never have been invited; no Roma from the camps concerned were invited either). So in practice, UNMIK is still in charge of public health. UNMIK has its own
health officer in north Mitrovica, but no health officer in Zvechen where the Zitkovac camp is located.
What would be the standard health inspection procedure? The World Health Organization, together with local institutions, implemented a Health Risk Assessment during May, June, and July 2004 to determine the extent and routes of exposure of children in Mitrovica and Zvechen to heavy metals (particularly lead) in the environment.
The Ministry of Health in Pristina and the UNMIK Health Officer should have followed up on this report and evacuated the camps or relocated the most vulnerable people. All the children with lead levels over 65 mg/dl should have been immediately evacuated and treated. None of this was done.
What is the poison creating the most damage? Lead
How does this poison enter the body? In these three camps, the lead is entering the bodies through breathing the dust from the nearby toxic slag heaps, eating foods that have been grown or exposed to the toxic soils the camps are built on, absorbing the
toxic dust and soil through the skin, and for babies conceived in the camps, their mothers are passing their own high levels of lead into the womb.
What is the population most at risk? Those children conceived in the camps. They have no immune system until the age of six. Children born in the camps already have lead poisoning and they are the most likely ones to die, between the ages of two to four
years. If they manage to survive, they will have irreversible brain damage. All people living in the camps will have shortened lives since the lead poisoning attacks all
organs. Most children raised in the camps will have irreversible brain damage resulting in learning disability.
Mortality rate in the camps: Approximately 27 people have died in all three camps since they opened, the latest being a 26-year-old man who had only been resident in the camps for six months before he died of a brain tumor on March 26, 2005.
To date the cause of death has never been officially investigated for anyone who has died in these camps. One four year old girl died in the Zitkovac camp in July 2004 after being treated for lead poisoning in Serbia. Her two year old sister was recently treated in Belgrade for the same symptoms.
What are the observable symptoms? In the four year old camp resident who died in 2004, and in three other children from the camps who have been treated for lead poisoning in Belgrade, their symptoms were all the same: loss of memory, walking funny (losing coordination), vomiting, convulsions, partial paralysis, and fainting spells (coma).
The extent of the poisoning observed to date: In July 2004, WHO took random blood tests in two of the camps. Every child below the age of six years who was tested
had a lead level in excess of 65 mg/dl (the highest level the machine could read). Immediate evacuation and medical treatment is recommended at above 45 mg/dl. Litigation in lead poisoning cases in NY state begins at anything over 10 mg/dl. In February 2005 WHO
proposed to test everyone in the three IDP camps, but to date has not done so.
Other health issues in the camps: Everyone in all three camps has lice, and almost everyone in Cesmin Lug and Kablare has ringworm. The only food aid the camps have received in 2005 is out-of-date canned food from the Serbian Red Cross. Most children find their food in the city garbage containers.
THE RESPONSE OF THOSE IN CHARGE TO DATE:
When was the danger in the camps first identified officially? Summer 2000.
By whom? Random blood testing for lead poisoning for the entire Mitrovica region was first carried out in August-September 2000 by Dr. Andrej Andrejew, a Russian consultant to the UN. The only dangerous levels he found were in the IDP camps, so he targeted those areas. He submitted a report in November 2000 to UNMIK and WHO ("First Phase of Public Health Project on Lead Pollution in Mitrovica Region, November 2000, by Sandra Molano and Andrej Andrejew) recommending "[r]elocation of Roma Camp to a lower risk area...."
Jacky Holmboe (Norwegian Church Council) this to a meeting about lead poisoning in the camps on November 25, 2004; the meeting was held at UNMIK headquarters in south Mitrovica. However, to date WHO refuses to make public its copy of this November 2000 report, and the Kosovo Ministry of Health says their copy is "embargoed" by UNMIK and no one may see it.
To whom was the danger first reported? To WHO and UNMIK.
What response was called for? Relocation of the camps, or at least removal of the
most vulnerable, i.e., pregnant mothers and children from 0-6 years.
Who has reacted? Subsequent to Dr. Andrejew's testing, several UNMIK international policemen were tested since they jogged every day on a path by the slag heaps in front of Cesmin Lug and Kablare. The lead levels found in these policemens' blood in 2000-2001
were so high that they were immediately sent home. But until WHO conducted more blood tests at the IDP camps in July 2004, there was no reaction by UNMIK health officials to the dangerously high levels of lead in the IDP camps.
