Twenty years later, the Trepča mines of Kosovo

From ToxicLeaks

The Kosovo war, then and now[edit | edit source]

Where Kosovo is concerned, there is much that remains unresolved since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. The Balkan nation declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but even today that remains in bitter dispute, with a United Nations peacekeeping presence that still remains based in Pristina. So too remains the memory of the 1999 civil war, caused by a crackdown by Serbian forces on separatists among Kosovo’s Albanian populations.  Also still there is the NATO KFOR mission, established in June 1999 at the end of the campaign against former Serbian president and war criminal Slobodan Milošević. Diplomatic negotiations on Kosovo are ongoing, with an uptick in tensions in late 2018 and early 2019.

Disputes over final borders remain unresolved, as does any acknowledgment of Kosovo’s independence by Russia and China. There are deep international concerns over ethnic Albanian and Serbian divisions that can’t be neatly partitioned, with one troubling plan – promoted by the United States – requiring Kosovars to cede some northern land. It’s there, some 20 kilometers from the border, where Stantërg is.

Stantërg is home to the largest of the Trepča mines, and synonymous with the extensive metal and mineral motherlode in Kosovar territory that Serbia still says it owns. Some observers believe its critical economic value was the reason for the 1999 conflict: Most of the former Yugoslav company’s mines are in the Kosovo north, with the main complex just north of the city of Mitrovica. It’s also home to a toxic legacy that affected internally displaced people, primarily Roma, living in United Nations camps there.

The United Nations camps at Mitrovica[edit | edit source]

The war in Kosovo destroyed dozens of industrial plants, energy facilities and other infrastructure estimated at up to USD$100 billion, but it also wreaked havoc on the environment with the release of lead, mercury, petrochemicals and other pollutants. Yet damage in the former Yugoslavia predated the war in Kosovo, with the Trepča mines among the worst for releasing lead and other heavy-metal toxins. NATO demanded a shutdown of Trepča because of lead emission levels 200 times higher than the limit, and NATO forces seized the Trepča mines in August 2000 because Serbian authorities refused to do so.

In the meantime, the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) relocated hundreds of Roma, and Ashkali and Balkan Egyptians, about 8,000 of whom had lived as minorities among ethnic Albanians in south Mitrovica. They were placed in five camps in the northern part of Mitrovica beginning in 1999 through 2013: Among these were Žitkovac, Česmin Lug and Osterode.

While there, the minority groups – fleeing from war crime atrocities and seeking refuge – lived at sites where they were exposed to astronomically high levels of lead, zinc, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals. The UN established the camps against the advice of the World Health Organization and other independent experts who warned that the sites were too close to Trepča mines and their pollution.

Years of toxic exposure at the UN camps[edit | edit source]

The UN was aware of the toxic pollution, as dust blew in from the smelter and Trepča mine operations had contaminated the soil and water for years, but UN authorities never intended the camps to be used for more than 45 days. In the case of Česmin Lug and Kablare, and later Osterode, the IDP camps were built immediately adjacent to a slag heap of 100 million tons of toxic materials from the mine facility.

In 2000, blood tests taken by a Russian consultant confirmed dangerously high lead levels in camp residents, many of whom were women and children – among them pregnant women, who gave birth to 13 children in the camps. When WHO took blood tests in 2004, the findings in 90 percent of the children were higher than testing equipment could measure. Twelve of the children tested at greater than 45 micrograms of lead per deciliter, more than four times the lead concentrations causing brain damage. Their symptoms included cognitive difficulties, kidney disease, respiratory and other health problems.

By 2005, 27 people had died in the camps at Trepča yet still they weren’t relocated. Roma leaders asked the Serbian Public Health Institute in Mitrovica to continue WHO’s work in monitoring the children, all of whom showed unacceptably high levels of lead well into 2008. “The Roma children have remained in the camps, ingesting lead through the air, the dirt they play in and through their clothes dusted with lead tailings while drying on laundry lines,” wrote the Washington Times in 2009.That same year, Human Rights Watch said all legal efforts to secure justice and compensation for victims had been unsuccessful.

In 2019, new calls for justice[edit | edit source]

Camp residents continued to live in a toxic and contaminated site until 2013, when the last group was finally relocated – a stunning span of time for intense lead and heavy-metal exposures. By then, some progress had been made in getting the Roma and Egyptian-Albanian victims both visibility and legal recourse. A 2008 lawsuit filed with the UN Human Rights Advisory Panel by American lawyer Diane Post led to the 2016 decision that the UN had, in fact, failed to protect the IDP victims and was responsible.

The panel ruled the victims be compensated for UNMIK’s negligence, but that has never happened despite multiple appeals from victims and rights groups. A trust fund was set up for the Mitrovica victims in 2017, but not a dime in donations has reached them.  In March 2019, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights insisted on action on behalf of about 600 affected victims. “This ongoing inaction sends a loud message to these vulnerable communities. Decades ago, UNMIK did not fulfil its mandate to promote and protect the rights of these children and their families,” said UN expert Baskut Tuncak. “Nothing will replace what these victims have lost, but now the United Nations has an opportunity to do what it can to atone for past mistakes.  I urge it to recognize its responsibilities and take immediate, meaningful action.” Like everything else in Kosovo, the issue remains unresolved.