Iraqis wait, fuel jugs in hand, for promised services
A few days ago, I woke up at six in the morning and set out
to a local gas station to buy kerosene to keep my family warm in
the coming winter, an errand I thought wouldn’t take more than
an hour. How wrong I was.
When I arrived at the station, I saw a long line of people
snaking down the street. Men and women, young and old, all
toting plastic fuel jugs. Some people had their children in tow.
When I took my place at the end of the line, I learned that
one young man nearby had been in line since 4 a.m. I was
astonished that, despite the violence that still shakes Baghdad
daily, he had ventured out in the dark to queue up.
It was only six hours later that I began the journey home,
fuel sloshing inside my plastic jugs.
More than five years after the U.S.-led invasion that
promised democracy, prosperity and freedom, such daily trials
remind us Iraqis how far we have to go.
The U.S. and Iraqi governments have spent billions of
dollars on reconstructing Iraq’s decayed infrastructure, but
basic services are still out of reach for many Iraqis.
Most people get only a few hours of grid power each day and
must pay for private generation. Water supply in Baghdad still
falls far short of demand. Every day, nearly a billion litres of
raw sewage is dumped into Baghdad waterways — enough to fill
370 Olympic-sized pools.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced earlier this year
that 2008 would be the year of reconstruction and services for a
country whose infrastructure is in shambles after over five
years of war and decades of neglect under Saddam Hussein and
Iraqis shell out large shares of their salaries — those
that are lucky enough to have work — to buy black market power,
water and other services the government still does not provide.
The question is simple: when will this change?
Kerosene is an essential source of warmth for Iraqis during
the winter months, especially since electricity is so erratic.
Each Iraqi family has the right to buy 50 liters of
state-subsidised kerosene each month for around $14. Even for
smaller families that can get by with 50 litres, there are often
shortages and long lines.
Some people are forced to go to the black market, where
prices are as high as $90 for the same amount.
One white-bearded man in the line, near me, who had come
from across the city, said the fuel costs a fortune for him.
The scene outside the gas station was strangely like a
picnic. People brought food and water for the long wait. A
pedestrian vendor was selling cold drinks and candy.
Under Saddam Hussein, kerosene got a bigger subsidy and was
more readily available.
Today, even venturing to buy fuel these days is a risk. I
was nervous as I stood in line, keeping in mind that this
station had been the site of at least two recent explosions,
including one targeting people lining up for fuel. One bomb was
reportedly hidden inside a plastic fuel jug.
Many Iraqis have taken to the street to draw attention to
this epidemic. So far, that hasn’t made things change any more
quickly. Hope may be the only thing we can do for now.