The Dust Layer

Conveyor-loads of ‘blood’ coal, like spreading veins from deep within the crater of a ravenous energy production complex, devour the landscape and everything within it. This mega-industrial image is at once terrifying and exciting. Sights like this can render us frozen in both fascination and horror. This giant open-cast mine is one of the largest in Europe and 5th largest in the world for reserves of brown coal.

Move left and right to discover the open pit

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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 previous day. It happens to be the only administrative-style building in Old Hade, and the only school in this disappearing village. At first glance it appears neat, clean and solid from the exterior, but feels desperate, lonely and sad once inside. It used to be a hub of life and activity with more than a thousand pupils attending classes here. Now there are only 50 left, due to the resettlement programme the government started years ago, but never finished.

Dior Preniqi is six. Despite his young age, he attends classes together with third graders in Hade’s ramshackle primary school.

“The moment I had to hand him over to the school, I realised that there’s no one else of his age, which meant 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 is following the third grade curriculum. And now he finds his age group’s tasks too easy and demands harder work to do.

The Island of Forgotten Kids

Besa Caka, teaches English at the Old Hade school. She lives in Pristina and uses public transport every day. Unfortunately, there is no direct connection, which makes it a very long journey to get to work.

"It’s like living on a volcano. You never know what the new day will bring."

The first president of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova, is considered a national hero, but all traces of his work as a teacher here in Hade are on the verge of extinction. There’s not even a memorial board on the facade of the school. Kosovo is a truly extraordinary place.

Besa has taught here for almost a decade and has seen the number of students decrease year by year. She does not believe this situation will ever change for the better, “because those left will have to leave sooner or later, as the excavation line is getting very close”, she says. Like an ocean taking its toll on 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 the drab blacks, browns and greys of the landscape all around them, the first- and third graders Dior and his best friend Mirjona draw optimistic, colourful pictures with lots of greenery, 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 their lives to live, and for that they must be able to breathe.

In fact, the government warns the villagers from time to time that due to a diminishing budget and fewer children, the school might have to close. Although, no-one can predict when.

“It’s like living on a volcano. You never know what the new day will bring,”  one of the teachers says. Children’s naive drawings, the gnarled crafts on the tables along the shabby painted walls  –  the ‘residents’ of this tiny school world clearly make a great effort to keep the place cosy, bright and cheerful, and a place they want to be in. Nevertheless, it’s hard to shake the feeling of creeping decay. The place is hard to take care of when at any moment you might be asked to leave for good.

Move through the slider to discover the school

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Old Hade School

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Fjolla: "Sometimes we feel very tired"

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

Living as if on a powder keg changes people’s priorities. Albiona says their major concern is not so much the unbearable smell, or the noise from the cranes, trucks and flat conveyors, which run seven days a week, but it’s the idea that they will eventually be forced to leave. “There hasn’t been any investment in our village, they’re always thinking it’s not worth it if we are all going to leave”, says Albiola sadly. Fjolla continues: “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 obvious in large amounts now. Even if we move away, we will feel bad because we cannot be with our 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 to break; if they stay, they have to live day after day with the hazardous dust which causes many different illnesses.

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”

It was back in 2004 when Hade’s challenges began. Located right in the middle of one of Europe’s biggest and most valuable areas of lignite mining, the citizens of Hade found themselves facing a serious problem with no alternative than to leave. As the Kosovo government made attempts to fix the energy shortage, it requested the World Bank to create a resettlement programme, but failed to communicate to the residents about when, where and how they would actually be moved out.

As a result, 158 families who were living closest to the mine were unexpectedly evicted and resettled because of the threat of mudslides. They were notified just one week before the move. 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 the Forum for Civil Initiatives (FIQ), says those “liberated” pieces of land were never used for the power plant, and no one even knows if there’s even any lignite there at all.

Many families continue to leave, others consider doing so, despite their strong desire to stay at home where they belong. Around 60 families remain in the dying village. Lacking proper electricity and water supplies, all they have is hope.

Villagers complain that the resettlement strategy has proved hectic and chaotic, that it has not responded to people’s needs and, of course, that it has not fulfilled the promises made. And then a second wave of resettlement hit the area in 2009.

Eight hundred plots of land were promised back then, but so far only eleven families have been 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 long-promised school. To be honest, all these years later Shkabaj looks more like a random settlement with nice new houses, than a real village. As living conditions in Old Hade deteriorate, the village is just a shadow of its former pleasant self.

Vehbi and Xhevat, two brothers 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 place. “To leave your place is hard, but it was in the name of national interest”, he says. Hade existed for more than 100 years, and despite its rich history and sense of optimism, the village has is being extinguished. Two years later, after staying in a rented apartment in Obiliq, their new place starts to feel like home, say the brothers.

