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Refugee Voices: Lead poisoning among displaced Roma in Kosovo

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Pregnant Ashkali Woman, Kablare Camp, North Mitrovica, Kosovo

"If I stay here any more or another year, I know I will die here. For me I want to go as soon as possible."

Refugees International met an Ashkali woman in her twenties; she is married, has 2 small children, a 10 month old and a 4 year old, and is pregnant. They are Albanian speaking Roma, known as Ashkali. She lives with her family and extended family in three rooms of a former army barracks just on the edge of the town of North Mitrovica. The home has modest furnishings, rugs and utensils, but has no washroom or kitchen and a plastic bucket is their toilet and shower. The displaced have no choice but to throw their waste in the yard or over the fence a few meters away as there is no sewage system. They cook on a wood stove in the house or outside if the weather is hot and dry. There is one faucet in the yard that is used by other IDPs in the camp.

Her family has been at the Kablare camp for 3 years. They do not own any house or property. Her husband tries to get daily manual labor jobs, and she takes care of the children. They are registered and receive the UNMIK [the United Nations Mission in Kosovo] social welfare assistance of approximately U$70 per month and milk and other humanitarian assistance distributions in the camp.

While discussing the health services, her worries and fears were apparent. She goes every two days to the health post because she suffers from very high blood pressure and the local doctors are quite worried about her. She then mentions that her son has lead in his blood.

"He was tested and we were told that he has high lead in his blood. I was given no documents. But, yes, he is sick. He does not eat normally. He is tired a lot. He is not very active. He has fevers often. He passes out while sitting and then I cannot wake him even if I pinch him. The milk helps and he loves to drink it at night."

Her description of her son's symptoms corresponds with the the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Health Organization's explanations of lead poisoning symptoms given to RI in interviews with these agencies. ICRC and WHO personnel stated that some of the common effects of lead poisoning among children are severe brain damage, paralysis or pain in the legs, not walking straight, loss of memory, falling in and out of coma, gray lines on the teeth, vomiting, lethargy, hyperactivity, high blood pressure and loss of appetite.

In two reports dated July 2004 and October 2004, WHO documented the high level of lead found in the blood of several Roma children in the three Roma IDP camps located in the North Mitrovica and Zvecan Municipalities of Kosovo. The acceptable level of lead in the blood is no more 10 micrograms per deciliter. WHO found in the camps of Chesminluc and Zitkovac that one-third of the children tested had over 65+ micrograms per deciliter. Due to the alarming levels of lead found in several of these children, these reports called for several immediate actions, including the immediate evacuation of these Roma IDP camps due to the urgent threat against the health of these populations.

This Ashkali mother of two was aware that some international organizations have called for an evacuation of this camp. She stated to RI, "Please take my name, I would leave now. I just want to be somewhere safe and have a normal life."

Shannon Meehan and Nicole Mailman of Refugees International are in Kosovo assessing the situation for Roma internally displaced persons.