American Paul Polansky investigated treatment of gypsy refugees of the Kosovo war
Polansky found hundreds of tents placed on 'toxic wastelands'
Polansky says high levels of lead poisoning were found in the camps
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While the average American’s understanding of the conflict in Kosovo is a simple, two-sided Sneetch-battle between the mountainous region’s dominant Serbian minority and oppressed Albanian majority, the reality is a lot more convoluted than a Wikipedia page or morning radio parody of the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” can accurately convey. In addition to the Serbs in the north and Albanians in the south, Kosovo is host to a pizza pie of smaller ethnic groups like Gorans, Illyrians, and Roma scattered in enclaves throughout the entire country.
During the 1998-1999 war, as the Serbian Yugoslav Army and NATO-backed Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army vied with each other to see who could rack up the most atrocities, these sub-minorities were victims of a disproportionate amount of collateral brutality. Especially the Kosovo Roma, more widely known as “gypsies.” Of the 250,000 people displaced from their homes by the fighting, an estimated 90,000 were Roma, a figure which is a little more jarring when you realize the region’s total Romani population is just a little north of 100,000.
To help them deal with the refugee problem, the United Nations invited Paul Polansky, an American activist for gypsy rights, then working in Prague, to the city of Mitrovica to act as a liaison for the burgeoning community of Roma’s so-called Internally Displaced People.
“The UN were having gypsies running into schoolhouses seeking shelter from the Albanians who were chasing them out of their homes,” says Polansky from his house in Southern Serbia. “And so they opened a few Internally Displaced People camps, but they didn’t know how to work with the gypsies, so they needed an expert to actually move into the camps to live with them and advise them. That’s what they brought me to Kosovo to do.”
Polansky was immediately unimpressed by the conditions at the camp he moved into an old French army barracks called Osterode.
“There were about 1,800 tents put up by the 23rd Pioneer Regiment of the British Army. They were put on toxic wasteland. The land itself was lower than the road coming into the camp and so when it rained there was water in all the tents. The only food they were given was flour and beans. They needed water to cook with but there was no water for cooking, no water for cleaning, and when I complained to the UN they said, ‘Well, these are gypsies, they know how to look after themselves.’ It was a constant fight just to get them to deliver water. We were not guaranteed any security. The Albanians were attacking the camp. We had children die because UN police refused to take them to hospital”
Despite Polansky’s efforts, conditions at the Osterode camp continued to deteriorate. The British regiment in charge of protecting the camp was withdrawn and children began to show symptoms of health effects from the campsite’s proximity to dumping grounds for industrial waste.
“In 1999, some Danish soldiers on patrol in Mitroviza had shown symptoms of lead poisoning,” Polansky told us. “So their blood was taken, and it came back they had extremely high levels of lead poisoning. So in the summer of 2000, a UN medical team took blood tests all over Mitrovica. They found the highest lead levels were in the gypsy camps because they had been built on the tailings stands of the mines and the pollution from the smelter drifted right over their camp. Their blood samples were sent to a lab in Belgium and it was found that the children in these camps had the highest lead levels in medical literature.”
Eventually Polansky got fed up with the UN’s administration of the camps (or lack thereof), cut his ties with the organization, and led a large group of gypsies on a protest march to the Macedonian border.
The UN responded to his accusations of negligence, saying it was investigating the matter and that they “do not think that it would be useful to discuss the matter at this time, given that the the review of this matter is ongoing.”
We were curious how this “matter” was going, so we decided to stop by the camp and talk to some of the residents who still haven’t been evacuated from the site that is killing their children. Twelve years down the road.