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Here Everything is Poison


[clock] 30-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Fall 2010
The Trepča mining and smelting complex, and its enormous slagheap, near the Osterrode Chesmin Lug resettlement camps for displaced Roma, North Mitrovica, Kosovo.
Darren McAlester
The Trepča mining and smelting complex, and its enormous slagheap, near the Osterrode Chesmin Lug resettlement camps for displaced Roma, North Mitrovica, Kosovo.


Institute of Public Heath, Mitrovica
Krasnici, Meba / Born 2006 / Osterode / Blood Lead Level: 34.6
Seljimi, Arbenita / Born 2008 / Osterode / Blood Lead Level: 22.1

The boy tilts his head back, Darren’s camera close to his mouth. I make a face.

“Smile.”

Looking at me, he starts to giggle. How old? Maybe five? He can’t stop giggling. This game beneath gray skies in Osterode Resettlement Camp, in the ethnically divided city of North Mitrovica.

“Smile.”

Darren’s shutter clicks.

Many of the children in the Osterrode Resettlement Camp have so much lead in their food and drinking water that it leaches from their teeth and rots their gums.
Darren McAlester
Many of the children in the Osterrode Resettlement Camp have so much lead in their food and drinking water that it leaches from their teeth and rots their gums.

Cold winds carry lead-filled dust from a nearby slagheap, a hundred million tonnes of toxic tailings, and scatter it on clothes hanging from laundry lines, on open buckets of drinking water, on the dirt children play in, and on the feral dogs running down alleys in this former French army barracks housing about 250 displaced Roma men, women, and children.

Another resettlement camp, Chesmin Lug, Serbian for—appropriately—runoff, lies downhill from here, just past garbage-strewn railroad tracks upon which two dead dogs lie rotting amid melting spring snows. That camp shelters another forty-seven Roma families in ramshackle huts pieced together from scrap wood and warped two-by-fours.

In the distance stands the Trepča mining and smelting complex, once the largest mine in Europe—now slowly coming back online after a decade’s dormancy following the Kosovo War. Where the ground around the complex has been gouged open by water streaming down the slag-heap, black lines of lead and zinc deposits are revealed like rings on a tree. Both the ground and this boy’s mouth are ravaged by toxins.

Click.

The boy bares all of his teeth. I look closer, leaning over Darren’s shoulder. The boy’s left front tooth is almost entirely covered by lead that has emerged through the rotting tissue of his receding gums. Lead more often than not is an invisible killer. But in this boy’s mouth, it announces itself with a boldness that turns my stomach.

The boy sees my reaction and frowns. I shake my head, make another face.

“Smile.”

He opens his mouth, grinning once more, tongue dancing. The lead glistens from saliva.

Click.

The Osterode and Chesmin Lug resettlement camps were established in 1999 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for the Roma—or “gypsies” as they are more commonly known in America—a traditionally nomadic people found throughout the world but especially in central and eastern Europe. The camps were intended as a temporary measure when the nine thousand-member Roma neighborhood on the southern shore of the Ibar River—which separates the Serb-dominated northern part of Mitrovica from the southern, Albanian-dominated part—was burnt down by Albanians as Serbian security forces pulled out in the dying days of the Kosovo conflict.

The Albanians, furious at the atrocities they had been subjected to by the Serbs, accused the Roma of collaborating with the Serbian Army. The Roma, a traditionally downtrodden clan, say they hardly were in a position to do anything but strive for their own survival; they think the Albanians’ grudge should be solely with the Serbs, not with them.

Whatever the truth behind the accusations and denials, almost everyone agrees that moving Roma families next to a toxic slagheap, onto land highly contaminated with lead, zinc, arsenic, and other metals, has caused dozens of families to suffer severe health problems and spawned a generation of brain-damaged children.

