Prague, 15 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Eleven-year-old Julieta Toska has lived more than half of her life in a ramshackle camp with hundreds of other Roma who are still displaced by the 1999 Kosovo war.
The home she knows best is the Zitkovac camp on the outskirts of Zvecan -- a small town near the Trepca lead mines on the Serbian-controlled northern side of Kosovo's Ibar River.
Her family's ancestral home is a few kilometers away on the southern bank of the Ibar River. But Toska has not visited her native Mahala district of Kosovska Mitrovica since it was destroyed in a spree of looting and reprisal attacks by ethnic Albanians in June 1999. Extreme poverty defines her daily existence.
"We just got back from Zvecan," she said. "We searched in the garbage bins to find some food. We usually take a bag to find something to eat for my little brother."
Julieta's mother, Xhemile Toska, said the children of the camp suffer from chronic illnesses. "I take my children to the doctor very often. Actually, they are ill most of the time," she said. "They don’t have enough food. They don't have enough clothing. They have nothing."
But the sickness is not just the result of poverty and malnutrition. Growing evidence shows camp residents are being poisoned by toxic waste from the nearby lead mines. Common symptoms include memory loss, convulsions, vomiting, and problems with walking.
"The situation requires urgent action. But for the moment, I do not see any serious measures or steps in this direction." - OSCE's Nowicki
Zitkovac camp resident Habit Hajdini said he is certain the toxic contamination has started to kill children. "We had a case of death from toxic poisoning last year," he said. "A three-year-old child died. I am 100 percent certain the child died as a result of lead poisoning because I followed the child's situation. She was transferred for emergency treatment to Kragujevac [in Serbia]. When she was brought back again to the camp, she was paralyzed and in the end, she died."
The World Health Organization has confirmed that at least 12 other Romany children at camps near the mine have exceptionally high levels of lead in their blood. Six cases are considered "medical emergencies."
The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) that lead poisoning in Roma camps is Kosovo's biggest medical tragedy. The Red Cross last year called for the immediate evacuation of several contaminated Romany camps. But that recommendation has so far been ignored.
Marek Antoni Nowicki, the ombudsman for Kosovo from the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told RFE/RL: "I know for sure that many, many children [at Romany camps near the Trepca mine] have been [poisoned] with lead in the blood to a level that is really life threatening. Some of them have been hospitalized in Belgrade. The situation requires urgent action. But for the moment, I do not see any serious measures or steps in this direction."
Nowicki said one reason for the inaction appears to be the complicated division of administrative responsibilities in Kosovo. The Roma at Zitkovac are considered "internally displaced" rather than refugees who have fled their country. That means they do not fall under the mandate of the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR.
Nowicki said Kosovo's Pristina-based government should ensure the safety and well-being of all its citizens. But that government does not have access to Romany camps in Serbian-controlled areas north of the Ibar River.
For that reason, Nowicki said the UNMIK has a greater share of responsibility in resolving the problems in Zitkovac.
UNMIK officials agree. But they also note that municipal officials in Serbian-controlled Zvecan do have access to the camps. UN officials also have said Zvecan's local authorities should move people out of contaminated camps.
Zvecan municipal chief Dragisa Milovic told RFE/RL that Roma fear for their safety if they move back to what is left of their homes on the ethnic Albanian controlled south side of the Ibar River.
"Honestly, the Roma in the camp do live in extremely difficult conditions and in a location that is contaminated by toxic waste. Unfortunately, last year, the first cases of lead poisoning appeared among the children living in this camp. One child died from this. These people should be able to go back to their homes just like any other citizens," Milovic said.
Nowicki, the OSCE's Kosovo ombudsman, said international donors should help to rebuild Romany neighborhoods to the south of the Ibar River. "The future of this camp -- as with a few other camps existing in other parts of Kosovo -- depends on the success of implementing projects for reconstruction of Roma [neighborhoods like] Mahala in Mitrovica," he said. "[That's] because a large part of these people living in Zitkovac and a few of the other camps are coming from exactly Mitrovica-Mahala along [the south banks] of the Ibar River."
UNMIK spokesman Neeraj Singh told RFE/RL that steps are being taken to help Kosovo's internally displaced Roma. "At this time, the key actors are in the process of finalizing a plan to address immediate health consequences while, at the same time, finding more durable solutions to this overall problem," Singh said.
But UN officials won't discuss details of the plan until it is finalized. They say they hope a plan is agreed upon by all sides before the end of April.