Published April 27, 2011
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.
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.
Darren’s shutter clicks.
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.
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.
He opens his mouth, grinning once more, tongue dancing. The lead glistens from saliva.
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.
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