Lead blackens the children’s teeth, blanks out their memory, and stunts their growth. Other symptoms of lead poisoning include aggressive behavior, nervousness, dizziness, vomiting, and high fever. The children swing between bursts of nervous hyperactivity and moody depression; they have fainting spells and epileptic fits.

According to internationally accepted benchmarks drawn up by the United States Centers for Disease Control, 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter (mcg/dl) of blood cause the beginning of brain damage. When the World Health Organization tested the Romas’ blood for lead in 2008, the readings for twenty-one of fifty-three children showed lead levels of 65 mcg/dl, which is the highest level the machine can measure.

Such children fall into the category of “acute medical emergency” and under normal circumstances require immediate hospitalization. Instead they have remained in the camps, ingesting lead through the air, through the dirt, through their food. Even before their birth, lead enters their bodies through the water their mothers drink.

Worse still, critics of the United Nations say the organization knowingly put the Roma on toxic land. Kosovo was administered by the UN from June 1999, after NATO bombed then President Slobodan Milošević’s troops in a bid to halt Belgrade’s repression of the majority ethnic-Albanian population seeking independence.

“In 1999, we had to respond to an emergency and found the camps as a temporary facility,” says Francesco Ardisson, senior protection officer of the office of Chief of Mission, UNHCR, Pristina. “Unfortunately, we have been unable to find an alternative site because neither the Albanians nor the Serbs want them.”

Within the UN, however, questions have been raised about its handling of the Roma.

“The UN put the Roma in the camps even though the UN knew the place was poisoned,” says Ilija Elezovic, the health department director for the UN Mission in Kosovo. “The place where the camps are, the UN had a plan to build a fence around it that said danger. But they didn’t do that. Instead they put the Roma there.”

Elezovic says his own blood lead level was 16 mcg/dl.

“Everyone is poisoned here,” he says, “especially the Roma.”

The children of Rifadija and Muhammad Smajliji have both been poisoned by lead in the Chesmin Lug Resettlement Camp.
Darren McAlester
The children of Rifadija and Muhammad Smajliji have both been poisoned by lead in the Chesmin Lug Resettlement Camp.

“They are conceived in lead,” American activist Paul Polansky tells me in between questions to Tina Gidzic, his Roma assistant, who makes his appointments. The three of us sit together in the lobby of my hotel drinking muddy-looking Turkish coffee.

Tina met Paul in a Bosnian refugee camp and started working with him in 2002 after she studied English through a program he had established for Roma people. She taught hygiene ten to twelve hours a day, five days a week in the Osterode and Chesmin Lug camps. Within a year, she began getting sick—vomiting every day and feeling dizzy. A test revealed her blood lead level to be 17 mcg/dl. She was treated with doses of magnesium and vitamin C. Now twenty-two years old, her joints still ache and she believes her memory is not what it was.

“These camps are genocide,” Paul continues. “I know of eighty people who have died in the camps from lead. They have to be immediately evacuated from the camps and medically treated. The Albs and Serbs don’t want them. The only hope is to get them abroad.”

The Roma, however, are not considered refugees by the UN but “internally displaced people.” That means they do not fit the UN’s criteria for financing their resettlement abroad: a penny-wise, pound-foolish accounting gimmick any bean counter would appreciate. Even if the Roma were classified as refugees, however, it would be difficult to find countries willing to accept them.

“So far no country has come forward to offer assistance,” Paul says. “Gypsies are not the flavor of the month in any country. That’s the problem. If they were another group this wouldn’t be happening.”

A native of Mason City, Iowa, Paul left the Midwest in 1963 in protest of the Vietnam War. He settled in Spain, hunted big game animals in Africa, married, had four children, divorced, and moved to Czechoslovakia to research his family ancestry. There he discovered files documenting the deaths of thousands of Roma in Nazi concentration camps. Intrigued, he immersed himself in Roma history. He published volumes of Roma oral histories. He wrote poems about the Roma. The Roma became his passion.

