The Dust Layer

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.

"I love teaching here. Moreover, it’s a historical place. This is a school, where the first president Ibrahim Rugova taught Albanian language."

Despite black, brown and grey colours all around, the first and third graders Dior and his best friend Mirjona draw optimistic pictures with lots of greenery and houses and people. Even though they are young, they don’t have time to wait for their “Silent Spring” moment. Actually, no one has. They have lives to live, and for that they need to be able to breathe.

In fact, the government warns the villagers from time to time that due to short budget and less children, the school might be closed. Although, no one predicts when.

“It’s like living on a volcano. You never know what the new day will bring,” — one of the teachers says. Children’s bumbling drawings, gnarled crafts on the tables along the shabby painted walls — the ‘residents’ of this tiny school world clearly make a great effort to keep this place cosy, desirable to be in, bright and lovely. Nevertheless, the feeling of romantic decay doesn’t leave. The place is hard to be taken care of when at any moment you might be asked to leave with no return.

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Old Hade School

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“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.

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Fjolla: "Sometimes we feel very tired"

Albiona and Fjolla, two cousins, both attending the 9th grade, share their plans for graduation and future university life. When asked about the friends who left, they both bow their heads and say “We miss them. A lot”, pursing the lips.

Living like on powder keg brings its fruits. Albiona says their major concern is migration, not that much an unbearable smell, or noise from the cranes, trucks and flat conveyors, which run seven days a week. The girl with sad eyes mentions “[…] there hasn’t been any investments in our village, they’re always thinking it’s not worth it if we all leave”. Fjolla follows “We talk to our parents about the problems we face every day, but we can’t find any solution for our village. […] the pollution is notable in fairly large amounts now. […] Even if we move and change the living place, we will feel bad because we cannot be with friends from class; we would have to separate from them.”

If they leave, they might find a better future, but emotional bonds might be too strong; if they stay, they have to live day after day with the hazardous dust provoking different illnesses.

Villagers complained the resettlement strategy has proved hectic and chaotic, not responding to the people’s needs and, of course, not fulfilling the promises. Nevertheless, the second wave of resettlement hit the mine shores in 2009.

Eight hundred land plots were promised back then, so far only eleven families were moved from Hade to Hade e Re, or Shkabaj* village. Not much has changed since the first people arrived: they still lack proper sanitation, water and electricity. In addition to lack of basic infrastructure, there is no supermarket, no cemetery, no mosque, no promised-long-time-ago school. And, frankly speaking, Shkabaj so many years later, looks more like a random settlement with brand new nice houses, rather than a real village. While the living conditions in Old Hade deteriorate, the village resembles a shade of its former good old self.

Vehbi and Xhevat, two brothers whom were born in old Hade moved to Hade e Re two years ago. Vehbi, the younger one, still works as a technician in the school of his birth village. “To leave your place is hard, but it was in the name of national interest”, he says. Hade existed for more than 100 years, despite its rich history and big perspectives, with resettlements Hade has started to extinguish. The brothers say two years later, after staying in a rented apartment in Obiliq, their new place starts to feel like home.

Sports

On the first morning of our research in Kosovo, we didn’t have a specific goal nor a direction, but kept on walking in the first direction we thought might be the right one. It was the beginning of a very intense week with touching interviews that made us sit silently having goosebumps in several living and office rooms.

It is frosty, but the sun soon warms us up, as we walk around Obiliq and stumble upon a little football arena, a local stadium with one-sided tribunes. This is the Agron Rama stadium, the home ground of KF KEK of the Kosovar Superliga.

The match is about to start. While both teams warm up on the pitch, we’ve got a couple of minutes to chat with the captain of the local team, Torvioll Stullqaku. He is a professional football player. He plays football for eleven years, the training takes place every day, sometimes even twice a day, always at the Agron Rama stadium.

What’s so particular about this place, you’d ask? This stadium literally stands in the shadow of the Kosovo B power plant, being just 1.6 km away. The fans, while watching the match, also have a pleasure to watch the greyish steam coming out.

Professional sports are a heavy physical activity, involving frequent breathing, we couldn’t help asking how Torvioll and his team feel.

Torvioll is 21 years old at the moment, and he recalls the breathing didn’t hamper when he was younger. Since the team started to go for trainings to Brezovica or Durres, to those blessed places like the forest or the sea, the change back home is evident.

Once in six months every professional sportsman takes medical exam to check the bones and muscles, it’s an obligation for all clubs, but none of the football players have done a radiography. “Better not to,”- Tovioll smiles.

The young and promising sportsman dreams about moving out, but holds last bits of hope for the improvement of his hometown.

Torvioll himself took active part in the protests against the prospective Kosovo C power plant in 2013, he regrets the public is still somewhat sleepy. At least three protests were organized by the beginning of 2016, but not so many people participated.