Sports

On the first morning of our research in Kosovo, we had no specific goal or starting point, but we just walked in the direction we thought might be the right one. It was the beginning of a very intense week involving many moving interviews that had us sitting quietly with ‘goosebumps’ as we listened to stories in living rooms and offices.

It is frosty, but the sun soon warms us up, as we walk around Obiliq and come across a little football arena, a local stadium with stands on one side. 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 have a couple of minutes to chat with the captain of the local team, Torvioll Stullqaku. He is a professional football player. He has played football for eleven years, and trains every day, sometimes twice a day, always at the Agron Rama stadium.

What’s so special about this place, you might ask? This stadium literally stands in the shadow of the Kosovo B power plant, being just 1.6 km away. And spectators watching the match have the dubious pleasure of seeing the grey steam emerge from the plant just 1.6km away.

Professional sports involve heavy physical activity, including intense breathing, so we wondered how Torvioll and his team feel about this. Torvioll is 21 years old at the moment, and he recalls that his breathing didn’t hamper him when he was younger. But since the team started to train in Brezovica or Durres, or natural places like at the forest or the sea, the changes back home are evident.

Once in six months every professional sportsman has a medical exam to check their bones and muscles. It’s an obligation for all clubs, but none of the football players have had X-rays. “Better not to,” Tovioll smiles. This promising young sportsman dreams about moving out, but holds on to some shreds of hope for the improvement of his home town.

Torvioll himself took active part in the protests against the prospective Kosovo C power plant in 2013. He regrets that the public is still somewhat lethargic. At least three protests have been organized since the beginning of 2016, but not many people have participated.

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

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

No more coal

Since 2001 the World Bank has been actively involved in shaping Kosovo’s energy plans. But it has been playing by double standards in this affair. “No more coal” is the cry from one side, but from the other side the World Bank leaves the 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 the case of Kosovo, the standards for involuntary resettlements were not in compliance with the World Bank’s operating standards. And again, the Bank has refused to acknowledge that. This is why Kosovo Civil Society Consortium for Sustainable Development (KOSID) hired an international expert, Dr Ted Downey. His report has now been released.

Move left and right to discover Kosovo C future location

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Despite the mess already created with the expansion of the mine, the government now wants to build another thermal power plant with a capacity of 500 Megawatts, for which an investor has already been found. The proposal is contains numerous questionable assumptions and arrangements. There has been just one construction bid submitted by New York based CountourGlobal, and this was, strangely, accepted immediately. 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, involving an estimated 7,000 inhabitants.

IEEFA, a US-based research organization together with KOSID have researched the financial and economic impacts of the proposed Kosovo e Re power plant. In their report ‘The Proposed New Kosovo Power Plant: An Unnecessary Burden at an Unreasonable Price’, they state that the true cost would be 4.169 billion euro. The World Bank or other international institutions would have to commit to major subsidies — in excess of an initially declared $3 billion — to bring down the interest rates on the plant. And the subsidies 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 materialize. If the new plant underperforms, the electricity will become even more expensive for the population. It’s very likely that household electricity costs will rise by up to 50%, according to Tom Sanzillo, Director of Finance for IEEFA, making the price more than twice 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 fact, in Kosovo, it has turned into a 'population pays’ principle. The average Kosovar would pay 12.9% of their annual income for electricity, those on low to middle incomes,  18%, and on very low incomes around 40%, according to the IEEFA report. And this is where electricity becomes a luxury instead of a 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 enjoys genuine cooperation with the Kosovo Energy Corporation (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 dump sites, and 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 was to invest 300,000 euro in building parking, planting trees, and on sports and cultural activities support. The other was about building two roads, one in Hade – 200,000 euro in value, and the other one from Lajthishte to Shipitol that would cost 500,000 euro.

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

Finally, Mr Gashi assured us that no decision will be taken without prior consent of the concerned public. “We consider that after the dialogues with the citizens, we initially expect an agreement with the investor to take into account the above mentioned requests. We are also insistent 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 public events and were informed several 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 have lived just across the street from the power plant for half a century. It is a cloudy and rainy day, and we have been invited to join them in the living room and are offered a cup of hot black tea. This is normal hospitality for visitors, although we are complete strangers. The heat of the liquid quickly spreads through the body and satisfies us for several minutes with a comfortable warm feeling. Unfortunately, not for long, and soon no-one can keep their feet on the cold floor anymore. It’s freezing in the family’s premises.

Despite their proximity to the energy producer and an unforgettable view from their windows, the couple have to warm themselves by burning wood and coal. All the power plant’s central heating goes to Pristina. They pay approximately 50 euro for their electricity and about 500 euro for six months’ supply of coal and wood. During the summer they use gas for cooking.

"On my salary I managed to raise seven children, and three of them live abroad with their families now. But with this catastrophic situation, there is no chance for young people to find jobs here"

Vesel worked for KEK in the opencast pit in Bellaqevc (or Hade) for thirty years. He confesses it wasn’t easy as there was little mechanisation, but he now recalls that 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 the hard working conditions and to stress, as well as to the effects of the environment.

