In the Dark: Segregating Roma in Lithuania

Eglė Kristina Kučinskaite1

Segregation takes various forms and employs various justifications, but it almost always produces the same effect: Exclusion from equal opportunities and rights. Segregationist attitudes towards Roma in Lithuania are clearly seen at work among public authorities and non-Romani citizens alike.

One such illustration is the treatment of Romani children at school. On July 23, 1997, prior to the start of the school year, the Lithuanian government's Department of National Minorities and Lithuanians Living Abroad requested that the Vilnius City Department of Education arrange for the enrolment of school-aged Romani children from the Kirtimai settlement2 at various schools inside the municipality. Every school in Vilnius reportedly refused. In the end, the director of school No. 58, a multi-ethnic school with instruction in Russian, agreed to accept the children and subsequently placed them in separate classes from other children, reportedly in accordance with orders from the Vilnius Government Minorities Department.3 Public criticism of such segregated classes, from Romani non-governmental organisations and other groups, prompted the distribution of Romani children in mixed classes. In the school year 2000-2001, at least one all-Romani class existed in the town of Eišiškes. The town has a large minority community, including Russians, Poles, Belorussians and Roma. There are two schools, one with Lithuanian language of instruction and the other with Russian language of instruction, located in close proximity. According to the non-governmental organisation Roma Mission, in December 2000 there was an all-Romani first grade class in the Russian school. The majority of the Romani children from Eišiškes studied in the Russian school. Only one Romani girl reportedly attended the Lithuanian school.

Segregation in schooling proceeds from a situation of segregated housing settlements of Roma in Lithuania. Take for example the Kirtimai settlement, located on municipally-owned land, where roughly 500 Roma live.4 In the autumn of 2001, Roma in Kirtimai lived in the 72 houses comprising the settlement. Children account for a big part of the population at the Kirtimai settlement. The area does not resemble other inhabited areas of Vilnius and can hardly be considered part of the city. During Soviet rule, a government resolution provided for ensuring living space and work for Roma, but it was never implemented.5 There are no asphalt streets or paths inside the Romani settlement and its residents wade through mud in autumn and spring. Only one dwelling in the settlement is legal and, for that reason, every person living there is registered under that address: Dariaus ir Girёno Street, #185.

Other dwellings are poor and most do not meet basic construction standards. These homes are outside the municipality's regulation plans and are not even numbered. People are forced to carry water in buckets from five water supply pumps and up until 1990 there was only one pump, situated in the lower area of the settlement. Roma in the upper area of the settlement acquired the second pump upon request during the final years of Communism. Residents who live along Rodunios Road, one of three parts of the settlement, raised money for a third water supply pump. The last two pumps were built in recent years, with funds from the Vilnius government and the non-governmental organisation Lithuanian Children's Fund.

Due to the absence of a rainwater drainage or sewer system in the area, water from the pumps is often undrinkable after it rains. Flooding of the lower part of the settlement is common following heavy rains. A truck for waste removal is not always able to travel into the settlement because of the mud. There are no telephones in the settlement, except in the office of one local non-governmental organisation, the Roma Public Center. According to local Roma, ambulances do not come when called or they arrive very late. Reasons for this may be that the drivers are unable to find the homes at night because they are not numbered, or that healthcare providers refuse to treat Roma. One pediatrician reportedly does serve the settlement adequately, but adults feel they are treated differently by general practitioners working in clinics outside the area, as in other public institutions.6

Many of the problems facing Roma in the settlement could be solved by the legalisation of the settlement. Vilnius Romani representatives have unsuccessfully raised such issues more than once with Vilnius and Lithuanian authorities. The fact that Romani homes in the settlement are not legally registered allows for arbitrary searches by police. Thus, with a single search warrant (issued for the only legally registered house in the settlement), police can search every single house located in the settlement. Lithuanian police reportedly commit other abusive acts against Roma from the Kirtimai settlement. According to Mr Josif Tyčina, President of the Vilnius-based non-governmental organisation Romani Yag, a Romani woman from the settlement who left her home for several days found it broken into upon her return. According to Romani Yag, police entered the woman's home and spent two days videotaping a nearby house. Despite abusive actions by police, individual Roma are afraid to complain. Such actions remain the subject of general discussions between Romani organisations and public institutions, including meetings with the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights.