In 1999, when the UN needed a Roma expert in Kosovo, Paul signed up—but quickly became disenchanted when camps were arranged on toxic land. He quit the UN and became a one-man Roma advocate. He is now head of mission for the Society for Threatened Peoples International, a German-based organization dedicated to publicizing the plight of threatened peoples. After ten years, his commitment and anger have only increased in the face of international disinterest.

His scathing indictments against the international community for, in his view, ignoring the plight of Kosovo’s Roma caught my attention. Like most Americans, I had long forgotten about the Kosovo War amid the years of our own conflicts and had never even been aware of Roma casualties.

I e-mailed Paul. It was clear from his response that I did not score points with my ignorance, but an ignorant journalist was better than nothing at all, and nothing was about all Paul was getting as he sought to bring attention to the camps. So, in March 2009, with little to lose, he encouraged photographer Darren McCollester and me to fly to Kosovo to see for ourselves what war had wrought.

As Paul and I finish our coffee, Tina reads a text message on her cell phone. A concerned look crosses her face. “That was Demsit in Osterode Camp,” she says. “His grandmother has died.”

“Did she live in the camp?” I ask.

“One month.”

“That’s eighty-one dead,” Paul says.

Of course he doesn’t know if she died from lead poisoning. Like AIDS, lead attacks the immune system, resulting in secondary illnesses that are often the official cause of death—if a cause is determined at all. Most of those who have fallen ill in the camps have been treated in Serbian hospitals, and human rights groups have had difficulty getting medical records. Paul’s anger, I think, causes him to jump to conclusions. It is the desperation that comes from being ignored.

Minutes later, Demsit Jahiirovic, a lanky young man wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and black stocking cap saunters into the hotel and up to our table with a gangbanger strut. But the gentle-yet-sad expression in his eyes suggests the futility of his posturing. He tells Tina that his aunt in Europe will send 250 euros for his grandmother’s funeral. Paul offers to donate

additional money.

“Two years ago, Demsit tested thirty-eight for his blood lead levels,” Paul says. “He has not been tested since.”

“They say the whole of Kosovo is polluted,” Demsit tells me. “The administration of the camp doesn’t talk about the future because there is none. There is no hope for me and the whole camp. The camp is a catastrophe.”

He had lived in Germany since he was an infant, after his parents fled his native Croatia in 1991. But they never applied for refugee status, and in 2005 the family was deported to Kosovo where his father was born. Demsit has lived in Osterode ever since.

“How long are you here?”

“Two weeks,” I tell him.

“There’ll probably be another death by then,” Demsit says.


Institute of Public Health, Mitrovica
Seljimi, Giltema / Born 2003 / Chesmin Lug / Blood Lead Level: 60.42
Kuvelic, Dragica / Born 2004 / Osterode / Blood Lead Level: 22.1
Ljatifi, Eruduan / Born 2001 / Chesmin Lug / Blood Lead Level: 40.73

The hands of a child clutch a windowframe. In the resettlement camps even the paint inside the homes is lead-based.
Darren McAlester
The hands of a child clutch a windowframe. In the resettlement camps even the paint inside the homes is lead-based.

In the morning, Darren and I meet Paul for a quick breakfast and then, along with Tina, pile into his aging RV, a groaning, coughing rattletrap of a vehicle, a survivor of too many miles crisscrossing Europe. Paul affectionately calls it “the caravan.” He lived in the RV for years before buying a house in Serbia after he left the UN.

A surprising six inches of snow fell overnight. We jounce down a slippery ice-covered cobbled road toward Chesmin Lug. It can be hard to believe an armed conflict here resulted in a six-week NATO bombing campaign that by its own count caused at least 1,500 civilian deaths, let alone the consequences of that conflict, which led to the Roma living on contaminated land. University students walk down streets singing to tunes on their iPods. Restaurants and internet cafés bustle with business, and cars clog the narrow, colorfully lit streets.

