“It’s hell”: two years and no electricity in Europe’s largest slum | Spain

Jhe struggle to survive without electricity for two whole years has left its mark on the flesh and fabric of sector six of the Cañada Real. It’s there in the second-degree burns on the leg of the little boy who got too close to a gas heater, and in the dry, cracked hands of the woman who does the family’s laundry with a rock and a bar soap.

It’s there in the solar panels that have appeared on the roofs of the luckiest residents, and in the fires that burn in the cold, dark homes of the less fortunate. And it is present in the memory of the inhabitants of the largest slum in Europe, located half an hour’s drive from the center of Madrid.

Some remember swaddling their blue-faced babies against the cold of the Filomena storm or trying to get their children to school knowing they would be bullied because of the smell of their bodies and unwashed clothes.

Others remember nights spent awake and listening to the sirens of ambulances rushing towards people poisoned by their butane heaters.

Houda Akrikez, 36, is an intercultural mediator and founder and president of the Tabadol Association, a cultural organization that works for and with Moroccan women in the Cañada Real. His family has lived there since 1994. Photography: Pablo Garcia/The Guardian

Houda Akrikez’s strongest memory, however, is of a candle and a rally. Sixteen days after the lights went out on October 2, 2020 – energy supplier Naturgy says illegal, “intensive and irregular” use overloaded the system and triggered emergency shutdowns – Akrikez got up early to gather people for a protest march on the local offices of the Regional Government of Madrid.

She left her daughters to sleep at home under the care of her mother, who had lit a candle in the living room. But then Akrikez’s mother insisted on going with him because it was still dark outside.

“I managed to gather about 50 people for the walk and I was thrilled,” says Akrikez. “Then I heard my sister-in-law calling me. ‘To run!’ she said, ‘Run!’ I came back to find my whole house on fire with my children still asleep inside. The house was full of smoke, but they continued to sleep until they heard all the screams and screams from outside. I opened the door and there was only smoke and darkness.

As she rescued her terrified daughters, Akrikez wondered if her dedication to the campaign to restore power was spiraling out of control. “I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing? My girls are going to die and I’m still fighting this fight.'”

One of the alleys of sector 6 of the Cañada Real where the electric cables cross but without access to electricity.
One of the alleys of sector 6 of the Cañada Real where the electric cables cross but without access to electricity. Photography: Pablo Garcia/The Guardian

His neighbors suggested that he cancel the walk and go rest. Akrikez, a 36-year-old intercultural mediator whose family has lived since 1994 in the Cañada Real, divided into six sectors, refused.

“I said no. We’re not going to cancel it. We’re going there because my daughters almost died from a candle because they cut off the electricity to us. The march is moving on’. And it did.

Since then, Akrikez, who founded and leads the Tadol Association – an organization that campaigns for the rights of Moroccan women who live in the Cañada Real – has not stopped fighting.

The past two years have included the freezing cold of January 2021, when Filomena brought Madrid’s heaviest snow in 50 years and froze water pipes, and this summer, the hottest in Spain since 1961, when Sector Six’s water supply failed again.

Frustrated by the inaction of the five regional authorities who share responsibility for the informal settlement to varying degrees, Akrikez and her neighbors have adapted to survive.

“We have normalized something that is not normal; we have normalized life without electricity in these conditions,” she says. “When it all started, we thought it wouldn’t last long, that it would be resolved in a few months.”

Saray holds her two-month-old son, Angel, as they shield themselves from the cold and damp outside the house.
Saray holds her two-month-old son, Angel, as they shield themselves from the cold and damp outside the house. Photography: Pablo Garcia/The Guardian

Those who could bought petrol generators, which produced four hours of electricity for €5 (£4.40) worth of fuel, or invested in solar panels. Those who couldn’t burn wood and cardboard. And the 1,800 children who live in the neighborhood have adapted, learning to do their homework by torchlight, candlelight or in the family car.

During the pandemic, those trying to take classes online have come up the hill where mobile coverage is half-decent. Others stopped going to school because they couldn’t stand being harassed for their hygiene.