Torvioll ends our talk on an optimistic note: “ You are welcome anytime, hopefully in the future you’ll come to the cleaner environment, […] and instead of power plant there’ll be greenery attracting people to visit.” We decide to stay for a while and watch the game. The tribunes, where we sit face the power plant. Surreal urban monster has just released another portion of steam and smoke.

“My dream is to live far away from here, but if it gets better in the future why not living here. But there is no future for our kids with this polluted air, which brings only diseases.”

No more coal

Since 2001 the World Bank has been actively involved in shaping Kosovo’s energy plans. But it is playing double standards in this affair. “No more coal” from one side, from the other side — the World Bank leaves a back door open for providing funding for lignite power plants. There’s a set of requirements to be fulfilled by the country in order for the World Bank to release the loan. And in case of Kosovo, the standards for involuntary resettlements were not in compliance with the World Bank’s operation standards. And again, the Bank refuses to acknowledge that. This is why KOSID hired an international expert,Dr Ted Downey. His report is already released.

Move left and right to discover Kosovo C future location

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Despite the mess already created with mine expansion, the government now wants to build another thermo power plant with a capacity of 500 Megawatt, for which the investor has already been found. The proposal is sieved with numerous questionable assumptions and arrangements. There has been just one construction bid submitted by the New York based CountourGlobal, strangely immediately accepted. The prospective new plant will depend on a supply of lignite from a new mining field, encompassing some 15,000 hectares, including Old Hade and several other villages, with estimated 7,000 inhabitants.

IEEFA, a US-based research organization researched together with Kosovo Civil Society Consortium for Sustainable Development (KOSID) financial and economic impacts of the proposed prospective Kosovo e Re power plant. In their report ‘The Proposed New Kosovo Power Plant: An Unnecessary Burden at an Unreasonable Price’, they mention the true cost would be 4.169 billion euro. The World Bank or other international institutions would have to commit major subsidies — in excess of initially declared $3 billion — to bring down the interest rate of the plant. The subsidy would have to be raised even higher to make the coal plant affordable for Kosovars. Prior plans have been based on economic and energy growth assumptions that have failed to become true; if the new plant underperforms, the electricity will become even more expensive for the population. It’s very likely that the household electricity costs will rise by up to 50%, according to Tom Sanzillo, Director of Finance for IEEFA, making the price over twice as high as the European average.

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.

The municipality works in close conjunction with the Energy Corporation, the Mayor says. “We’ve always combined efforts with KEK. Sometimes we used the KEK’s equipment for cleaning dumpsites, we cooperate when it concerns systematic medical controls for all the school students here in Obiliq.”

Last year Obiliq municipality addressed KEK with a two requests. One of which was to invest 300 000 euro in building parking, planting trees, sports and cultural activities support. The other one was about building two roads, one in Hade - 200 000 euro in value, and the other one Lajthishte to Shipitol that would cost 500 000 euro.

The mayor also mentioned that they are in a legal process now of recognizing Obiliq as a special zone. The law has been initiated by a Lëvizja për Bashkim political party. It has passed the first reading, and now is being treated by the parliamentary commissions.

Finally, Mr Gashi has assured us that no decision will be taken without prior consent of the concerned public. “We consider that after the debates with the citizens, we initially expect an agreement with the investor to take into account the above mentioned requests, we also insist that 90% of the workers are from Obiliq. We want the power plant [Kosovo C] to be more ecological, we are concerned about environmental protection..”

The citizens themselves confirm they have been invited to a public speaking event and got informed couple of times beforehand of any opportunities to have their voices heard.

“Can you see this table, when I left home in the morning, there was two fingers level of dust…”

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.

Health

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.

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 organize 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 organization 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, organization 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 .

The open green area where Kosovo C is supposed to be built

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"

About

It all has started in 2013, when I’ve learnt that people living in Pristina have to cope with enormous amounts of dust coming out of two outdated power plants every day. They can’t even put cloth outside and have to clean the windows every couple of days. It shook me back then.

In 2014 I digged the issue deeper and decided the story deserves to be covered from a human side rather than political one. I then found Anna and Adrián, who quickly jumped on board and together we continued our research throughout 2014 and 2015. Meanwhile we got in touch with a resident of Pristina, who for years has been concerned about this story and the stones started rolling.

With enough research done and elaborated approach on how to cover the story, we eventually we got admitted to a “Reporters in the Field” program within Robert Bosch Foundation. Here was it, the real chance to produce a story about the topic we really cared about. So we rolled our sleeves, went to Kosovo in March 2016 to investigate what the Kosovo power plants and people living around have to tell.

We, Lukas, Anna and Adrián, hope that through our words and visuals you will get a taste of how the conditions for people around the power plants in Kosovo are.

Enjoy reading,

Lukas

Credits

Lukas Rapp is a photojournalist Anna Chashchyna is a journalist Adrián Blanco is a journalist

The narrator for the video is Neil Baird The drone video is made by Tickmedia

The author of the Albanian version is Violeta Hyseni Kelmendi

Funded by Robert Bosch: Robert Bosch

You can contact us at dust@thedustlayer.com.

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