Despite the activity, anger from the war and the ethnic animosities that still haunt the Balkans reveals itself in not-so-subtle ways. Graffiti sprayed in thick red paint across the walls of old communist-era cinder-block apartment complexes castigates the UN presence. Vendors sell postcards with a black slash through “UN” and T-shirts—showing a sodomized Mickey Mouse—that dismiss the West with vulgarities. Other T-shirts promise that the Serbian Army “will be back.” The ongoing rivalry in this divided city between Serbs and Albanians has bred paranoia and distrust, making it possible for the Roma to be sidelined into toxic camps.

As we approach Chesmin Lug, I see the snow-covered slagheap that Paul calls “Moby Dick” lurking above the bare trees surrounding the camp. It appears to be rolling forward as if diving back into the ground, a white hulk waiting to burst forth and spout its poison upon the Roma.

We cross the train tracks, pass the rotting corpses of the dogs lit by thin emerging slats of sunlight between clouds. Small boys chase one another throwing snowballs. The snow turns to brown puddled sludge beneath their feet, streaming into the tainted ground. Glancing downhill, I see a jogging trail built by the UN for the Roma. It weaves beneath the trees toward the smelter. A sign, breathe in the odor of health, without a hint of irony in its absurd good cheer, was once posted by the trail—before it was torn down along with metal exercise bars the Roma dismantled and sold to recycling plants. Weeds push through cracks in the disused trail. The broken trail winds past a soggy soccer field, the sagging goalposts a quiet salute to games no longer played.

The Trepča slagheap, dubbed 'Moby Dick' by activist Paul Polansky, rises above the trees like the back of a whale.
Darren McAlester
The Trepča slagheap, dubbed ‘Moby Dick’ by activist Paul Polansky, rises above the trees like the back of a whale.

I follow Paul down a lane, avoiding a small girl shoveling snow with a tray, pebbles scratching the metal raw. I squint against the glare ricocheting off tin-sheet roofs weighted down by truck tires and snow. Wood smoke rises from chimneys, the heat melting the snow in long teardrops. Windblown shirts bounce on laundry lines in a jittery dance of headless marionettes. A suspended pair of black pants absorbs the dripping snow above the blue-painted door of the Smajiliji family. Paul knocks. Rifadija Smajiliji answers, her husband, Muhammad, standing behind her. Tina translates. Despite his years advocating for the Roma, Paul has yet to master their language.

“Rifadija has test results,” Tina tells Paul.

“Anyone explain the results to them?”

“No.”

Paul is not surprised. Effective treatment for lead poisoning would require removing the Roma from the camps. The test results mean little as long as they remain on toxic land, continually absorbing more lead and other poisons. It’s as if the camps are laboratories where the Roma are observed and their deteriorating health documented for no reason other than to document it again and again—a Sisyphean experiment without meaning or application.

Genocide. Say it. Genocide. No one wants to use the “G” word, but Paul does not hesitate. Genocide. His parents taught him that if he saw an injustice he should protest and call it what it was. Genocide.

Rifadija sorts through a Winnie the Pooh bicycle pack in a small brightly carpeted room heated by a stove. She offers Paul papers from the Mitrovica Institute of Public Health. According to the papers, her four-year-old daughter registers 60 mcg/dl, six times the amount that causes brain damage. Their nine-month-old baby shows 37.8 mcg/dl. Still another child registers more than 65 mcg/dl. A greater-than symbol on the lab test indicates the results for this child were higher than the machine could register.

“The baby cries a lot. I don’t know the problem,” Muhammad says.

“Your children should be in hospital this minute,” Paul says.

Muhammad begins to weep. Without being asked, his son brings him a glass of water. He squeezes two pills from an aluminum packet into his palm and tosses them in his mouth. Anti-depressants, he explains, saying, “I can’t take it anymore.”

It is nighttime now. Paul and I sit alone. He sips a glass of red wine, removes his glasses, and strokes his beard. The Roma, he knows, can be their own worst enemy. He bought one woman three washing machines and three dryers to start a laundry business. He even built her a laundry room. The first month, she was a tremendous success. Then one night she sold everything to buy her sixteen-year-old son a bride.

