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Roma Return to Kosovo, Face Uncertain Future

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Germany is sending refugees back to Kosovo. Many of them are Albanian-speaking Gypsies known as Roma who fled the fighting in Kosovo back in 1999. Human rights organizations say the refugees are going back to a place that is still volatile and unsafe. Eleanor Beardsley reports.

(Soundbite of children playing)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:

Just outside the city of Mitrovica lies the Zitkovac Roma camp, a shanty town of 10 shacks and dirt alleys inhabited by more than 200 people, most of them children. The camp was built as an emergency measure in June 1999 after the Roma were chased from their homes and their neighborhood destroyed by Kosovo Albanians. Six years later, filthy, runny-nosed children play in the camp, which looks like a junk yard strewn with trash and automobile carcasses.

(Soundbite of child singing)

BEARDSLEY: One little girl sings happily as she washes a bucketful of dishes inside one of the camp's common latrines. While Roma, also known as Gypsies, live in poverty throughout Eastern Europe, their existence is especially difficult in Kosovo, says Georgy Kakuk, a Hungarian working for the United Nations here.

Mr. GEORGY KAKUK (United Nations): It is a classic example what happens with a minority stuck between two dominant ethnic groups and those ethnic groups are in a fight with each other.

BEARDSLEY: Kakuk says 8,000 Roma used to live in the neighborhood of Roma Mahala, the largest homogeneous Roma community in the former Yugoslavia. He believes that community is now gone forever. Christian Jennings, a reporter for The Economist magazine, was in Kosovo when the Albanians attacked the Roma, accusing them of collaborating with the Serbs.

Mr. CHRISTIAN JENNINGS (The Economist): The Roma were perceived to have been complicit in aiding and abetting the ethnic cleansing of Basra Albanians from Kosovo.

BEARDSLEY: Jennings says both the Albanians and the Serbs have traditionally treated the Roma as pariahs, but today the 600 Roma spread out in three camps here have other worries. They are settled on a toxic wasteland. As a result, many Roma are living with extremely high levels of lead in their blood.

(Soundbite of children singing)

BEARDSLEY: Their children play and sing in the shadow of a slag heap from a now-dysfunctional lead smelter. Tests by the World Health Organization show that at least 60 children have been exposed to such high levels of lead that they will either die soon or face irreversible brain damage.

(Soundbite of child crying)

MIRSAKA (Mother): (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Thirty-year-old Mirsaka(ph) lives with her husband and six children in a one-room hovel in the Zitkovac camp. The youngest child, two-year-old Gonou(ph) is listless and pale.

MIRSAKA: (Through Translator) Yesterday I sent him for a medical examination, and they found 65 percent of lead in his blood. I have sent three of my children and all of them, they have lead in their blood, and they noted that they vomit every day. I'm afraid they will die.

BEARDSLEY: Mirsaka means 65 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. The WHO says just 10 micrograms can cause brain or nervous system damage. But Mirsaka says she cannot afford to send her children to the hospital for treatment, and even so, she says, they will have to return and live here. She said she is desperate to go to another country. The United Nations, under fire for letting the Roma languish six years in what was to be a temporary camp, have now announced plans to move them back to their former neighborhood. But even if the Albanians accept their return, finding funds to rebuild demolished houses could take years, too late to save Mirsaka's children. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.