South Mitrovice's Roma Mahalla 1: this is - or was - "Roma Mahalla" or "Fabricka Mahalla", the Roma neighbourhood in Mitrovice/Mitrovica, south of the river. In 1999, the entire neighbourhood was burned to the ground and the community driven out, because some members of the Albanian community thought that some of the Roma had collaborated with some of the Serb nationalists.
The Council of Europe (CoE)'s (2005:23) Progress Report for Kosovo admits that "three IDP [Internally Displaced People] camps in northern Mitrovica for Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian[s] are situated on sites heavily lead-polluted caused by the former Trepca mining activities and thus pose a serious health risk to the inhabitants".
The CoE relays that the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended "emergency measures, including the evacuation of the centres", to halt the lead poisoning, which may have killed dozens of children.
The Council of Europe says that "an agreement was signed in April 2005 by UNMIK, UNHCR, OSCE and the Mitrovica Municipal Assembly President creating a framework for the return of former residents of the Roma Mahalla to their homes in southern Mitrovica", then concedes, "however", that "the returns process has not yet started".
The CoE explains that, "return is unlikely to happen this year", not only because "work is ongoing to rubble clear the site", but also because they still have to "[choose] the design of the buildings"; moreover, "the question of funding also remains unclear". Ultimately, it appears that all they are doing is destroying the ruins; but even this is not - or should not be - a simple matter.
If they erase all evidence of the violence without preserving and conserving it to support memory and education, they may undermine their own and others' work towards understanding and solidarity. If people do not know and cannot understand what happened, it will be even more difficult to lead them to respect human rights standards and to engender community reconciliation.
The Council of Europe recognises that "this situation is unsustainable and need to be fully addressed without further delay", however:
- for a long time, lead pollution had been an open secret;
- in 1997, there was a public report of lead poisoning;
- (therefore) in 1999, when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) chose the site, it knew it was contaminated;
- (in fact) also in 1999, the United Nations itself, in the form of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS), noted that Kosovo's mining industry had caused "serious environmental degradation and impacts on the health of the local population";
- the UNHCR insisted on placing the camp there despite protests by its own Romani affairs advisor;
- in 2000, the United Nations Interim Administration Mission In Kosovo (UNMIK) found "blood lead concentrations exceeding the permissive limits" and recommended relocation;
- also in 2000, the then UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) Bernard Kouchner stated that, "the people of Mitrovica are at risk because of this [Zvecan] smelter" and that, "as a doctor, as well as chief administrator of Kosovo, I would be derelict if I let this threat to the health of children and pregnant women continue for one more day"; and
- in 2004, the World Health Organisation insisted the situation was "urgent";
- [and in 2005, the BBC reported that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had concluded that 'at least one child ha[d] died from lead poisoning', while the Kosovo Roma Refugee Foundation (KRRF) believed 27 had been killed. (Belatedly added on 21st June 2009.)]
[Mitrovice/Mitrovica and samarkeolog updated on the 25th of October 2007.]
I was delighted to read that, finally,
The UN refugee agency [UNHCR] has helped 92 members of Kosovo's minority Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian (RAE) communities to return to their home district in the divided city of Mitrovica....Yet, according to the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC),
The 92 Roma moved into two new apartment blocks in Roma Mahala, which was destroyed after its 8,000 inhabitants fled eight years ago fearing attacks from extremists. The municipality of Mitrovica granted the land on which the new apartment blocks were built....
Returnees receive food and non-food packages for an initial period of three months. The UN refugee agency will help and advise them in areas such as property rights, socio-economic rights, civil registration, and capacity building and income-generating initiatives.
Residents of the Osterode IDP camp complained to the ERRC that since December 2006, humanitarian food aid had been cut for residents of that camp. In addition, doctors who had regularly checked the health status of children in the camp had also stopped coming since January 2007....Former Roma Mahalla Residents' Association for Protecting Roma Rights (APRR) representative and lead-contaminated internally displaced persons (IDP) camp resident,
Mr [Skender] Gusani's primary concern related to the fact that while 57 families had moved into the new flats and houses, only 13 of those families had been living in the IDP camps in Northern Mitrovica. The majority of the families given housing in the new buildings were reportedly Romani, Ashkalia and Egyptian returnees from Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, other parts of Kosovo, and elsewhere....(Some quoted paragraphs broken for readability.)
[Moreover] ownership of the new houses was not being passed to the occupants. Property rights were given to the occupants in the form of 99-year leases. Mr Gusani expressed great frustration with this given that houses were intended for those Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptians who had legally owned their houses in the mahala before the war....
[Furthermore] the houses built under the supervision of Danish Refugee Council (DRC) were of very poor quality.... The red bricks were themselves both the outer and inner walls, with no form of insulation included in the construction; the interior walls had merely been painted white....
The houses were heated by electric heaters purchased by the occupants. Almost all of the homes were constructed on multiple levels, and one house visited by the ERRC had stairs on the outside of the structure which the occupants had to use to move between their sleeping area and their living, eating and sanitary area. Given the winter weather in Kosovo, such conditions are highly inadequate.
.... Rubble and dust had not been covered with grass or stone and in the windy weather on the day of the ERRC visit, dust and dirt filled the air making it impossible to be outside in the area.