“Here people choose whether to die of cold or butane poisoning. Energy is a luxury”
Houda Akrikez, founder and president of the women’s association Tabadol, tells us about the experience and struggle of Cañada Real, a district in Madrid where 4,000 people, including 1,812 children, have been left without access to energy for more than a year.
Madrid lights up for the festivities, 11 million lights (costing €3,6 milion) decorating the centre and the most prestigious streets. It’s a pity that just twenty minutes from the symbolic Puerta del Sol, there are 4,000 people, including 1812 children, who have been living without electricity for more than a year.
Since October 2nd, 2020, 434 days have passed. 434 days with no light or heating for thousands of people . What does this mean? How do you survive?
Houda Akrikez, founder and president of the women’s association Tabadol of the Cañada Real, recites a long list : “You can start from the smallest thing: pushing the light switch is an automatic, daily gesture, only when you push it and nothing happens, you realise how important it is. Without light you are in darkness, deep darkness, you have no orientation. But above all, it means that you are in your home and you wear two paris of pyjamas, a coat, a blanket, and despite all this it is impossible to get warm. It means choosing between dying of cold or dying of butane poisoning. It means going into the kitchen because you want to cook something, but the fridge is empty because it became just an ornament, there’s no electricity so you can’t store any food. It means being in the trenches every day, listening to ambulance sirens. I swear, we heard up to five ambulance sirens a day running to get our neighbours poisoned by butane gas ”.
“The most brutal thing” – Houda continues with a powerful and disarming tone – “is that you see people, children, with special needs who need to be connected to the electricity grid to survive, and they simply can’t. Children that need to leave their home and families and go to hospitals, because their health is getting worse and worse. Grandparents who have left their homes for a residence, because they needed oxygen, and as there is no electricity, they can’t ask for this privilege. Yes, nowadays in Cañada Real, electricity is a priviledge, a luxury”.
La Cañada Real is a district of Madrid, a long straight strip of 16 kilometres that over the years has been filled with buildings, families and lives. The first people arrived in the 1970s, migrants coming from other regions of the Spanish state, and then from all over the world. Now 52 nationalities are represented in the neighbourhood. Houda Akrikez has lived at Cañada Real since 1996: “I remember very well when we arrived here, I was nine years old. There was a lady, called ‘the president of the neighbourhood’, and she was the one who sold or gave the land. My father bought some and I remember very well that while he was building our home, the police was passing in the driveway and nobody had anything to say about it. I would like to point out tha la Cañada is a real neighbourhood, the houses are property, we have been recognised because we have been registered here”.
In 2017, interested town councils, representatives of the Assembly of Madrid, and the Community of Madrid signed an agreement, the regional pact for Cañada Real, to define the situation of the people living in this neighbourhood divided into six sectors. The agreement maintains the first three sectors, is unclear on the future of the fourth and fifth ones. The sixth sector – where Akrikez lives – will instead have to be dismantled, with the people living there to be relocated . There are more than 700 families in sector six, so far only 130 have been rehoused. “The pact” – explains Akrikez – “includes the guarantee of electricity supply until all are relocated, it also includes the right to education, health, decent housing, like any other citizen of Madrid. But these rights exist only on paper”.
What are your demands?
Electricity now. It is as simple as that. We have always been denied access to a legal electricity supply. Our only ask is to have the possibility to pay for our electricity. Last year, during the Filomena blizzard, we lived in a white Sahara, but instead of being very hot, it was very, very cold. No solution was found in this emergency either. The only proposal that came from the President of the Madrid community, Isabel Ayuso, was to leave our homes and go stay in a former furniture factory, where 90 beds were waiting for us. We are more than 700 families. When we protested and asked for access to electricity for our homes, the president mocked us, she said that we were not doing so badly, that we didn’t want to leave our shacks. This is howshe called our homes: shacks.
After more than a year, after being treated this way, how do you turn pain and frustration into strength to fight ? How do you avoid tunring these feelings into blind rage?
We are women. We fight until the last breath so that our families and our communities have the best conditions. The strength that we get from each one of us is essential, if I fall down I have by my side two, three, six, or even twenty other women who tell me ‘No, get up, we have to continue and demonstrate that our struggle is dignified, peaceful and it’s a women’s struggle’.
In which way?
Apart from fighting for the right to access electricity, we are also fighting against machismo and fascist attacks. We’ve been rejected many times just for being women, for wearing veils, for being from other countries. During our demonstrations, the police themselves have told us many times “and where are your men?”. We are in the 21st century and we are fighting for an egalitarian, just, society. I think that all this enables us to continue saying ‘well, we are here and we are making noise’, a noise that is being heard all over the world. And now there is a civic platform where civil society actors have joined us to put an end to the violations of our rights.
What can people in Europe do to support your struggle?
We have been fighting for more than a year and we are without resources. We fight, but we don’t have much. We are now trying to find some way by which we can have some funds to continue mobilising, because this requires time and effort, most of us are unemployed and this is costing us more and more. (For those who want to get in contact with Tabadol association, please do so through their Twitter account or email) We just are a small association of women who believe that we have to raise our voice to be heard and so that we can put an end ot the violations of rights we are suffering