How? To date no evacuation has taken place, no pregnant mothers have been officially relocated, and no children have been officially relocated.
THE ACTIONS OF SOCIETY FOR THREATENED PEOPLE/KOSOVO ROMA REFUGEE FOUNDATION, AND OTHERS:
Chronology of action and the response by officials:
July 2004: Four-year-old Jenita Mehmeti dies in Zitkovac camp after being treated in Serbia for lead poisoning. Jenita has lived in the Zitkovac IDP camp since 2000. Shortly before Jenita dies, her two-year-old sister Nikolina is treated for convulsions at the hospital in Mitrovica, showing the same symptoms as her older sister. Mitrovica hospital recommends that Nikolina be sent to Belgrade for treatment, but local health authorities do not make a written request to the UNMIK health officer, Dr. Sergy Schevchenko, until December 15, 2004. He never acts on the request. Nikolina is not taken to Belgrade until March 2, 2005, by field workers.
July 2004: WHO takes random blood tests in the IDP camps. Finds all children tested have lead levels higher than their machine can read. WHO then takes soil samples, and the results after several months show most soil in and around the camps to have 4 to 7 times more lead than the level dangerous for human habitation. The hottest hot spot in the Cesmin Lug camp has 360 times more lead than is safe.
October 22, 2004: WHO sends out a report to UNMIK and interested stakeholders about the lead poisoning suggesting the lead poisoning might be the result of small-scale smelting of car batteries by the IDPs in these camps. The report states that not everyone was tested, but that there are at least six children who constitute a medical emergency. To date only three of those six children have been treated, and two of them were returned to the camp after treatment and once again have acute levels of lead poisoning.
Oct 2004: International Committee of the Red Cross writes to Special Representative of the Secretary General Jessen-Petersen that the lead poisoning in the IDP camps is the biggest medical tragedy in Kosovo and demands immediate evacuation of the camps.
Oct 2004: WHO takes two children from the Zitkovac IDP camp, KM (3 yrs old) and BA (3 yrs old) to Belgrade for treatment for lead poisoning. The children are treated and the doctors insist the children cannot be taken back to the source of poisoning.
Oct 2004: SFTP/KRRF hears about the blood and soil results from WHO staff and from concerned mothers in the IDP camps and asks WHO when more children will be treated. WHO says no more children can be treated because there is no more medicine at the hospital in Belgrade.
Oct 2004: Through a donation from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, SFTP/KRRF obtains enough medicine at the government toxicology center in Prague, Czech Republic, to treat 12 children for lead poisoning. This medicine is handed over to WHO at the Mitrovica hospital (photo taken).
Oct 2004: The European Roma Rights Center in Budapest agrees to investigate the possibility of issuing a criminal complaint against UNMIK, UNHCR, and others.
Nov 2004: WHO, against the Belgrade doctors' orders, returns KM and BA, who have been treated for lead poisoning, back to their Zitkovac IDP camp (the source of the poisoning). It is highly probably they will share the fate of Jeneta Mehmeti, who died after being treated and then returned to the source of the poisoning.
Nov 2004: It is learned that no other children from the camps are being treated with the medicine donated and WHO is asked why. WHO says the medicine has been sent to Belgrade and that the children cannot be treated in Mitrovica. WHO sends to UNMIK a report entitled "JUSTIFICATION FOR MOVEMENT OF THE ROMA CAMPS CESMIN LUG AND ZITKOVAC, NOVEMBER 2004."
Nov 16, 2004: UNMIK holds a first meeting "...to find ways to address the issue of the lead contamination among RAE (Roma, Ashkali, Egyptians) IDPs in the collective centers of Zitkovac and Cesmin Lug based on WHO's report of July 2004. It was accepted that the present lead emergency situation needs immediate action primarily in the form of relocating the IDPs from the camp..." (quote from the transcript of the minutes of the meeting). It was also stated in the minutes of the meeting that 33% of the children tested in the camps had acutely high levels representing a medical emergency. 88% of the soils in the camps were found to be unsafe for human habitation and the highest soil sample from Cesmin Lug was found to be 360 times higher than the acceptable level of lead in the soil. Two children from the Zitkovac camp, KM and BA, had already been sent to Belgrade with critical levels of lead in the blood causing seizures (as a result of brain swelling). It was never subsequently officially reported that WHO returned these children to the camps after their treatment against doctors' orders.
