Kosovo’s Roma still endure prejudice and aftermath of toxic UN camps

Decade of independence has brought no benefit to Kosova’s Roma minority

Young men in the Roma district of Mitrovica, northern Kosovo, collecting recyclable plastic refuse. It is probably the main source of income in the city for the marginalised Roma community. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin

Young men in the Roma district of Mitrovica, northern Kosovo, collecting recyclable plastic refuse. It is probably the main source of income in the city for the marginalised Roma community. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin

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While in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, people were preparing to celebrate a decade of independence this month, in the northern city of Mitrovica it was business as usual for three young Roma men.

Outside the Hajrizi family’s home, they wrestled huge sacks of plastic bottles and bags – as tall as they were and far bulkier – on to a cart to haul away for sale. Each sack, filled to bursting by hours of tedious, grubby work, would earn them just two or three euro.

In the house, Naser and his wife Jollca leafed through medical papers documenting the kind of health problems that they and many Roma here face, compounding prejudice and poverty that have not eased with Kosovo’s independence.

When vengeful Kosovar Albanians razed Mitrovica’s Roma district, known as the mahala, after a 1998-1999 war between separatist rebels and Serbian forces, thousands of those who fled were placed in camps run by the United Nations.

Many subsequently left Kosovo, but hundreds of Roma remained stuck for years in tents, shacks and barracks beside the slag heaps and ageing smelter of the vast Trepca lead mine.

Lead levels

The smelter was closed in 2000 when western peacekeepers stationed nearby were found to have elevated amounts of lead in their blood, and tests commissioned by the UN mission to Kosovo discovered that levels of lead in the environment around Trepca were well over 100 times higher than acceptable norms.

Camps that were intended to operate for only a few months survived for more than a decade, however, and left a lasting mark on their residents.

Naser Hajrizi and his wife Jollca in their home in the Roma district of Mitrovica, northern Kosovo. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin
Naser Hajrizi and his wife Jollca in their home in the Roma district of Mitrovica, northern Kosovo. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin

“My son Brendi had high levels of lead in his blood, and he has had back pain, stomach aches, headaches,” said Naser Hajrizi (42).

“Brendi is 11 years old. His brother Hasan, who was born in 2014, also has high levels of lead and has trouble breathing at night . . . and fever and stomach cramps,” he added.

“We could see the dust from Trepca blowing into the camp. We knew how polluted it was but we had nowhere else to go.”

Other Roma in Mitrovica say problems including nervous disorders, learning difficulties and kidney disease are caused by prolonged exposure to lead levels that the UN mission to Kosovo (Unmik) knew for years were dangerous.

In response to a complaint from 138 former residents of the camps, a UN advisory panel found in 2016 that Unmik “violated their human rights by placing them . . . in camps on land known to be highly contaminated, by not providing them with timely information about the health risks or the required medical treatment, as well as by failing to relocate them to a safe location.”

The panel also “recommended that Unmik take appropriate steps towards payment of adequate compensation for material and moral damage”.

Trust fund

Last May, UN secretary-general António Guterres expressed “profound regret for the suffering endured” by camp residents, but stopped short of an apology or promise of compensation.

Instead, he announced the creation of a trust fund for Roma projects – a move that Human Rights Watch described as “selling the victims of lead poisoning at its camps in Kosovo short”.

Blerim Masuritsa says his son Mohamedin (6) has health problems due to the years the family spent in UN-run, lead-contaminated camps in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin
Blerim Masuritsa says his son Mohamedin (6) has health problems due to the years the family spent in UN-run, lead-contaminated camps in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin

Blerim Masuritsa (35), another resident of Mitrovica’s mahala, urged the UN to take responsibility. “They ran the camp. They took us there and didn’t tell us how long we’d be there,” he said.

“Doctors told us that two of our five children have high levels of lead in the blood,” he added.

“Mohamedin has heart problems,” he said of his six-year-old son, who listened and leaned against the wall of the apartment the family was given by an international aid group.

About 2,000 people are now believed to live in such apartments in the partially rebuilt mahala.

They have 99-year leases on the flats and are not legally allowed to sell them. Some do so, however, to fund moves to EU states that often end with them being sent back to penury in Kosovo and into a cycle of migration and deportation.

When Kosovars who fled the war returned home, some attacked Roma – and burned down the old mahala – for allegedly collaborating with Serbs.

That slur reinforces the prejudice that Roma face across Europe, and on both sides of the Ibar river that divides the Kosovar and Serb halves of Mitrovica.

“The Kosovo government hasn’t done much for the Roma community,” said Vera Pula, programme co-ordinator at the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society.

“It adopts strategies and policies but has never allocated funds for implementation.”

Masuritsa said he makes about €70 month collecting and selling recyclable plastic. “There’s no other work here. The kids go to school and help me when they’re free. They get teased on both sides of the river,” he said.

“I would like to go abroad – there’s no life for us here.”

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