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Coming home after more than 11 years of displacement

Kosovo, October 21, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps Kosovo  </span>
    Shabedin and his family outside of their new home. Photo: Mercy Corps Kosovo

After 11 years of living in the lead-contaminated internally-displaced person (IDP) camps of Cesmin Lug and Osterode near North Mitrovica, Kosovo, the first wave of 50 Kosovo Roma families are resettling into their former neighborhood of Roma Mahalla in the city of South Mitrovica.

Under the USAID-funded RESTART program, Mercy Corps, the local municipality and local non-governmental organizations and international partners have successfully resettled approximately 250 out of 600 displaced Roma into newly constructed homes. In addition, construction has commenced on the final set of housing units for the remaining 150 families in the camps.

Displaced following the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, the Roma were resettled to these camps by the UN, who had assured them this was a temporary solution. A year later, NATO closed the massive Trepca complex mining due to its hazardous effects on the environment and surrounding communities, but neither the international community nor the government of Kosovo supported neither the closure of the camps nor the resettlement of the Roma to safer land.

Most of the families had lived in the Cesmin Lug IDP camp — the worse of the two IDP settlements — built directly on the territory of the Trepca lead mining and smelting facility, and adjacent to an exposed hill of lead and other heavy metal tailings.

Many of the children born in the camps and who have lived there for most of their lives show signs of lead poisoning — including grey gums, memory loss, stunted growth and dizziness. One blood test of lead levels in some area children showed the highest levels of lead poisoning recorded here in Kosovo.

Shabedin — a 35-year-old Roma, father of three children and one of the beneficiaries of the project — told us his story.

“Life in the camp was very difficult. In 2003, together with my family, I came to the camp [Cesmin Lug], hoping to be there for a short time. But, unfortunately our hopes were not realized…and in the end, our expectations had turned into only pipedreams," he explained. "To make things worse, there were promises made by numerous organizations that always remained only promises until the day when Mercy Corps visited our camp. From that day, we started to see a light at the end of the tunnel."

With facilitation by Mercy Corps, the newly-resettled families are receiving services in their new neighborhood such as lead treatment and other health services; income-generating opportunities with trainings, apprenticeships and small business support, facilitating their economic reintegration; and support for access to education in new schools.

"During the project implementation, this light became brighter and today we stand here as people with dignity," Shabedin said. "Now, I have my home, and I am very happy that I am here.”