My Experience in Kosovo
Before I leave for any UNICEF field visit, I do quite a bit of research about where I’m going. I think like most people in the US, I didn’t know much about Kosovo at all. I vaguely remembered hearing news stories of the war back in 1999. There were reports of a conflict between Serbs and Albanians, talk of the NATO bombings, and of course Slobodian Milošević. But since then, there has been little news available. This is all my roundabout way of saying that it wasn’t until I got to Kosovo that I truly understood the complexities of this place and even more important, the complexities of healing a society in which everyone, in some way, was touched by war.
Day 1: Sunday, May 30
I participated in sporting and arts events with over 400 children in Kushtove/a (just west of Mitrovicë/a). The event was supposed to take place in Mitrovicë/a.
Why Mitrovicë/a ?
Mitrovicë/a is a city situated in the northern part of Kosovo. Eleven years after the conflict in Kosovo the city remains physically divided by a river, and politically divided along ethnic lines. The Kosovo Serb community lives in the north and follows the Serbian political and administrative system. The Kosovo Albanian community lives in the south and the local authorities belong to the Kosovo political and administrative authorities who declared independence in 2008. The Roma minority community lives on both sides of the river and it is the most marginalized population, vulnerable to extreme poverty and discrimination.
Tense inter-ethnic relations and ongoing intolerance characterize Mitrovicë/a region. Although there were no major security incidents during the last few years, the situation is perceived as volatile. Moreover as a consequence of long-term industrial mismanagement, Mitrovicë/a is one of the most polluted areas in the region, with very high blood lead levels especially effecting Roma communities.
UNICEF is working with all communities. It has a sub-office located in Zvecan, a town north of Mitrovicë/a, and it works with all necessary institutions and communities in order to ensure access of all children to quality basic services.
Through its education programme, UNICEF focuses on the most marginalized children trying to enable a school environment inclusive for children from Roma communities, children with special needs and pre-school age children. The education programme also engages children, parents and teachers in activities that promote peace building and tolerance among communities. The health programme supports prevention of lead contamination and better parenting education for communities. Other UNICEF programmes focus on social protection issues, and build capacities of practitioners to improve social services for children victims of violence, abuse and exploitation.
What happened on May 30?
As part of ongoing efforts to promote peace and tolerance among children and communities in Kosovo, and preceding other celebrations of Children’s Day (1 June), UNICEF and partners World Vision and Sport Sans Frontieres organized events for children in Mitrovicë/a.
Over 400 children from all over Kosovo (members of UNICEF-supported “Kids for Peace” clubs and Sport Sans Frontieres clubs) came together to participate in public drawing and sports activities as a vehicle to enhance cohesion, have fun and send messages of peace and tolerance.
After consultations with partner organizations, parents and teachers, it was finally decided not to expose children in a public event due to unrelated security concerns on the same day, so the event was moved to Kushtove/a.
The UN Development Coordinator Osnat Lubrani and the Italian Ambassador to Kosovo, Michael Giffoni, joined the event as keynote speakers. Their participation emphasized the importance that the international community attaches to the integration and prosperity of Mitrovicë/a region specifically and Kosovo in general.
There is still an unfortunate divide between the Serbs, Albanian and Roma communities. This was a wonderful opportunity to bring children together from these different communities.
Day 2: Monday, May 31
On Monday, we visited Kolonia, an informal settlement located in the suburb of the city of Gjakovë/a in the western part of Kosovo. This neighborhood is inhabited by 720 residents from the RAE (Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian) community.
One of many problems that categorize this community is the low level of overall education and extremely high levels of unemployment. The inhabitants of Kolonia, and especially members of the RAE community, tend to live in large collective housing of comprising many families. Living conditions are very bad, lacking even basic infrastructure. One of the main problems is the waste dump of the city, which is located just 100 meters away from this neighborhood.
The extreme poverty results in high numbers of school drop-outs, serious public health issues and chronic under-development of children. There is ongoing need for social services and support, early educational programming, homework support for children and youth, feeding services and food distribution.