Further to the substandard facilities in the Kirtimai settlement, public service providers demand that Romani public organisations provide certain guarantees before the respective services are made available to Roma in the settlement. For example, Romani Yag was reportedly requested by the electricity company to take responsibility for the common electricity meters located in the Kirtimai settlement. Such guarantees are not required for non-Roma. The needs of individual Roma are not seen as important and the population is viewed as "a group" by authorities. Due to the fact that most Roma live in illegal houses and cannot agree to contracts, Romani Yag had to make agreements with a variety of institutions in order to provide them with basic facilities such as water and electricity.

Several years ago, the Municipality of Vilnius proposed removing inhabitants of the settlement and placing them in dilapidated buildings left by the Soviet army – referred to as the "Northern Village". The Roma refused to move, citing a variety of reasons. Moreover, the area was noted to contain a large quantity of explosive materials until recently.7 Other Vilnius residents who apply to the municipality for housing are informed of a variety of ways to obtain a flat. Roma are the only group subjected to ghettoisation.

Another example of blatant discrimination against Romani children was reported by the Lithuanian Children's Fund, which said it was forced to distribute food for Romani children inside the Kirtimai settlement, instead of taking them to lunch at a café outside the settlement, as cafe owners refused to allow Romani children inside their businesses.8 Many similar cases of discrimination are withheld from public scrutiny in Lithuania as Roma have no power and few advocates to defend their rights.

Due to the small number of Roma in Lithuania, their problems have not acquired a high degree of public urgency.9 The Lithuanian government has failed to formulate a comprehensive policy addressing the problems facing Roma. A special programme for the integration of Roma, to be implemented between 2000 and 2004,10 does not recognise segregated housing and education as areas needing to be addressed. The programme focuses on the Kirtimai settlement in Vilnius, discusses Roma housing problems as one of the most urgent issues (under the section on social problems) and mentions the lack of housing, overcrowded and poor dwellings, and the illegal status of housing. However, it proposes no concrete measures to solve such problems.

The programme also states that only roughly one-fourth of school aged Romani children attend school. The initiative by the Department of National Minorities and Lithuanians Living Abroad to open segregated Roma classes in the 58th Vilnius School during the 1997-1998 school year is presented as one of the most important steps to solving Romani problems.

Some Lithuanian authorities even publicly deny the existence of Romani problems. In one case, Mr Vaclovas Stankevič, a member of Parliament, told the media that the Romani minority are manipulated for political goals and do not constitute a problem. He interpreted the public expression of concerns regarding the situation of Roma as an attempt to prevent Lithuania from joining NATO.11 After a complaint by a number of Lithuanian Romani non-governmental organisations to the Parliamentary Commission of Ethics and Procedures, on May 16, 2002, which was signed by other independent Romani organisations (though not supported by other ethnic minorities organisations), the Parliamentary Commission reportedly reprimanded the parliamentarian.

In another instance, a Lithuanian official described Roma as "responsible for the genocide of Lithuanian citizens",12 following information that some of the inhabitants of the Kirtimai settlement were involved in drug dealing. Reports in the Lithuanian media give the perception that the Kirtimai settlement is the main and sole drug distribution area countrywide.

A prosecutor at the Vilnius District Police Station interviewed for the state television programme "Christian Word" on June 1, 2002, characterised the presence of Roma in a Vilnius marketplace in the following way: "The biggest flow of people to the market is in spring and in autumn, when fruits and vegetables appear. Also, how shall I say this, it is easier then for Gypsies, for pickpockets and for swindlers to work. I want to emphasise – 90 percent of these Gypsies you do not see in winter. This means that they come here from other communities because no one knows them here and they can 'work' at ease." Regarding two Romani families evicted from their flats who joined relatives to live in a dilapidated and rundown wing of a local Orthodox church in overcrowded conditions, the prosecutor offered the following comments: "This is not the first time for them, so I do not think they feel any discomfort." Meanwhile, the church's rector referred to the wing as "a snake's nest", which "does not embellish the city, or the district, or the street."
 

A Romani family in The Kirtimai settlement in Vilnius.
Photo: Eglė Kristina Kucinskaite

Media sources often demonstrate a misunderstanding of the problems endured by Roma and show hostility towards them. One journalist reported the protest of a Romani woman who was forced to live in the street with her seven children before being provided a one-room flat as follows: "Local Gypsies are the biggest headache for the head of the local administrative office and all people of Kybartai. About 30 Romani families live here. Earlier, an encampment of Gypsies was settled near sandpits in Kybarčiukai. Unfortunately, when excavations started, water disappeared in the wells and the Gypsies left their housing and dispersed into town. They flowed in large numbers to the local administrative office and asked for social support and housing. The senior of that office [of Kybartai, Marijampole County] experienced troubles with a war-like Gypsy woman named Olia Visockaitė."13

Anti-Romani public statements by politicians and biased media coverage fuel already-existing negative stereotypes about Roma in Lithuanian society. Roma in Lithuania encounter rejection from the non-Romani population on a daily basis. Some people express anti-Romani attitudes openly. For example, I overheard two female pensioners having a conversation on a bus in Kaunas during which one of them stated: "Could somebody take all these Gypsy women away from the marketplace (near the railway station)?" One member of the Lithuanian intelligentsia recently said to me: "Please, do not talk about protection of Roma rights – they (Roma) are so sly, they do not need any help."