He shakes his head and taps the table with his glasses. It’s soul-destroying, this work. Most of the eighty dead were kids. He had known them since they were born. Watched them month after month, year after year going downhill. Knew they would die from lead poisoning. An entire generation. No, two, when he counts the unborn offspring of the dead kids.

People told me how dangerous it was to live here but what should I do? I have no other place to go.

How does he explain it? You can’t see lead poisoning. It’s not like a nosebleed. He observes kids over time. Gradually he notices they no longer walk like they once did. They don’t remember what they did seconds ago. They get sick too often. He sees the progressive deterioration. The mothers see it. They always see it. Their expressions of grief swirl in his head.

I feel very badly seeing my children dying. I saved them from war, but I can’t save them from lead.

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, visited the camps earlier in the day. He listened to camp leaders, arms crossed, a frown on his face. He spent perhaps thirty minutes in each camp. I pulled him aside and asked for his thoughts.

“The lead thing is a grave tragedy. The Roma are victimized by that,” Hammarberg told me. “It is sad the international community has not found a solution ten years later. The real solution must be to move them; I think that’s right. There is very little treatment without moving them. It is the single most major environmental disaster in Europe.”

Hammarberg’s remarks pleased Paul, yet he does not hold much hope for action. He has seen many officials visit the camps. Hammarberg may be different. Or, like the others, he too may file a report, have it bound and put on a shelf, its spine even with the many other bound and dust-covered reports on the same shelf. But what will become of it? Nothing, more than likely.

My grandchild is very sick. We have been in the camp three years.

Genocide. Say it. Genocide. No one wants to use the “G” word, but Paul does not hesitate. Genocide. His parents taught him that if he saw an injustice he should protest and call it what it was. Genocide. If the government would only move the Roma, Paul would be out of Kosovo tomorrow. At sixty-seven, he has survived five heart attacks. He wants to live in a warm climate, read books, write poetry, continue his oral history projects. But he can’t leave. Not yet. Tomorrow he may surprise himself and find someone who will listen to him. Really listen. He pins his hopes on another tomorrow. But tonight doubt plagues him. He does not know if anyone in the camps can be saved. He understands the bottom line.

They’re gypsies. Gypos. Who gives a fuck about gypsies?


Institute of Public Health, Mitrovica
Djemailji, Baskim / Born 1999 / Osterode / Blood Lead Level 42.29
Hajdini, Senad / Born 1992 / Chesmin Lug / Blood Lead Level 38.16
Hajdari, Jakup / Born 1998 / Chesmin Lug / Blood Lead Level 40.0

In Osterode Camp, Feruz Jahirovic and his wife Flanza sit sorrowfully before me. They are the parents of Sara, a three-year-old girl with a blood lead level of 53.8 mcg/dl. The family has lived in the camp since 2004. Sara and her eight siblings are all sick. They need help now while they are alive, Feruz tells me. Joint pain, stomach pain, headaches. They don’t walk properly, have trouble learning. They don’t see or hear well.

Even when Feruz finds work and buys good food, his children don’t eat. They have no appetite. Look at their nine-year-old son, Mussa. He has a blood lead level of 43.7. He does not look nine. He looks four. A very skinny four. His ten-year-old brother is skinnier and looks even younger. Feruz is a parent, the same as his parents before him. They were very good to him and he wants to be the same for his children. He will even clean toilets to earn money to help them. But they are lost.

“I watch them dying and I can’t help them.”

Flanza rocks Sara to sleep. She faints often, Flanza tells me. When this happens Flanza shakes her, pats her face with cold water, but often she does not awaken. They give her a bottle, but she does not take it. Desperate, they rush her to the hospital. The taxi goes too slowly. Flanza wants to get out and run with her to the doctor.

