Compensation offered to the parents of Mahdia fire victims

Guyana's President Dr. Irfaan Ali during his maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly.
Guyana’s President Dr. Irfaan Ali during his maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly.
United Nations

Guyana’s main opposition A Partnership For National Unity (APNU) recently unceremoniously dismissed a $25,000 for each parent or guardian as final compensation offer to the survivors of 20 indigenous children who were roasted to death inside a heavily fortified jungle high school dormitory near Brazil back in May, saying the money cannot even sustain a family of five for three years and is not enough even to build a house in the mining community where commodities are way more expensive than on the coast.

The Irfaan Ali administration announced the controversial settlement recently, saying the parents of the 19 girls and a boy had already signed the agreement to accept the money as “a form of financial assistance, which shall constitute a settlement of all claims and causes of actions on account of all injuries resulting in death and not resulting in death, that resulted from the fire of the 21st May, 2023 at the Mahdia Secondary School dormitory.”

Opposition lawmaker and attorney Amanza Walton said in a statement that the wording of the agreement means that parents cannot now make additional claims against the state for any sums, describing the move as bizarre. “These students died whilst in the care and custody of the state and so the state has not been doing a favor to the families.”

The parliamentarian accused government of trying to insulate itself from recommendation in a previous report by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) which had recommended changes to the practice of placing iron grills on widows and padlocks on doors on dormitories as it urged improvements to safety issues at such live-in facilities. “The government has to be insulated because they know, they are aware that they failed, that their officers failed, that that dormitory was flagged by the fire service (and UNICEF) as being a fire hazard.  It would appear to me at first blush that the terms of this agreement preclude them from proceeding further unless they can make legal arguments that the inequality of the bargaining power at the time, the unconscionable nature of the agreement would allow them to have it waived but that is an unnecessary battle that they will have to fight,” she said.

Colleague Roysdale Forde argued that the miserly sum announced “cannot compensate for the years those children lived, the potential value for the investment in those years, and the potential value of each life.  Government must therefore make public what formula they used to price the grief, because it appears as though they just plucked a number from the sky,” he said.

The deal with the parents and guardians comes as the government is preparing to appoint a commission of inquiry into the tragedy in the coming weeks. Retired army chief of staff Maj. Gen Joseph Singh has been appointed to head the commission but other commission members are yet to be named.

Announcing the settlement, Attorney General Anil Nandlall said the families had requested “cash, which they could use to make purchases that would enhance their ability to continue to provide for their families. All the affected families engaged have signed agreements. These agreements also acknowledged the government’s commitment to providing ongoing support as necessary,” the AG said.

The state took care of all the burial and related expenses in May and June. One badly burned girl was sent to a New York hospital for specialized treatment.