Identified problems for children in this community in field of education
* Low education of parents of the children.
* Weak interest of parents for their children’s education.
* Continuous social economic problems that follow these children and their families.
* Engagement of children in labor to ensure income for their families.
* Domination of patriarchal culture (often this is a key reason for girls’ drop out from school)
* Lack of qualified teachers from RAE communities.
General needs of RAE community in Kolonia
* Need for overall education of population of RAE community.
* Need for integration of RAE community in Kosovo society.
* Need for continuation of integration of children in public schools of Gjakovë/Gjakovica, including secondary school.
* Need for adequate health services and health education.
* Need for overall infrastructure regulation in the neighborhood (rebuilding of the houses, the installation network of water supply, electricity, sewage system, building the schools, health clinic, youth infrastructure establishment, regulation and environment maintenance in the neighborhood, etc.).
* Need to enforce women and youth position in decision-making.
Several institutions and organizations have undertaken steps towards the improvement of the situation in Kolonia, but still a lot more needs to be done. The local authorities supported by the donor community in Kosovo have recently pledged to build new houses, which will enable decent living conditions for communities living in Kolonia. As a first step the Municipality has allocated the land and has committed 20% of the funding.
Of all my UNICEF field visits (I also spent time in Angola and India), visiting this settlement ranked up there in the hardest experience I’ve had on a field visit. To see people live in this kind of poverty is horrifying and unacceptable. To make matters worse, the garbage dump that surrounds the settlement has become the livelihood of the community. Many children spend their time collecting metal and scrap to sell for recycling in order to earn something for their families. Food for household consumption is also scavenged from the same dump. I wish this blog were scratch and sniff so I could share what the intense smell was like. Heartbreaking. There needs to be more done to help the RAE communities in Kosovo.
Krusha e Madhe
In the afternoon, we visited Krusha e Madhe (in Rahovac municipality), which is the site of one of the worst massacres of the 1999 conflict. The households in the community are almost all headed by women, since most of the men in this area were executed.
The massacre at Krushe e Madhe took place on the afternoon of March 25th 1999, the day after the NATO air campaign began. Accounts of the massacre tell of village residents taking refuge in a forested area outside Krushe e Madhe, where they were able to observe the police systematically looting and then burning their houses. The following day Serbian forces located the villagers in the forest; they separated men from women, ordered women and small children to leave the area and go to Albania (as refugees), and then killed most of the men from the village. Human Rights Watch reported that more than 90 men and youth were killed.
Many women lost family members, were widowed, suffered poor living conditions, and continue to experience the effects of trauma many years later.
The widows that I had the opportunity to meet from this village were truly inspiring. The stories they shared with me about what happened the day of the massacre – the day their husbands and in some cases sons were killed – were devastating. But seeing how far they’ve come, and the efforts they’ve made to raise their children, made me realize the innate human ability to prevail. They did what they had to do to move on and give their children a better life despite the pain that they still carry to this day.
There are several projects targeting the most damaged villages, hard-hit by economic hardship after the war, including Krushe e Madhe. Most women were financially dependent on others when they began to receive trainings and support. These projects enabled many of them to live independently and helped them in starting their own businesses.
Day 3: Tuesday, June 1
Seizing on the occasion of Children’s Day (1 June), UNICEF, in partnership with the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society (KFOS), organized a high-level roundtable debate to discuss the findings of UNICEF’s Report “Child Poverty in Kosovo”. The event aimed to initiate a dialogue on the current situation of children living in poverty, and discuss policy options regarding its alleviation.
According to the latest poverty assessment, 46.2% of the Kosovo population is in poverty, whereas 48.6% of children aged 0-19 are in poverty. A full 18.9% of children are living in extreme poverty. The highest risks of poverty are faced by children who live in households with three or more children; children aged 0-14; children of unemployed parents; children in households receiving social assistance; and children in households with low levels of education. Whilst the risk of poverty is lower for children where at least one family member is employed, children in wage-earning households make up 36% of all children in poverty in Kosovo.
Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, constituting 3.4% of Kosovo’s children, are the most marginalized group in Kosovo today, have low rates of enrolment in primary education in the context of multiple deprivations including higher rates of poverty, estimated at 60.5%.
The highest poverty risks are faced by children aged 0-5 (49.7%) and 6-14 (48.7%), with a lower risk for those aged 15-18 (41.7%). Overall 93.6% of poor children are aged 0-14, with 92.4% of all children in Kosovo in this age group.
Households with no members having completed education have high risks of child poverty (58.7%): 20.8% of poor children and 17.3% of all children live in such households. Investing in children is, therefore, important not only in terms of lifting children out of poverty now but is also an efficient and highly cost effective way of ensuring that current generations of children become healthy, productive and active adult citizens. Fighting child poverty is necessary to combat the inter-generational transmission of poverty, and to ensure that all children, regardless of their initial life circumstances and social background, enjoy equal opportunities in a society.
Fact #1: Child survival in Kosovo is considered the worst in Europe. Based on the most recent reliable available data (2003), the mortality rate of children under five years old is estimated at 69 per 1,000 live births. That means that over one in 14 children die before reaching their fifth birthday. The infant mortality rate is considered to be between 35 to 49 per 1,000 live births, meaning at least one in 29 children die before reaching their first birthday.
Fact #2: One in every two children in Kosovo lives in poverty, while one in every five lives in extreme poverty. Around 32 percent of Kosovo’s estimated population of 2.2 million is under the age of 15, with only 6.5 percent over 65 years of age. Using the generally accepted consumption poverty line of €1.42 per person per day, 46.2 percent of the Kosovo population is in poverty, whereas 48.6 percent of Kosovo’s children aged 0-19 live in poverty and 19.8 percent live in extreme poverty. Children of minorities are currently facing an even higher risk of poverty with an estimated poverty rate of 60.5 percent.
Fact #3: Eight percent of families in Kosovo have not registered one or more of their children’s births. Birth registration is the permanent and official administrative record of a child’s existence, and is fundamental to the realization of children’s rights and the fulfillment of the most basic needs. Securing children’s right to be registered will allow access to vital health, education and other social services. Later in life, obtaining a passport, opening a bank account, accessing credit, voting and finding employment will become critical to enable a young person to become a productive and active member of society. There is also evidence of ethnic disparities, with the highest rate of non-registration within the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities.
Fact #4: Only one child in 10 aged 3-6 years has the opportunity to benefit from any form of early childhood education. Often overlooked, the early years of childhood are critical to a child’s mental and social development. At present, few resources are allocated to establish institutionalized early learning programmes, which remain one of the most neglected areas remains early childhood education. Moreover, the few pre-school facilities operating have been further threatened as some 36 were recently closed down in response to calls for reductions in public sector employment. Another key education gap relates to children with special needs, with fewer than 10 percent enrolled in primary school, according to the most recent estimates.
Fact #5: Among all the children in Kosovo, those belonging to the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian (RAE) community are generally the most vulnerable. One in five RAE in Kosovo is illiterate, just two in three have attended compulsory (primary) education and barely one in 10 have been able to attend secondary school. The educational status among women is even more worrying. As a consequence of limited access to education, unemployment is particularly high among the RAE community, with only 12 percent having some form of regular income.
Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe with over 50% under 25 years old. This is a tremendous wealth with extraordinary economic potential. This highlights the fact that economic development in Kosovo is not likely to happen unless we invest in the younger generation. It is crucial to allow children to dream and it’s our responsibility to offer the opportunities to make those dreams their reality.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add that Kosovo is a beautiful place. It is much greener than I expected. There are rolling hills and beautiful wildflowers. The city of Pristina surprisingly had delicious food. In the evening the streets are full of young people participating in a thriving nightlife scene. It is Europe, after all, and you can certainly feel that culture of cafés and evening strolls when you’re in the city. This, coupled with the fact that the authorities genuinely seem to be focused on the social betterment of the children of Kosovo, gives me great hope for its future.