A Night with the Powerless

June 26th, 2004 - by admin

Peter Y. Hong / Los Angeles Times – 2004-06-26 10:52:06


(June 24, 2004) — Baghdad – Night is the worst time, everyone in the Qadr family agrees. “Around 3 o’clock, it often gets so hot, everyone is awake,” says 26-year-old Ali, the oldest of three sons. The family will chat in the dark for a while, “but eventually, we’ve talked about every subject. We’re sick of hearing the same things, we’re too tired to talk, but too hot to sleep. It’s awful.”

Ali is describing how the Qadrs have lived for more than a year without regular electricity to someone who has always taken power for granted – an American. The family lives just off Baghdad’s airport highway, where U.S. soldiers and foreign contractors are regularly shot at or bombed, in a neighborhood called Jihad. Foreign journalists glimpse the community from a distance when covering the highway ambushes.

On this night, the 15 members of the Qadr family have welcomed one of those reporters into their spacious two-story concrete-and-brick home. They have agreed to set aside their considerable pride to show someone who has always had air-conditioning, hot showers, chilled water and clean clothes what it feels like to lose those comforts and more.

Patriarch Abed Qadr, a 60-year-old unemployed farm worker, had hoped for brighter days after the ouster of Saddam Hussein. But since the U.S. took control of Iraq with a fighting force using satellites, computers and high-tech weaponry, the Qadrs’ daily existence has slipped to something resembling life in the early 20th century.

No Power, No Refrigerators: Temperature 110 F
For as many as 16 hours a day, there is no power. The house relies on an electric pump to deliver water, so no electricity means no running water. Toilets don’t flush. Taking baths, washing dishes and laundering clothes are infrequent privileges. In the 110-degree daytime heat, there are no fans. No working refrigerators. No ice cubes.

The night provides little relief. In the pitch-black darkness of his garden, where he has taken refuge from the sauna-like air in the house, Qadr explains his disillusionment. “I’m concerned if you write what I tell you, it will sound like I support Saddam,” Qadr says.

It is 10 o’clock. Qadr speaks slowly, just loud enough to be heard over the rolling background noise of automatic-rifle fire. A small flashlight, brought by his visitor, is propped on a table for light.

“After the Americans came, I believed President Bush. I thought things would be better in Iraq,” he says. “But now, after almost a year and a half, there is no electricity, no water. There is more unemployment. My life is worse than it was before the war.”

US occupation officials had predicted that electricity would return to prewar levels — when Baghdad residents had power for all but a few hours each day –by June 2003. This month, the Coalition Provisional Authority said it had finally reached prewar output. But for Baghdad residents, there has been little noticeable improvement.

Not Enough Power to the People
As the US-led coalition prepares to hand power to Iraqis next week, the inability to restore electricity to Baghdad after more than a year has shattered Iraqi confidence that the transfer will produce a functional society.

Iraq’s Electricity Ministry says sabotage of power plants and transmission facilities is keeping power from reaching citizens. The ministry also says desperate residents have figured out how to illegally tap power lines, cutting power in other areas while taking it for themselves.

Dallas Lawrence, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, says power, which under Hussein was diverted to Baghdad from the rest of Iraq, is now spread “equitably over a national grid. Millions of Iraqis now have eight to 12 hours a day when they used to have zero.”

Qadr has no patience for such explanations. “People who live in palaces can’t say such things,” he says, referring to Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone in which coalition officials live and work. “They are behind their desks in their headquarters. They have no idea how others suffer,” he says, turning his palms upward in exasperation.

Just then, something explodes in the distance. It could be a scheduled detonation of ordnance at a coalition base. Perhaps it is a car bomb, or a roadside explosive. Things still blow up every few hours in Baghdad. Qadr raises his eyebrows and says nothing.

One of Qadr’s sons brings a silver tray with glasses of powdered orange drink. The drinks, which have been chilled in the family’s on-again-off-again refrigerators, are a bit cooler than the ambient air, which seems to be about 80 degrees at 11 at night.

Without working refrigerators, the family buys just enough fresh food to consume the same day. Ali says that before the war, the family bought lamb or chicken twice a week. Now, because they can’t save leftovers, they occasionally prepare a small amount of meat and finish it all for lunch. Most of the time, it’s not worth the bother.

Qadr, who lost his job on a Ministry of Agriculture farm after the war, says he has received just one paycheck — about $65 — since then. With the loss of his job, the family’s food ration has been cut, he says. Since the war, the variety of food available in shops has improved, he says. He just lacks the money to buy it.

Ali, who works for a construction equipment dealer, is the family’s only full-time wage earner. Alaa, 25, is a Baghdad University law graduate who hopes to work for one of the new government ministries but now takes whatever day labor he can get. Allawi, 16, and on summer break from high school, works part time at a supermarket and joins Alaa on day labor jobs.

