Video Duration 25 minutes 00 seconds
From: Witness

Baghdad’s Generator Man

As Iraq’s national power grid struggles to provide electricity, a new form of entrepreneur has started to fill the gap.

Filmmakers: Rashed Radwan and Carmen Marques

More than a decade after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s national grid struggles to provide more than six hours of electricity a day – so a new form of entrepreneur has sprung up, the “generator man”.

For a price, he will fill the gap.

Hadi is a generator man who owns two generators but finds that being on call for hundreds of people, all desperate for power, means that his life is no longer his own.

Witness follows him as he wanders the backstreets of Baghdad to talk to some of his customers for whom power – or the lack of it – has become the most important fact in their day-to-day-lives.

Of the many ironies of post-conflict Iraq this is perhaps the starkest: how a country afloat on a sea of oil and in receipt of $5bn of US investment since 2003 cannot yet guarantee power for its people.

Editor’s note: This film was first broadcast on Al Jazeera English in 2012. 


By Rashed Radwan

They say the war in Iraq is over. But is it really?

George Bush declared it over when he was president and Barack Obama did the same. But ask ordinary Iraqis and they will tell you that a new war is just starting in a country where the most basic of infrastructure has been destroyed.

In the summer of 2010, I spent two months filming in Iraq.

It was during that summer that I first met Bakr, a 12-year-old boy from Sadr City; a child carrying the soul of an adult.

He told me about the death of his brother, a victim of an American apache, as though it was something that could not have been avoided; an almost inevitable part of his destiny as an Iraqi.

And, when asked about his dreams, Bakr revealed that he had just one: to have electricity so that he might have a fan to keep him cool in summer and a heater to keep him warm in winter.

It was an unusual conversation to have with a child. After all, aren’t their dreams usually filled with the more remarkable, with the less mundane?

In the comfort of my hotel, power outages were a problem only in the few minutes between the national grid going down and the lights coming back on – triggered by the huge and noisy generator behind the building.

But Bakr had opened my eyes to a problem I had not been aware of. I began to notice the tangled mess of wires hanging from buildings all over the city. And for the first time I understood why I had met so many people wearily climbing the stairs of Baghdad’s general hospital with their sick children in their arms, trying to reach a doctor on a higher floor: without electricity, elevators do not work.

When I spoke to doctors, they told me of patients who could not visit the hospital because they were too weak to reach the higher floors. In these tales, I thought I had found the starting point for this story – but I soon came to realise that doctors and patients are too afraid to talk about their daily struggles in these hellish conditions.

For the past nine years, two words have been at the forefront of Iraqi minds: kahraba (electricity) and amn (security).

Security has improved markedly, although only to the levels that many of those who proclaim this war over would consider murderously dangerous in their own countries.

But the single most crucial ingredient in the country’s reconstruction – electrical power – continues to lag far behind the country’s needs.

On Tuesday, June 22, 2004, 40 pallets of cash were loaded on to a truck that delivered the money to Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington DC. The money was then transferred to a C-130 transport plane. The next day, it arrived in Baghdad. That was the largest shipment of currency in one single day in the history of the NY Fed. But it was not the first shipment of money to Baghdad. For more than a year, $12bn taken from Iraqi oil revenues – in other words, belonging to the Iraqi people – was delivered for use in reconstruction. At least $9bn has gone missing.

Iraq is swimming in oil, which generates revenues of nearly $2bn a week, but Baghdad’s seven million people are reliant on private generators. And the private generator is a luxury most people cannot afford. Fuel prices are too high for many, and the poorest are literally living in the dark.

Those who are fortunate enough to have their own personal generator must either spend hours waiting in line to buy fuel or pay the steepest premiums on the black market.

The generator man – owner and operator of the neighbourhood power plant – is the solution for the vast majority of the Iraqi population. Iraq depends on the generator man to survive. They are the country’s umbilical cord, bringing power to hundreds of thousands of homes and shops.

I wish I could tell all of the stories hidden behind the headlines declaring to the world that the war in Iraq is over. I wish each of you could know the suffering and despair that has been left behind and how Iraqis must live huddled in dark houses, sleeping outside during the summer months because the heat inside is unbearable, afraid that they may be hit by a stray bullet from somewhere in their neighbourhood.

I have covered the war in Iraq since 2003, and if there is one thing that I can say for sure, it is that beyond the tragedy lies the triumph of the human spirit as ordinary people fight to preserve their dignity.

I wish I could tell all of their stories – the stories of the children dying from strange diseases never seen before the war or of the army of women awaiting the return of their missing husbands and sons. But Generator Man is a simple story about common people – people who will probably never find a place in the history books. These people are the real witnesses to the reality behind the headlines that the war is over.


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Published On 20 Jan 2016
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