The suffering has not gone unnoticed inside or outside Spain.

In December 2020, a UN group of experts warned the Spanish government that the lack of electricity not only violated children’s right to adequate housing, but “also had a very serious effect on their health rights. , food, water, sanitation and education”. ”.

Ángel Gabilondo, the former socialist education minister who now serves as Spain’s public ombudsman, is equally blunt, describing what is happening in the Cañada Real as “an unsustainable humanitarian emergency”.

He does not deny the complexity of the issues, such as the long-planned relocation of many residents of Cañada Real.

“But while it’s all important, to be honest, I don’t think that’s the problem,” says Gabilondo. “I think when you have a dire need, what you need to deal with immediately is the [electricity] supply. When this is done, you can continue with the whole relocation process and check the inventory. I don’t think there is an excuse for this not to happen.

Gas cylinders are used for cooking inside the houses.  But since they are kept outside, the cylinders can freeze and fail.
Gas cylinders are used for cooking inside the houses. But since they are kept outside, the cylinders can freeze and fail. Photography: Pablo Garcia/The Guardian

There’s a note of exasperation in his voice as he contemplates winter and the sense of deja vu that comes with it. “The fact is that winter is coming and when it comes we will all bemoan the situation,” Gabilondo said. “But lamenting it and complaining about it is not enough.

“We need action. Let’s restore the electricity and then have the debates that people want. But it has to be in that order.

Madrid’s central government delegation says it is working with the regional government and relevant local authorities to find social housing for those wishing to leave the Cañada Real. He also says he speaks regularly with NGOs, local organizations – and Naturgy – “to try to meet the needs of Cañada residents while relocation takes place.”

The regional government has blamed the continued lack of electricity on illegal cannabis farms in the Cañada Real which it says are blocking electricity supplies.

Its environment and housing department – which estimates there are more than 3,000 unsafe and illegal power connections in the affected area – also says it is working to meet the needs of the population, adding: ” Anyone with a problem with electricity can solve it by consulting the municipal authorities. social services.”

Such remarks do not reassure Akrikez, who is fed up with the broken promises and the stigma attached to the Cañada Real because of the actions of the drug traffickers who trade along one of the six kilometers of its sector.

Why does she think the authorities have let down the predominantly North African and Gypsy populations who live in the Cañada Real?

“Because what interests them is this land and its value,” she says. “La Cañada Real is juicy ground when it comes to large urban projects. I would be furious if I left here only to find, a few years later, that it had been turned into a luxury development with huge houses. And there is also the fact that we are foreigners who do not belong to this society or Gypsies, who have always been rejected and stigmatised.

She has no intention of leaving the house that her father built, brick by brick, on the land he bought for the equivalent today of €20,000. Like many of her neighbours, she wants to stay and have the right to pay for her electricity supply and to have a contract like any other customer.

A five-minute walk from Akrikez’s house, with its solar panels and neat row of butane bottles, live some of his gypsy friends.

Yolanda and her extended family live in a small compound and subsist by collecting and selling cardboard from a dilapidated van. Their budget is limited to a puny generator that cannot meet the needs of the thirty or so people who depend on it.

Yolanda with baby Angel in her arms, near the fireplace with other family members
Yolanda with baby Angel in her arms, near the fireplace with other family members. Photography: Pablo Garcia/The Guardian

Even on a balmy day in late September, Yolanda’s house is cold. Two little boys warm themselves by the open fireplace in the corner while Yolanda’s two-month-old grandson dozes on a bed nearby.

In the next room, her 62-year-old stepfather is asleep on a mattress on the floor. Near him are the device and the sleep apnea mask which cannot be plugged in due to the lack of electricity.

“I just don’t know how to explain it,” says Yolanda, 39. “The baby was not vaccinated because he caught a cold. Children are sick because it is too hot or too cold. There is no light or hot water and all we have is a fireplace. They have to do something. We need light.

Yolanda’s mother-in-law, María, holds out her raw hands and points to the stone where she does the family’s laundry and the wasteful, useless generator.

“It’s hell,” she said. “And this is Spain.”

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