Her children are an example of why she should not have more, she says. She has induced miscarriages by deliberately falling down on her stomach, lifting buckets too heavy to carry, drinking vile concoctions recommended by older women that make her violently ill. She bleeds a lot during these times and is sorry for the lost babies. But she does not want more children born with lead.

Food, air, water, she trusts none of it, she says looking at Feruz. He nods, his sallow face drawing tight.

Here everything is poison, he says.

Flanza Jahirovic with her three-year-old daughter Sara. Sara and her eight siblings all have dangerously high blood lead levels.
Darren McAlester
Flanza Jahirovic with her three-year-old daughter Sara. Sara and her eight siblings all have dangerously high blood lead levels.

I walk the jogging trail with Tina. Slush oozes beneath my boots. The Ibar River, flooded with melting snow, rushes alongside, thick with roiling mud and the bobbing refuse of discarded bottles and all other manner of garbage. We pass the rutted ground of the soccer field; it is covered with dead weeds left over from the previous spring.

“Do you think it is good for eating?” Tina shouts to three fishermen, their poles poised over a hole filled with the overflow of the Ibar. “This place is poisoned, no?”

“No, c’mon,” one of the fishermen shouts back.

“What are we to do, not eat?” another counters.

The ruffled water sweeps past them, a brown ribbon spinning and turning, carried by wind and its own gravitational force, bubbling up around fallen trees and broken branches that collect discarded plastic bags snap, snap, snapping in the wind like so many angry flags.

We follow the trail to the smelter. A chained rusted gate prevents further progress. A bird flies over a red-and-white chimneystack and calls out in the stoic silence enforced by the vacant buildings beneath it. Tina shifts uneasily beside me.

“Even the air tastes differently here,” she says.

Pediatrician Zoran Savić has seen many Roma children since he began working in the camps in 2005. He had been told the camps were temporary and the families would soon be moved to a place with less toxicity. He dispensed medicines. He treated more than three hundred children and really thought he would be successful, but he was deceived. Year after year, the families remained in the camps. When he stopped treatment, their blood lead levels continued to rise. So he avoided going to the camps. What was the point?

He knows of seventy-seven people who died in the camps between 1999 and 2008. Maybe more, like Paul says. He does not know how many of them were children. The grandchildren of one family have particularly high blood lead levels. More than 45 micrograms. One girl is physically retarded. Another has bad convulsions. All from lead. He has no doubt. His own blood lead level is 3 micrograms, well below 10 but he watches it.

Dr. Savić will see Roma children who come to his office. He tries to ease their pain but feels he is wasting his time. He can’t imagine what the camps will be like in another ten years.

Lead poisoning takes a long time to treat but not as long as the politics of treatment, he says.

Some agencies have tried to move the Roma out of the camps, only to find themselves ensnared in a funding limbo. Mercy Corps, an American aid organization, has budgeted $2.4 million to resettle fifty Roma families—about 250 people—this year in either north or south Mitrovica, away from the contaminated sites.

According to Catherine Rothenberger, a Mercy Corps administrator in Kosovo, most of the budget would be applied to new housing, although treatment for lead poisoning is also included. She says more families would be moved if additional donors agree to support the program. “Resources are not an issue but a clear plan is,” Rothenberger says. “Donors are reluctant to invest unless it results in productive resettlement.”

In other words, more families will remain in the camps than be moved out.


Institute of Public Heath, Mitrovica
Asanaj, Sevdije / Born 1998 / Chesmin Lug / Blood Lead Level: 37.40
Ljatifi, Eruduan / Born 2001 / Osterode / Blood Lead Level: 57.35
Audi, Valjentina / Born 2004 / Chesmin Lug / Blood Lead Level: 54.14

On a Friday morning, Paul announces that he must leave Mitrovica for his home in Niš, Serbia, a three-hour drive from here. He has to check on his two dogs, catch up on e-mail, plan speaking trips abroad about the camps. He has just finished lunch with a Roma leader from a third camp in Leposavić. That camp is not on toxic land, but Roma there often marry into families living in Osterode and Chesmin Lug, continuing the legacy of lead poisoning.