Nov 22, 2004: Kosovo's Ombudsman writes to SRSG Jessen-Petersen about the deplorable conditions of these IDP camps, but does not mention the lead poisoning issue.
Nov 25, 2004: A second meeting is held by UNMIK to determine the fate of the IDPs. At that meeting WHO backs down from its initial call for immediate evacuation of the camps and calls for a steering committee to be formed to assess the situation. Most NGOs, such as ICRC, are no longer invited to the UNMIK meetings on lead poisoning.
November 26, 2004: ERRC writes to UNMIK and UNHCR demanding that UNHCR, UNMIK and Zvechen municipal authorities take immediate action to move 112 Romani families from these camps to safe living areas and provide all necessary medical treatment for all affected persons. Copies are sent to UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, SRSG in Pristina, the Kosovo Ombudsman, and other interested parties. ERRC posts the letter on its web page.
December 2004: Most UNMIK officials go away on holiday for Christmas.
December 31, 2004: UNHCR chief of mission in Kosovo replies to the ERRC letter, giving a history of the camps, but offers no solution to the lead poisoning issue or relocation.
January 2005: Most UNMIK officials still away on holiday.
February 8, 2005: Activists meet UNMIK returns adviser Laurie Wiseberg to propose evacuation of the camps to Fort Dix, NJ. In May 1999 almost 7,000 Kosovo Albanians were airlifted to Fort Dix until it was safe for them to return to Kosovo. Wiseberg refuses to support such a plan. She wants to help the Roma, but doesn't know how. Her assistant says UNMIK/UNHCR are not concerned about ERRC's threat of a lawsuit since all UN personnel have diplomatic immunity.
February 16, 2005: Meeting held at UNMIK headquarters south Mitrovica of all the health officers of the region, chaired by WHO. Dr. Rokho Kim gives a speech about the lead poisoning in the IDP camps. Dr. Kim said he had visited the camps on Nov 15, 2004 and was shocked by the contamination of the heavy metals in the area. He said that in his 15 years of experience he had never seen or heard of such high levels of lead
in childrens' blood. He compared the levels to a town in Oklahoma, the worst-ever case of lead poisoning for a community in the United States, and said the Cesmin Lug and Kablare camps had lead levels at least 3 to 4 times higher than this infamous case. He said the United States government had evacuated all children from 0 to 6 years and all pregnant women while the town was cleaned up. An original, signed copy of the minutes of this meeting are kept by activists.
February 22, 2005: Activists complain to Dr. Sergy Schevchenko that he has never answered a request by local health authorities to transport two-year-old Nikolina Mehmeti to Belgrade for urgent treatment for lead poisoning diagnosed in June 2004. He answers that he is the UNMIK health officer for north Mitrovica and although Nikolina was diagnosed at a hospital in Mitrovica, she lives in the IDP camp in Zvechen (two kilometers away) and therefore is outside his jurisdiction. He says that UNMIK will not let him treat people outside of Mitrovica. Zvechen has no health officer.
February 23-February 28, 2005: Activists seek help from UNMIK, UNHCR, and ICRC to transport Nikolina Mehmeti to Belgrade for treatment. It is discovered that neither Nikolina Mehmeti nor her mother have identification cards. Nikolina was born in the UNHCR camp of Zitkovac but her birth was never registered. Legally, she cannot be taken to Serbia for treatment. All authorities who could issue a travel document, including UNMIK police, refuse to do so.
February 28, 2005: SFTP International President Tilman Zuelch writes a letter to SRSG Soren Jessen-Petersen asking him to take the necessary measures to dismantle the IDP camps and evacuate the RAE from the contaminated area; to find a durable solution to accommodate the IDPs; and to give them medical assistance. SFTP in Germany also issue a press release and memorandum on the lead poisoning in the IDP camps in Kosovo.
March 2, 2005: Nikolina Mehmeti and her mother are smuggled into Serbia and taken to Belgrade where Nikolina Mehmeti is admitted to the hospital at the Mother & Child Institute. The doctor in charge cannot believe that the IDP camp where Nikolina lives (and which is the source of her poisoning) is still inhabited after her sister's death. He thought it was against the law to allow these camps to continue to poison and kill small children. The doctor tells Nikolina's mother that if her daughter is taken back to the camp after treatment she will die.
March 7, 2005: So far the results of Nikolina Mehmeti's blood tests are not known and treatment has not started. Money is left with Nikolina's mother for her expenses and toys are bought for her.