The Lights Have Gone Out, Who Cares

BAQUBA — Lack of electricity in Baquba has shattered businesses, and the lives of families. Months of power failures has darkened morale everywhere.

In Diyala province, just north of Baghdad, a generation has grown up in dark. The province, and its capital Baquba 40 km north of Baghdad has lived with intermittent electricity supply since the times of the sanctions under Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. Came the U.S. in 2003, and everyone thought it would get better.

“I felt happy when the U.S. invaded Iraq because I thought the electricity problem will be solved, and we would have it all the time like other countries,” Abdul-Kareem Hasan, a trader in Baquba told IPS.

But promises of reconstruction by western contractors proved empty, and there is now less electricity than during the sanctions.

In some cities, homes get electricity just an hour or two a day. Sometimes, there is no electricity for a week. People struggle to get alternative source of electricity.

“Big generators are operated privately for distributing electricity to people,” resident Nihad al-Alwan told IPS. “This process implies that a person purchases a generator of certain capacity and gives outlets to people. Each family takes what they need.”

In Baghdad, that can mean a high bill for electricity in addition to paying for scarce and costly food. In many homes the entire income cannot cover the cost of electricity needs.

The failure has fed anger with the government. “If the government were serious about fixing electricity, they could do it easily,” said Abdullah Jumeel, a local employee.

Businesses are down. “We need electricity to operate the machines, and sometimes we go back home without doing anything,” blacksmith Jabar Ameen told IPS. “If there is no electricity, there is no work — and no money.”

Only those who can pay for big generators can operate their factories or keep shops open. But most businesses have shut shop. “As a result, the number of jobs has become more limited, adding to extreme unemployment,” said 51-year-old resident Majeed Kamil.

Unemployment across Iraq has officially been said to range between 60-70 percent over the last months.

Compounding the problem is the rising cost of fuel.

“We can have simple generators that can be sufficient for the main necessities, but fuel is too expensive,” says resident Radhi Kadhim. “Fifteen litres of petrol may be priced 12-15 dollars, or sometimes up to 25 dollars. This can operate the generator for just one or two days. It is futile.”

Beyond numbers and hours, the stoppage of electricity seems to have made people jumpy and bitter. And it brings little reassurance to hear the sound of generators at night in other people’s homes.

The winter has been hard without electricity. “We use wood fire to warm up the houses,” resident Safa al-Hamdani said. “Electric heaters have become useless. So now we use a metal container, say 50cm by 20cm and burn wood in it. We have abandoned the world of modern technology.”

“I dream of waking up and having a hot shower,” said a local resident. “But I am now exhausted complaining about lack of electricity. I’m sure nobody can bear living in Iraq. It’s a country in the stone ages.”

The worst of the suffering comes in summer, when temperatures can reach 55 C.

“When a family has a new-born baby, the members of the family may spend all night waving pieces of paper over the child to get the baby to sleep,” Safiya Hadi, a nurse at the general hospital in Baquba told IPS. “This may continue the whole night.”

It is not easy for an adult to sleep either. “Sometimes we sleep just one or two hours in the night because of no electricity,” Adil Mahdi, a carpenter, told IPS. “When we go to work in the morning, we can hardly move or think.”

It is much harder for infants and children, he says. “Adults can still bear the summer heat, but babies can not. We just pity them. Both the Saddam government and the current government have been unjust, leaving people to suffer like this from lack of electricity.”

After a hard winter, everyone is waiting for a harder summer.

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East)