Paul is still trying to convince the Roma leader to organize a protest. To burn candles and hold signs that read Save Us on April 9, International Roma Day.

“C’mon, we have to do this.”

The Roma leader agrees with a noncommittal nod. Just like the woman with the laundry business and the many others who also agreed but who eventually disappointed him.

“Get everyone behind this. It will draw the media,” Paul insists. He turns to Darren and me. “Guys, you must stay until April 9.”

“We can’t,” I say.

“You must.”

“We can’t.”

Paul glances at his watch. He needs to pick up Tina’s sister. His health prevents him from driving long distances alone.

“We have to stay on this,” he says, the tired insistence in his voice, despite the expressionless response, revealing the resilience of his weary heart beating still.

From my hotel window I see, beyond the brick tile roofs and somber squares of concrete apartment buildings, the dark shape of Moby Dick humped against the evening sky, darker than the night. I hear Demsit: My family all feels bad but we have not begun to look for food in garbage yet, and my thoughts race backward and forward as other voices converge in my mind—my children have bad memories, when they start something they are confused and don’t finish—as if there is no past or present but only what is now this moment. We are lead we have become a mineral we are no longer human . . .

I am Muhammad Smajiliji. I see my children jumping rope near fat puppies asleep against a shed stacked with firewood. The snow continues to melt in the still air. Nearby graffiti reads, fuck nato. Always the laundry lines bent with wet clothes. A car moves up a muddy lane.

Sizzling green peppers cook on the stove. We huddle around the expanding warmth. Our shadows rise up the pink chipped walls, a bare bulb overhead. A broom to sweep the rug of black dust.

Yes the children vomit and have high temperatures, my wife tells Western visitors. Our four-year-old has a blood level of sixty and is very nervous.

They are all nervous, I say. I am nervous. I start to shake, and it takes a long time to calm down. While we wait for someone to do something, I feel myself losing power. I am losing concentration. I feel like collapsing.

I am Feruz Jahirovic. My wife and I take the best care of Sara that we can. Doctors tell us she has three different illnesses in her heart. That’s how I understand it. I don’t have money for medication. She has been sick since 2007. She needs an operation. Many times, we go for a walk and she gets tired too soon and wants me to hold her.

My wish is to take my children out of the country, treat them, and save their lives. I wish I would die as soon as possible and leave this place, but as a parent I have to look after my children. But I would be very glad to die.

I am Paul Polansky. I am fighting off a cold. I can’t stop coughing. Tina will worry about my heart. The hospital didn’t have medication when I had my first heart attack and I had to buy it myself. There was no bedpan. Tina bought a soda so I had a bottle to piss in. University of Pristina Hospital. Shit hole. I was later airlifted to Belgrade. The doctor there told me to try his homemade brandy. It will open your arteries, he said.

At one time my blood lead level was 20 mcg/dl, twice the level for brain damage. I felt a

bit nervous, a bit aggressive. Treatment calmed me.

I survive but what of the rest of mankind? Americans are like the cheetah. It kills one animal at a time. When that animal is gone, the cheetah is gone. But the hyenas and other scavengers that eat garbage, they will survive. The West is so highly specialized. With all your money do you think you’ll eat garbage? You can’t adapt. But a gypsy will eat garbage. They will inherit the earth.


Institute of Public Heath, Mitrovica
Djemailji Baskim / Born: 1999 / Osterode / Blood Lead Level: 42.29
Hajdini Senad / Born: 1992 / Osterode / Blood Lead Level: 38.16
Hajdari Jakup / Born: 1998 / Osterode / Blood Lead Level: 40.0

Roma children play near their home in the Chesmin Lug Resettlement Camp.
Darren McAlester
Roma children play near their home in the Chesmin Lug Resettlement Camp.

