Arrival: Mitrovica

J. Malcolm Garcia, for the Pulitzer Center


Darren and I arrived in the Serbian enclave of north Mitrovica last night, March 24th, the tenth anniversary of the start of the NATO bombing in the Kosovo war. We expected some hostility at our hotel, but received little more than curious stares and a few scowls that could have been the result of the unseasonably cold weather that followed us when we opened the door to check in as much as anything else.

It is hard to believe there a war was fought here. Young people bopped down the street listening to tunes on their iPods. Restaurants bustled with business and cars clogged the streets that were well lit with multicolored lights.

Still, despite this bustle, we became aware of the consequences of war. Graffiti blasted in thick red paint across the walls of old communist era cinder block apartment complexes castigated the U.N. Vendors even sold postcards with a black slash through "U.N."

Beyond our hotel windows bulking against the horizon and dimly lit by the thinning glow of downtown lights rises a giant slag heap built from the toxic runoffs of the closed lead mines surrounding it. Cold winds carry dust off the slag heap scattering it on clothes hanging from laundry lines, on open buckets of drinking water, on the dirt that children play in and on the feral dogs jogging down alleys separating the huts of two camps housing about 500 displaced Roma families combined. The lead affects their immune systems and leads to multiple health problems and even death.

One man living in the Chesmin Lug camp says his two daughters have high lead blood levels.

"People told me how dangerous it was to live here," he tells me through an interpreter. "But what should I do? I have no other place to go."

He points to his seven-years-old son who can not walk. His bones are like glass, the man says. The boy was born like that before the family moved to the camp in 2006.

"Lead did not do this to him," the man said. "In that, he was a little bit lucky."