And there are many others of the opinion that "the traditional culture of Roma" has instilled in them the urge to steal and live in substandard conditions. We can also indicate the consequences a non-Romani person may face if caught interacting with Roma, how society reacts to such relations and what social dangers may come as a result. A non-Romani person seen conversing or saying hello to Roma risks isolation by friends and neighbours.

Endnotes: 

  1. Eglė Kristina Kuěinskaite formerly worked with the Kaunas-based non-governmental organisation, Roma Information Bureau,as well as volunteered for another Kaunas-based NGO, the Lithuanian Roma Community Union "Roma Mission". She is currently pursuing a Masters' degree at the BRIMHEALTH Program at the Nordic School of Public Health in Sweden.
  2. The Kirtimai settlement is a Romani quarter in Vilnius, located near the Vilnius International Airport.
  3. See "Gypsy Children Did Not Drive Anyone Away," Dialogas, No. 33, September 24, 1999, pp. 1-3.
  4. According to an estimate by the third police commissariat in Vilnius, the number of Roma living in the Kirtimai Tabor was 554 as of May 10, 2002.
  5. See Lietuvos TSR MT 1956 m. lapkričio 17 d. Nutarimas Nr. 552 (Resolution No. 552 from November 17, 1956, of the Lithuanian SSR Council of Ministers "On Labour Involvement of Vagabond Gypsies" in Chronological Collection of Laws of the Lithuanian SSR, Decrees of the Supreme Soviet Presidium and Resolutions of the Government). The resolution was abolished on November 19, 1992, by Resolution No. 866 of the Lithuanian Government.
  6. See Lietuvos TSR MT 1956 m. lapkričio 17 d. Nutarimas Nr. 552 (Resolution No. 552 from November 17, 1956, of the Lithuanian SSR Council of Ministers "On Labour Involvement of Vagabond Gypsies" in Chronological Collection of Laws of the Lithuanian SSR, Decrees of the Supreme Soviet Presidium and Resolutions of the Government). The resolution was abolished on November 19, 1992, by Resolution No. 866 of the Lithuanian Government.
  7. Interview with Josef Tyčina, President of Romani Yag, Vilnius, June 6, 2002.
  8. "Čigonų¸ vaikai" ("Gypsy Children"), a Lithuanian Children's Fund project, October 10, 1996, p. 1 (A copy of this unpublished document was made available to me by Romani activist Mr Stepas Visockas).
  9. According to the 2001 census, the number of Roma in Lithuania was 2,571 or 0.07 percent of the population. Data available at: http://www.std.lt/Surasymas/Rezultatai/index_pirm_e.htm. This figure, however, is largely believed to underestimate the number of Roma. According to an estimate by the Minority Rights Group, the number of Roma in Lithuania is between 3,000-4,000. See http://lists.errc.org/publications/factsheets/index.shtml.
  10. Lietuvos Respublikos Vyriausybe nutarimas 2000 m. liepos 1 d. Nr. 759 Vilnius "Del romu integracijos i Lietuvos visuomene 2000-2004 metř programos" (Resolution No. 759 of July 1, 2000 of the Government of the Republic of Lithuania, "On the Programme of Integration of Roma into the Society of Lithuania 2000-2004.") Valstybes žinios No. 54-1580, July 5, 2000. The document is available on the Lithuanian parliament website in Lithuanian at: http://www3.lrs.lt/cgi-bin/getfmt?C1=w&C2=104285.
  11. Evaldas Utyra, "Vilniaus čigonu taboras išvažiuoja i Rusija" ("Vilnius Gypsy Tabor Emigrates to Russia"), Lietuvos žinios of May 13, 2002.
  12. The author prefers not to reveal the name of this official as she is afraid of reprisals on Roma.
  13. Violeta Seredžiuviene "Pasienio miestelis laukia geresniř laiku." (The small frontier town waits for better times.) Valstiečiu laikraštis (Peasants newspaper), No. 65 (8151), August 13, 2002, p. 11.

     

 

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