For Allawi, who hopes to earn a university degree like his older brother and someday work for a foreign company, staying on top of his schoolwork has been a special challenge. When the power is out, family members gather in two groups in different parts of the house, around the two kerosene lanterns they own.

During the school year, Allawi studied by the dim lantern. “When someone has to go to the bathroom, they take one of the lanterns with them,” leaving the rest in the dark, he explains. With 15 family members, it happens often.

Sleeping Outside
1:30 a.m. The Qadrs go over sleeping options with their guest. It is an unusually cool night, so moving beds to the front yard looks like the best choice.

Sleeping outside can be dangerous, they say. In Baghdad, there is always the risk of falling bullets. Sleeping on the roof has long been a popular practice, but Allawi says he and his brothers no longer do it, fearing they will be mistaken for snipers and shot at by one of the many US helicopters that fly over their house at night.

Ammar Mohammed, a Baghdad native also visiting the house this night, says the Qadr brothers’ fear of being mistakenly shot by U.S. troops is exaggerated. But like the assertion commonly heard these days that the U.S. is deliberately withholding electricity, the truth seems less significant than the fact that many Baghdad residents believe it to be true.

Two consecutive “pop” sounds break the conversation. “Mortar,” Mohammed says dryly. The pops are the sounds of the mortar rounds launching. A few seconds later, they land with much louder explosions, reverberating off the wall around the garden.

Inside the house, the air feels 20 degrees hotter than in the yard. Electricity had returned briefly, from 10:30 to midnight, but not nearly long enough for the ceiling fans and evaporation cooler to tame the stifling heat. The water is not running. When the air moves, it carries the stench from the unflushed toilets.

Everyone sleeps outside.

2:00 a.m. The gunfire stops.

The air has cooled to the mid-70s, with a slight breeze, just enough to keep the mosquitoes away. Ali and Alaa have changed out of their white dishdasha robes into shirts and pants. Ali’s polo shirt says “Nike” on the front.

The brothers spend the moments before sleep talking about their passion, soccer. The power outages, which come at seemingly random intervals, can ruin simple pleasures that would ease the hardship. The worst of these minor indignities, they say, is having the power go out in the middle of a televised soccer game.

The soccer talk is followed by silence. The explosions are over. The US helicopters are no longer flying, giving everyone a clear view of the stars. It is rare to have such a cool night in June, Ali says: We must enjoy it. The relief will not last long.

5:30 a.m. The sun rises, awakening the men in the yard and the women and children, who slept on the roof. As conservative Muslims, the Qadrs’ six grown daughters keep their distance from their male house guests, seldom entering the same room.

Asked how the lack of electricity affects her, Fawzia Sulabi Khal, 50, Qadr’s wife, says she worries most about the effect of irregular sleep on Mohammed, her 1-year-old grandson. The boy seems lethargic, she says. Reem, her 8-year-old granddaughter, rocks Mohammed in her arms. A silent Mohammed stares drowsily at his family members and visitors.

“Yesterday, we didn’t have water to wash the dishes,” Khal says. “Now, we don’t have water again. I’m going to make rice and beans for lunch. If the power doesn’t come back, I’ll have to buy bottled water for cooking. It’s a miserable life.”

This year, the Qadrs bought a 30-gallon galvanized tank to store water, but often they do not get enough from the taps to fill it. Sometimes, Khal says, she gets water for housecleaning from a nearby drainage ditch.

Recalling a Raid
7:00 a.m. The heat inside the house is torrid again. Alaa and Allawi prepare to walk out to the neighborhood shops to see whether anyone will hire them for odd jobs. Allawi says the last time an American was in the house was during the war, when the family was raided at 3:30 in the morning. Six or seven soldiers came in through the front door.

None of the soldiers spoke Arabic. Allawi says the family was directed to the front yard, where the soldiers yelled “sit down” in English. They found nothing in the house but broke furniture during their search.

Recounting the raid, Allawi could also be summing up his family’s feelings about the occupation. As they squatted on the lawn that morning, Allawi says, his father and brothers were annoyed. They wondered whether the soldiers, who looked not much older than him and had come from so far away, knew what they were trying to accomplish by raiding their house. “They seemed more confused than us,” he says.

7:23 a.m. Another explosion goes off in the distance. Allawi and Alaa head out the front gate to look for work.

No one feels like talking much in the house. There is no television to break the monotony. The fans are motionless. Qadr and his guests sit silently for stretches of 15 or 20 minutes that seem much longer, staring at a battery-powered clock with a scene of Mecca painted on its face.

Glasses of cola are served. “I really don’t have any ill feelings about American people,” Qadr says. “I just don’t like American soldiers here in our country for so long. Do you think President Bush could accept living this way for more than a year?”

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