Death Camps: Lead Poisoning Among Kosovo's Roma

Report and Photos by Darren McCollester, for the Pulitzer Center


A Roma refugee family sits in their main room in the Chesmin Lug refugee camp in North Mitrovica, Kosovo

All the camps in all the countries begin to blur. Skin changes color but the stories are mostly the same. Ethnicity and war at the roots as much as the rest, but the bottom line, bad luck. To be born one thing in one place versus another can mean all the difference. Osterrode, Chesmin Lug, to end up living in these camps, these Roma gypsies were born with bad luck. Before the summer of 99 they lived in homes with electricity and running water. Now, to live along the railroad tracks under the shadow of a lead mine treading toxic dust with each step is bad luck.

People come and go into their lives, treading into their hell trying not to wet their shoes or dirty their pants bottoms, and ask the questions having no answers. Most are paid for the question asking. Some on contracts, and others, like me, are only hoping to be paid on the back end of the journey. They have seen us before and sometimes when they speak their story they cry, or the men hold up a hand to cover their faces and pause; my child wobbles when they walk and they do not remember yesterday. Most, in time, will not want to remember yesterday anyway, and not to know their tomorrow could only be a rest. But for now they wake early to search the garbage, the children rooting around in bins looking for untouched gold, an orange peel, a rotted potato, answering the questions they have been asked many times before. We wish not to live like this, not to live here, not to breath the leaden dust that floats death unseen on the air. We wish not to be questions and numbers, not to be the next report, the next 'story'. We wish the chance at a better life. And with each one who comes to ask and listen, they begin to know, they will need luck more than all else.