The industrial image of all-running ‘veins’-conveyors full of ‘blood’-coal and ever-expanding mine ‘eating’ the landscape and the houses, that seem too soon fall down the crater of the ‘hungry’ energy-production, is terrifying and exciting at the same time. Even absolutely terrible things are somewhat fascinating and make us freeze looking at them. This giant open mine is one of the largest in Europe’s and 5th world’s reserve of brown coal.
On a bleak spring day we circle around the open pit in search of the old school, casually mentioned in a conversation with the villagers of Hade e Re, or New Hade, the day before. The only building looking like an administrative one happens to be it. The only school in the disappearing village of Old Hade. It is neat, clean and solid from the exterior, but feels desperate, lonely and sad inside. It used to be an island of life and vivacity with more than a thousand pupils attending classes here. Now only 50 are left. This is due to the resettlement program the government started years ago, but never finished.
Dior Preniqi is six. Regardless of his age, he attends classes together with 3rd-graders in Hade’s ramshackle primary school.
“The moment I had to give him to the school, I figured out there’s no one of his age, meaning he would be alone, I was so upset that I actually cried”, – Dior’s mother Leda says, “but he has made some friends and I am glad he follows the study program of 3rd-graders. Now he finds his age’s tasks too easy and demands more hard-core stuff.
The Island of Forgotten Kids
Besa Caka, teaches English at the Old Hade school. She lives in Pristina and has to use the public transport every day. Unfortunately, there is no direct connection, which makes it an even longer journey to her job.
“It’s like living on a volcano. You never know what the new day will bring,“
Kosovo is a truly extraordinary place: Ibrahim Rugova is considered a national hero, but a living reminder of his work as a teacher is on the edge of extinction, there’s not even a memorial board on the facade.
Besa teaches here for almost a decade and sees the number of students decreases year after year. She does not believe this situation will ever change for good. …Because the ones left will have to leave sooner or later, as the excavation line is very close.” Like an ocean taking its toll from the shore.
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”
It was back in 2004 when Hade’s challenge began. Located right on the precious lands of the biggest lignite mine in Europe, the citizens of Hade faced a serious problem with no given alternative than leaving. As the Kosovo’s government made attempts to fix the energy shortage, it has requested the World Bank to make a resettlement program plan, but didn’t communicate to the residents when, where and how they will actually be moved out.
As a result, 158 families who were living closest to the mine were evicted and resettled because of the mudslide threat. The notifiсation came out just one week before. Around 50 families were put into temporary accommodation in two dilapidated buildings in the nearby town of Obiliq, five miles away from Pristina. Twelve years later they still live there.
Dajana Berisha, Executive Director of FIQ — Forum for Civil Initiatives, says those “liberated” pieces of land were never used for the power plant, no one even knows if there’s lignite at all.
Many families are still leaving, others consider doing so, despite their strong desire to stay home where they belong. Around 60 families still stay in the dying village. Lacking proper electricity and water supplies, what they have is hope.
Life in the shadow of a power plant
Vesel and Bahtije Kastrati live just across the street from the power plant for meanwhile half a century. It is a cloudy and rainy day, we are directly invited to join them in the living room and get offered a cup of hot black tea. Just a normal gesture for visitors, even though we are complete strangers. The heat of the liquid quickly spreads through the body and fulfils it for some minutes with a comfortable warm feeling. Unfortunately, not for long, the next moment, no one can keep the feet on the cold floor anymore. It’s freezing in the family’s premises.
Despite of such proximity to the energy producer and an unforgettable view from their windows, the couple has to warm themselves with woods and coal. All the power plant’s central heating goes to Pristina. They nevertheless pay approximately 50 euro for ephemeral electricity and about 500 euro for six months for coal and woods. During the summer they use gas for cooking.
“With that salary I managed to raise seven children, three of them live abroad with their families now. There is no chance to get a job here“
Vesel worked for KEK in the opencast pit in Bellaqevc (or Hade) for thirty years, he confesses it wasn’t easy as there were no developed mechanics, but he recalls this time as a pretty good one.
He had two heart attacks in 2004, that he didn’t even notice. He thinks it was due to hard working conditions, stress and the environment as well.
Both of them agree that it was dustier in the past, the reason might be the newly installed filters inside the power plant towers. However, Vesel and Bahtije suspect the filters get turned off during the night. The noise increases and there’s visibly more steam coming out.
Rinora Gojani, senior researcher at INDEP (Institute for Development Policy) explained that filters reduce the capacity of electricity production that can be put in the grid, thus to get more power and electricity, it’s highly probable that filters are really switched off.
Vesel has been a smoker for all his life, Bahtije hasn’t ever tried. The doctor has examined both of them and the verdict was — their lungs are nearly in the same condition.
