Paul Polansky International Herald Tribune
TUESDAY, APRIL 26, 2005
In its rush to proclaim its assignment a success, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo is ignoring - or covering up - a medical tragedy there for which it is directly responsible.
At three camps built by the UN High Commission for Refugees, some 60 Gypsy children under the age of 6 have been exposed to such high levels of lead that they are highly likely either to die soon or to suffer irreversible brain damage.
This number represents every child born in the camps since they were built five and a half years ago - children whose undeveloped immune systems make them particularly vulnerable.
Rokho Kim, an expert on lead poisoning and a medical doctor for the World Health Organization's European Center for the Environment and Health in Bonn, who visited the camps in February, said he had never heard of such high lead levels in children's blood.
He said that toxicity levels around the camps were three to four times higher than those at Tar Creek, Oklahoma, America's most dangerous hazardous waste site.
The camps, in Zitkovac, Cesmin Lug and Kablare in northern Kosovo, were built starting in November 1999 to house some 500 displaced persons from Kosovo's largest Gypsy neighborhood, destroyed in June of that year by extremist ethnic Albanians after NATO troops took over the city of South Mitrovica.
Today, many children in these squalid camps show obvious symptoms of lead poisoning: loss of memory, loss of coordination, vomiting and convulsions.
Over the past five years, 27 people have died in the camps, many of them very likely from the effects of heavy-metal poisoning, though autopsies are never performed. Two of the dead have been children, and more are expected to die in the next few months.
It didn't have to be this way.
In November 1999, as a representative of the Society for Threatened Peoples, I warned the head of mission of the High Commission for Refugees in Pristina that the location for the camps appeared to be on toxic waste lands, in the shadow of slag heaps from the extensive Trepca mines.
But the commission went ahead with construction, claiming they would be used for only 45 days.
Random blood testing carried out in August and September 2000 by Dr. Andrei Andreyev, a Russian consultant to the United Nations, confirmed dangerous levels of lead poisoning.
He submitted a report to the World Health Organization and to the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, which is known as Unmik, recommending immediate evacuation of the camps.
His report, which is now unavailable to the public, was never acted upon, with one exception: Several international Unmik police officers were tested, since they jogged daily on a path by the slag heaps near the Cesmin Lug camp. Their lead levels were so high, Unmik immediately repatriated them.
But until WHO conducted more blood tests at the camps last July, there was no reaction at all by Unmik health officials to the dangerously high lead levels for the Gypsies.
Capillary tests on 75 people from the camps, mostly children and pregnant women, showed that 44 had blood levels higher than 65 micrograms per decileter, the highest level that the equipment available could measure.
Levels over 10 micrograms are considered the point at which there is a risk of brain or nervous system damage; fewer than 10 people tested under 40 micrograms, the level requiring medical intervention; 70 is considered an immediate medical emergency.
Subsequent tests have corroborated the implications of this data. I took nine children to the hospital to be tested. Seven had lead levels higher than the machine could read. Two were immediately hospitalized without a test, and medical personnel said they didn't think one of the two could be saved.
WHO's 2004 report recommended immediate action, but Unmik's response was to begin holding weekly meetings on the issue. At a meeting last Nov. 16, it was even "accepted that the present lead emergency situation needs immediate action primarily in the form of relocating the IDPs from the camps. ..."
But despite calls by humanitarian groups and health experts and a written demand by the International Committee of the Red Cross for the camps to be immediately evacuated, the only action taken by Unmik has been to hold more meetings, still without a decision.
Last July, Jenita Mehmeti, a 4-year-old girl, died in the Zitkovac camp after being treated for two months in a Serbian hospital for lead poisoning.
She won't be the last. With independence for Kosovo clearly on the UN agenda for this year or next, it appears that Unmik wants only to get out without having to make a decision, or take responsibility for its appalling negligence.
(Paul Polansky is head of mission in Kosovo for the Society for Threatened Peoples and for the Kosovo Roma Refugee Foundation.)