The day after Paul leaves, Tina and her friend Gushami Bekim take me across a bridge into north Mitrovica where international aid organizations have, with the consent of the Albanians, built apartments for Roma families on the land of their old neighborhood. Gushami lives in one of the apartments.

We walk through an empty park that has no name and onto a construction site where two- and three-story brick apartment buildings rise up above torn ground. The interior of one building has been gutted of its electrical outlets and hall lights, sold likely by a Roma tenant for recycling. Looking out the window of a second-story landing, I see a jungle gym made of discarded tires in a garbage-filled sandpit alongside a seesaw and a swing set made from logs. Drying clothes and rugs hang off balconies, dripping water onto the sand.

“They still think they live in the camps,” Gushani says of the Roma. “That’s why they mistreat this place.”

His apartment stands in stark contrast to the ruin of the hall. Shined hardwood floors, kitchen, and a breakfast nook. Newly white-painted walls, bright red rugs, and a couch that absorbs me when I sit down. Struggling up, I suggest we talk on his deck overlooking the playground.

“It doesn’t matter that I have an apartment,” Gushani tells me. “I need work but I’m not safe to work here. I have seen many times Albanians beating up Roma here. We didn’t steal. We didn’t kill and burn down houses. It’s not our people who want their own country. All we want is enough food for our children and jobs.”

He lived in Osterode before moving here last year. A 2005 test showed all his children had lead in their blood. He doesn’t know if they still do. They seem more active here, he says.

“In the camp, they were always sick. The conditions were bad but at least then I had a job.”

I ask him if he has considered moving to another country. Gushani smiles at the question like an old man tolerating the naivete of a child.

“I’d go abroad but who would take us? We are not that lucky.”

This evening, I stand with Alil Ahmit in Chesmin Lug. Darren and I will leave in the morning, our time here over. But I have breathed in the toxins, immeasurably small amounts to be sure, but still I carry this place in my blood and its lead will follow me home.

Demsit was wrong about one thing. Other than his grandmother, no one has died during my visit. But lead kills and whether or not any individual dies today, tomorrow, or next week, they are all dying slowly. Now, with the Trepča mines coming back to life—the deep shafts again producing ore, the smelter concentrating the ore into high-grade lead and zinc—the toxicity surrounding the mines is only going to increase. And with the world’s love affair for high-tech gadgetry, the production of zinc for batteries and lead for solder is bound to go into overdrive.

Everyone is poisoned here.

I tell Alil about the new apartments in the old Roma neighborhood but Alil says he is afraid to move there. Instead, he will remain in the camp and raise pigeons. He keeps them in a green shed and, as the sun sets, opens the door and releases them. I watch dozens of gray and white pigeons soar into the air, circling high over our heads.

Families collect around us, cup their hands over their eyes and watch the birds. Two of Alil’s children have the highest blood lead levels in the camp, or so a doctor with the Institute of Public Health told his wife. The doctor said they should take a lot of vitamins, but Alil does not think that will help.

We continue staring into the broad band of sky lengthening ever larger with the pink light that precedes nightfall. Alil supposes his birds too have lead but what of it? They can fly while he and his family remain here on poisoned ground, marooned by gravity, political indifference, and their need.

Sometimes he thinks he should free his birds. But then he would be denied the joy he feels with their daily release, the power that comes from knowing he alone can liberate them, the images that come to his mind when he sees himself flying among them, the camp a tiny speck beneath his wings. Man is selfish, he tells me. Besides, the birds need him. They no longer think on their own. They are like the feral dogs skulking around our feet fighting over scraps, unaware they too are poisoned.

We watch the birds circling the camp rising higher and higher in the wide sky. A boy stands on his toes and reaches up with his hands as if entreating them to return or more likely to take him with them. Winged shadows in the fading evening light, they ignore him and us. Unmoored. Floating onward in ceaseless orbit above all harm. 

This story was made possible through a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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