Kosovo is without a doubt a smoking nation, and it’s hard to scientifically distinguish between health effects of air pollution and smoking. However, there has been a comparative study for Pristina and Prizren municipalities: both of them have almost the same number of inhabitants (census 2011), cigarette smoking habit is on the same level, but the lung cancer incidence rate is two times higher (35 new cases in 2010) in Pristina municipality than in Prizren area (18 new cases)].
Given, that Vesel worked for more than three decades for the company and the location of their home, which could not be closer to the power plant, it is disturbing and abstruse that the family doesn’t profit from the central heating system, as many others living around the power plant.
Financial and economic sides of the deal are not the only concern. The real external cost also involves health, environment, and infrastructure costs — each of these components states worsens with time. And these are the burden the citizens have to carry along their way.
The pollution comes from the lignite power generation, outdated technology, misuse of electricity as well as lack of real alternatives, the most polluted area is being South-West. It causes 835 premature deaths each year, lung cancer being in the first place (11.8%) of all malignant disease for the male population in Kosovo.
Annual Health Report 2011 of IPH in Kosovo shows that respiratory diseases are in top 10 most frequent diseases in the country with 22.9% of pathology rate. 53% of children aged between one to five years old are diagnosed with respiratory pathology, about 50% of them sought assistance in the Kosovo Hospitals.
In Kosovo Hospitals Lung disease wards, 21% of the patients of all malignant diseases are diagnosed and treated for lung cancer, moreover, in the University Hospital Centre as a tertiary health care lung cancer is presented with 40.7%.
According to the report issued in 2011 by the Kosovo Institute of Public Health, the three main causes for morbidity in the country are living conditions, bad quality of drinking water and air pollution. Same 2011 year, the report from the Ministry of Environmental and Spatial Planning named energy sector, traffic and industrial production; the main energy pollutants are being lignite-based power plants, which release more than 2.5 tons of dust every hour.
The data collected between 2005 and 2010 shows that around 30% of of KEK workers suffer from respiratory diseases, 6% — from cardiovascular problems, Dr Xhevat Pllana from the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Obiliq shares.
Obiliq municipality to work together with KEK
In environmental law, there is a polluter pays principle, which makes the party responsible for pollution pay for the damage caused to the natural environment. In Kosovo realities, it has turned into population pays principle. The average Kosovar would pay 12.9% of its annual income for electricity, low to middle income — 18%, very low ~ 40%, IEEFA report finds. And this is where electricity becomes a luxury instead of simple commodity.
Both of the power plants are located in the municipality of Obiliq. The mayor, Xhafer Gashi, who lives with his family in the polluted area, says that the municipality has a genuine cooperation with KEK, even though KEK is managed by the energy regulatory office, or in other words, by the central government itself.
Keep it green NGO
Two students, Gezim Pllana and Guxim Klinaku, have established an NGO “Keep it Green” (or “Mbaje Gjelbert” in Albanian) in December 2015 to help deliver environmental messages to a broader public, raise awareness mainly through art. Both of them live in Obiliq and therefore, know first-hand what happens in the municipality. There are seven members at the moment, all of them in their early 20s, to a varying extent participating in the freshly-started NGO’s activities.
“The main idea to create this NGO was to organise a green film festival in the KEK’s yard, we thought about doing it here in particular because according to World Bank statistics, it’s the most polluted city in Europe […], where 33% of residents suffer from breathing problems. We thought about launching an organisation that will deal with the environmental protection and the protection of the residents life,”- Guxim says.
Gezim shortly follows “… the citizens of this city are the ones with the most complains regarding the air and the environment they live, the main purpose was for us to be their voice, their despair to be delivered to the relevant bodies that should respectively be involved in environmental protection. […] until there’s dust in Obiliq, organisation like ours will function.”
The young and promising guys say it’s not only about air pollution, but about permanent danger that the inhabitants are facing, like an explosion at Kosovo A in 2015, when the windows simply flew out, the closest to the explosion houses got completely destroyed .
Apparently, the citizens of Obiliq are not connected to the central heating system. The electricity produced at the power plants goes directly to Pristina municipality. “[…] This is the worst. We, the inhabitants that live here, that were raised here and who have suffered from the polluted air the most, we do not get the heating and I believe that it should be on the contrary — we should be first to have it, and then everybody else,”- Gezim complains. His feelings are more than understandable; his family has to keep warm with woods.
Luckily, he lives in a private house, but the inhabitants of Plemetia (a very close, polluted area, where minorities live) are obliged to burn fires in the blocks of apartments. The dark, ever-expanding eating machine is still somehow far away, but as soon as it grows and expands, the nearby neighbours will not just fear their health, but the existence of the place they used to live for ages. Like a theory that took existence.
“We don’t have sufficient funds to build waste recycling factory or donate to clean the waste, but instead we have a vision on how to act through art”
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