Both of them agree that it was dustier in the past, and the reason might be the newly installed filters inside the power plant towers. However, Vesel and Bahtije suspect that the filters get turned off during the night. The noise increases and there’s visibly more steam coming out.

Rinora Gojani, senior researcher at the Institute for Development Policy (INDEP) explained that filters reduce the capacity of the electricity that can be output to the grid, so to get more power, it’s highly probable that the filters really are switched off. Vesel has been a smoker all his life, and Bahtije hasn’t ever smoked. The doctor has examined both of them and the verdict was that their lungs are in almost the same condition.

Kosovo is without a doubt a nation of smokers, and it’s hard to scientifically distinguish between the health effects of air pollution and smoking. However, there has been a comparative study for Pristina and Prizren municipalities, both of which have almost the same number of inhabitants (census 2011). Cigarette smoking is at the same level, but the incidence of lung cancer is two times higher (35 new cases in 2010) in Pristina municipality than in the Prizren area (18 new cases)].

Medical records from the Clinic for Lung Diseases in Pristina showed two-fold higher lung cancer rates for Obiliq municipality in 2009 compared to the national average (27.84/ 00000 vs 12.3/ 00000). The World Bank has issued some disturbing statistics as well. More than 100,000,000 Euros were spent in 2010 by local citizens seeking medical assistance outside Kosovo.

Given that Vesel worked for more than three decades for the company and that the location of their home could not be any closer to the power plant, it is disturbing and puzzling that the family doesn’t profit from the central heating system, like many others living around the power plant.

Financial and economic aspects of the deal are not the only concern. The real external cost also involves health, environment, and infrastructure costs —all of which worsen with time. These are the burdens that citizens have to carry.

Health

The pollution comes from the lignite power generation, outdated technology, misuse of electricity as well as a lack of viable alternatives. The most polluted area is in the South-West, where It causes 835 premature deaths each year, lung cancer being the most common (11.8%) of all malignant diseases for the male population in Kosovo.

The Annual Health Report 2011 from the Kosovo Institute of Public Health (IPH) shows that respiratory diseases are among the top 10 most frequent diseases in the country with a 22.9% pathology rate. 53% of children aged between one to five years old are diagnosed with respiratory pathology, and around 50% of them have sought assistance in Kosovo Hospitals.

In the lung disease wards of Kosovo Hospitals, 21% of the patients suffering from malignant diseases are diagnosed and treated for lung cancer. Moreover, cases of lung cancer are 40.7% for tertiary health care at the University Hospital Centre.

According to the 2011 IPH report, the three main causes for morbidity in the country are living conditions, bad quality of drinking water and air pollution. In the same year, a report from the Ministry of Environmental and Spatial Planning blamed the energy sector, traffic, industrial production, and the main energy pollutants coming from lignite-based power plants, which release more than 2.5 tons of dust every hour.

Dr. Xhevat Pllana from the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Obiliq tells us that data collected between 2005 and 2010 shows that around 30% of KEK workers suffer from respiratory diseases, and 6%  from cardiovascular problems.

Keep it green NGO

in December 2015 two students, Gezim Pllana and Guxim Klinaku, established an NGO “Keep it Green” (or “Mbaje Gjelbert” in Albanian) to help deliver environmental messages to a broader public and raise awareness, mainly through art. Both of them live in Obiliq, and therefore they know first-hand what happens in the municipality. There are seven members at the moment, all of them in their early 20s, each participating in different ways in the new NGO’s activities.

“The main idea in creating 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 wanted to launch an organization that would deal with environmental protection and the protection of the residents’ lives,” Guxim says.

“The citizens of this city are the ones with the most complaints regarding the air and the environment in which they live. So the main purpose was for us to be their voice, to communicate their despair to the relevant bodies that should be involved in environmental protection. Until there’s no dust in Obiliq, an organization like ours will continue to function” says Gezim.

These positive young people say it’s not only about air pollution, but about the on-going dangers that the inhabitants are facing, such as the explosion at Kosovo A in 2015, when the windows were simply blown out, and the houses closest to the explosion were completely destroyed.

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

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, who were raised here and who have suffered most from the polluted air, we do not get the heating and I believe that it should be the other way round — 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 by burning wood. Luckily, he lives in a private house, but the inhabitants of Plemetia (a very polluted area close by, where many minorities live) are obliged to burn fires in their apartment blocks.

The dark, ever-expanding eating machine sometimes still seems far away, but as it grows and expands further, the neighbours nearby will not just fear for their health, but for the existence of the place they have called home for ages. Like a bad dream that is coming true.

"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

Lignite Klingenberg Background Photo (CC)

Funded by Robert Bosch Foundation: Robert Bosch

You can contact us at dust@thedustlayer.com.

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