Romani Boy Living in Substandard Conditions Dies in Fire in Lithuania
10 May 2003
According to Ms Egle Kučinskaite, an activist working on Romani issues in Lithuania, Sergejus Visockas, a 7-year-old Romani boy, died in a fire in the wooden house of Mr Stepas Visockas, Ms Marija Rynkevič and their 12-year-old son Edgaras, on S.Dariaus ir S.Girëno Street in the capital city of Vilnius at around 7:00 PM on January 15, 2003. S.Dariaus ir S.Girëno Street is located in the upper section of the Kirtimai Romani settlement. As of January 29, 2003, the official cause of the fire had yet to be determined. The Lithuania television station TV4 reported on January 16, 2003, that the cause of the fire had been acetone, a chemical substance used during drug production, an activity in which the Romani adults in the settlement were reportedly engaged. However, Ms Kučinskaite informed the ERRC, Mr Visockas, a volunteer social worker, vehemently denied any involvement in the drug industry and believed the cause of the fire to be poor electrical installations. Mr Visockas stated that in September 2002, the Vilnius Electric Company began work on the electrical metre in the settlement and, at this time, many Roma from the settlement, including Ms Rynkevič, informed the workers that the electrical installations in their homes were unsafe, but the workers did not pay attention to their warnings. In an interview with TV4 on January 29, 2003, Mr Virgilijus Žukauskas, a Vilnius Electric Company spokesperson, denied that the Company held any responsibility for the fire because it was not responsible for the maintenance of internal electric systems. Hanging wires were reportedly shown on the outside and inside neighbouring houses in the settlement during the report. Ms Kučinskaite earlier informed the ERRC that conditions in the settlement were substandard and created a dangerous living environment. Ms Kučinskaite reported that none of the seventy-two homes in the settlement have running water. The approximately five hundred Roma living in the settlement are forced to carry water in buckets from five water pumps. However, according to Ms Kučinskaite, neither of the water pumps near the house in the upper part of the settlement were functioning on the day of the fire. The nearest water source was reportedly approximately five minutes walk away. The pumps had frozen and were broken when Roma from the settlement tried to warm them up and use them to douse the fire. Four days before the fire, Roma began calling the Vilnius Vandenys Water Company to fix the pumps, but they were not repaired until the day following the fatal fire. Roma in the settlement told Ms Kučinskaite that two fire trucks arrived in the settlement approximately half an hour after being called, but the roof of the house had already collapsed. Water from the trucks was put on the fire then the trucks went to the lower part of the settlement for more. Police officers and the Vilnius City Prosecutor were also present and the prosecutor was reportedly conducting an investigation into the fatal fire as of January 29, 2003. On January 24, 2003, Mr Visockas and Ms Rynkevič applied to the Vilnius municipality for alternative housing but had not yet received a response. They had also received small clothing and food stamp donations from the Roma Public Center and the Naujininkai District Social Support Centre, respectively. As of February 3, 2003, Ms Kučinskaite reported that on February 1, 2003, another home was destroyed during a fire in the settlement. Reportedly, there had additionally been two small fires since the first one that Roma in the settlement had put out before any major damage had been done. Additional information pertaining to the human rights situation of Roma in Lithuania can be found on the ERRC's Internet website at: http://www.errc.org.