Baghdad’s ‘generator men’ struggle to keep the lights on
BAGHDAD, Iraq – In a yard cluttered with junked cars, oil drums and columns of tires, Jassim Shelal was furiously trying to recharge the battery of his generator. It was no ordinary task. The lives of a few thousand Iraqis depended on his skill and, above all, his speed.”This is the only thing in Iraq that makes people calm now,” Shelal said as he pointed at the generator, a hulk of metal and wires under a corrugated tin roof.It was 3:15 p.m. The generator had broken down less than 30 seconds earlier. The cellphone in Shelal’s shirt pocket rang. “Ten minutes. It will start working in 10 minutes,” promised Shelal, tall and sinewy and wearing an oil-splattered shirt.The phone rang again. Another customer.”No, no. Just 10 minutes,” said Shelal, wiping the sweat from his face.There are thousands of generator men like Shelal, one on practically every block, perched near humming machines encased in security cages with steel padlocks. They are the capital’s umbilical cord, bringing power to hundreds of thousands of homes and shops in a city where many neighborhoods get as little as one hour of electricity each day.Despised yet indispensable, uneducated yet influential, Baghdad’s generator men are uniquely tailored to the chaos and vicissitudes of today’s Iraq. They light up the security systems. They power the computers and televisions that allow Iraqis to hear the latest news of their plight or to escape to other worlds. They run the refrigerators that keep food fresh in a place where even a trip to the market is risky.They are the punching bags for a frustrated society. Every day is a war of words with demanding customers, many of whom see the generator men as daily reminders of the inability of the Iraqi government and its American patrons to restore electricity to the capital.And on this sun-dappled day, customers were venting their anger at Shelal, who moonlights as a cobbler at a stall across the street to feed his family.In those 10 minutes, more than 30 customers complained. Customers strolled in seeking answers, adding pressure. But Shelal remained focused. A wrench in one hand, his phone in the other, he worked fast to replace the battery. When he finished, he smiled and walked into a tin shack where dozens of circuit breakers lined the wall. He flipped some switches. Electricity began to surge again through the tangle of multicolored wires that transported the power to scores of homes within a mile radius in the upscale Karrada neighborhood.The calls stopped.Afterward, when he had time to reflect, Shelal said: “When the line breaks down, it all falls on my head. They get so angry. Their eyes pop out of their skulls.”Two days earlier, he said, a customer had threatened to set fire to the generator. But his wife calmed him down, and he later apologized to Shelal. Most of his customers eventually apologize, he said.”This is the only generator in the area,” said Shelal, flashing a smile.Ahmed Maki, on this day, didn’t get angry. Maki, one of Shelal’s customers, pays 13,000 Iraqi dinars, slightly less than $9, for every ampere of electricity, up from 9,000 dinars two months ago because of the rising cost of fuel to power the generator. “There is no other option. Even if it became 20,000, I would pay,” said Maki. “If the generator men weren’t here, we would die out of sorrow.””When his price is increased, we hate him. … When the electricity is needed, we love him,” he continued. “The generator men are now the most powerful people, but they are not the most hated. The government is the most hated in Baghdad.”Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Baghdad mostly enjoyed round-the-clock electricity while the vast majority of the country had four to six hours a day. Now it’s the reverse. U.S. reconstruction dollars focused on building electricity plants outside Baghdad and funneling power to the capital as needed.But crumbling infrastructure, poor maintenance and the absence of security are conspiring to squeeze the flow of electricity. Saboteurs have blown up electrical lines that carry power to Baghdad. Repair crews face sniper attacks and death threats.So far this year, Baghdad has gotten less electricity than during any year since the invasion, according to data compiled by the Brookings Institution. In May, power levels dropped to an average 3.9 hours a day, the lowest recorded month since the invasion.Today, the city of 7 million people averages six hours of electricity per day, but many neighborhoods get far less.”Somebody is actively targeting the infrastructure. It could be insurgents, it could be criminals, it could be tribes,” said Maj. Gen. William McCoy of the Army Corps of Engineers, who was recently in charge of reconstruction efforts in Iraq. “They’re not causing anything except hurt to the Iraqi people.”In this volatile tableau, many generator men view themselves as saviors of sorts.”This is a humanitarian service before it’s financial or commercial,” insisted Yasser al-Azwan, who owned Shelal’s generator. “It is to help the people in this hard time.”Others, however, perceive generator men as profit seekers who thrive on their countrymen’s plight. In Baghdad’s Nahnaye neighborhood, shopkeeper Emad Jassin gets two hours of electricity a day. His store is filled with boxes of pickles, cheeses, milk and other perishable products. He depends on the generator man for his livelihood.But for months, the generator man he used often claimed there were shortages of fuel. He slashed his hours of service whenever he wanted, usually when soaring fuel costs pushed profits down, Jassin said. His customers paid a flat fee each month, and as a policy he offered no refunds.”Once the generator did not start up for four days, and he did not give us our money back,” said Jassin, his disgust etched on his face. “They are all dictators. They control us.”So three months ago, Jassin and some other shopkeepers helped bankroll their own generator man. Now, a generator the size of a small truck sits on a nearby corner. “Life is more calm now,” Jassin said. “This generator man is a friend.”In the ethnically mixed neighborhood of Mustanseriya, a group of men gathered around the charred remains of a car-sized generator, wearing oily clothes and baffled looks. Their silence spoke of the destruction the night before, when bombs were planted under three generators in a sandy lot flanked by oatmeal-colored homes. They were designed not to kill but to shatter the psyche of the neighborhood.Now, the block was without electricity. And nightfall, the men feared, would bring danger.Ahmed Graya, a haggard man with sloping shoulders, a sun-weathered face and tired dark eyes, broke the silence. “That’s a Christian house. There is a Kurd. There is a Shiite. And over there is a Sunni,” he said, pointing at house after house. “All are our brothers. So why did they do this?”Hussein Jumer, 55, who lived in a nearby house, said: “It’s terrorism. One day they target the people selling ice, another day it’s the barber. Every day they target someone. It is hate. They just want to create civil war. Now we’ll have to depend on the government for electricity until God provides a solution.”Graya gave him a blank look. He still could not comprehend why he was targeted. But his mind soon returned to his task. His customers agreed to provide guards this night to protect his generator. All he needed to do was get it to hum again.