The 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 is 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 washing with a stone and a bar of soap.
It is there in the solar panels that have appeared on the roofs of the luckier residents, and in the fires that burn in the cold, dark homes of the less fortunate. And it is there in the memories of the people of Europe’s largest shantytown, which lies half an hour’s drive from the centre of Madrid.
Some remember swaddling their blue-faced babies against the cold of Storm Filomena, or trying to coax their children to school knowing they would be bullied because of the smell of their unwashed bodies and clothes.
Others remember the nights spent awake and listening to the sirens of the ambulances rushing towards people who had been poisoned by their butane heaters.
Houda Akrikez’s strongest memory, though, is of a candle and a rally. Sixteen days after the lights went out on 2 October 2020 – the energy provider Naturgy says illegal, “intensive and irregular use” overloaded the system and triggered emergency shutdowns – Akrikez rose early to round people up for a protest march on the local offices of the Madrid regional government.
She left her daughters sleeping at home in the care of her mother, who had lit a candle in the living room. But then Akrikez’s mother insisted on accompanying her as it was still dark outside.
“I managed to get about 50 people together for the march and I was delighted,” says Akrikez. “Then I heard my sister-in-law calling out for me. ‘Run!’ she said, ‘Run!’ I got back to find my whole house on fire with my kids still asleep inside. The house was full of smoke, but they carried on sleeping until they heard all the shouting and screaming from outside. I opened the door and there was nothing but smoke and darkness.”
As she rescued her terrified daughters, Akrikez asked herself whether her devotion to the campaign to get the power back on was getting out of hand. “I said to myself, ‘What the fuck am I doing? My daughters are going to die and I’m still fighting this fight.’”
Her neighbours suggested she call off the march and go and rest. Akrikez, a 36-year-old intercultural mediator whose family have lived in the Cañada Real, which is divided into six sectors, since 1994, refused.
“I said, ‘No. We’re not going to cancel it. We’re going over there because my daughters almost died because of a candle because they cut off our power. The march is going ahead’. And it did.”
Since then, Akrikez, who founded and leads the Tabadol Association – an organisation that campaigns for the rights of the Moroccan women who live in the Cañada Real – has not stopped fighting.
The past two years have included the bitter cold of January 2021, when Filomena brought Madrid’s heaviest snow in 50 years and froze water pipes, and this summer, Spain’s hottest since 1961, when water supplies to sector six once again failed.
Frustrated by the lack of action from the five regional authorities that share varying degrees of responsibility for the informal settlement, Akrikez and her neighbours have adapted to survive.
“We’ve normalised something that isn’t normal; we’ve normalised living without power in these conditions,” she says. “When it all began, we thought it wouldn’t last long, that it would be sorted in a few months.”
Those who could bought petrol generators, which yielded four hours of electricity for €5 (£4.40) of fuel, or invested in solar panels. Those who could not burned wood and cardboard. And the 1,800 children who live in the area adapted, learning to do their homework by torchlight or candlelight or in the family car.
During the pandemic, those trying to keep up with online classes hiked up the hill where the mobile coverage is half-decent. Others stopped going to school because they could no longer endure being bullied about their hygiene.
The sufferings have not gone unnoticed inside or outside Spain.
In December 2020, a group of UN experts warned the Spanish government that the lack of electricity not only violated the children’s right to adequate housing, it was aslo “having a very serious effect on their rights to health, 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 situation”.
He does not deny the complexity of the issues involved, such as the long-planned rehousing of many Cañada Real residents.
“But while all that’s important, to be honest I don’t think that’s the problem,” says Gabilondo. “I think when you have a situation of extreme necessity, what you need to sort out immediately is the [electricity] supply. When that’s been done, you can carry on with the whole rehousing process and with checking the planning situation. I don’t think there’s any excuse for that not to happen.”
There is a note of exasperation in his voice as he looks ahead to winter and the attendant sense of deja vu. “The thing is that winter’s coming and when it does, all of us will bemoan the situation,” said Gabilondo. “But bemoaning it and commiserating about it isn’t enough.
“We need action. Let’s get the electricity back on and then let’s have whatever debates people want. But it has to be in that order.”
The central government’s Madrid delegation says it is working with the regional government and the relevant local authorities to find social housing for those who want to leave the Cañada Real. It also says it speaks regularly with NGOs, local organisations – and Naturgy – “to try to alleviate the needs of Cañada residents while the rehousing takes place”.
The regional government has blamed the continuing lack of power on illegal cannabis farms in the Cañada Real that, it says, crash the electricity supplies.
Its environment and housing department – which estimates there are more than 3,000 dangerous, illegal power connections in the affected area – also says it is working to meet people’s needs, adding: “Anyone with a problem because of the electricity can resolve it by consulting municipal social services.”
Such words do not reassure Akrikez, who is sick of broken promises and of the stigma attached to the Cañada Real because of the actions of the drug dealers who conduct their trade along one of her sector’s six kilometres.
Why does she think the authorities have failed the predominantly north African and Gypsy people who live in the Cañada Real?
“Because what they care about is this land and its value,” she says. “The Cañada Real is a juicy piece of land when it comes to big urban projects. I would be furious if I left here only to find, a few years later, that it’s been turned into a luxury development with huge houses. And there’s also the fact that we’re foreigners that don’t belong in this society or Gypsies, who’ve always been rejected and stigmatised.”
She has no intention of leaving the house that her father built, brick by brick, on the plot he bought for the equivalent today of €20,000. Like many of her neighbours, she wants to stay and to be allowed to pay for her electricity supply and to have a contract like any other customer.
Five minutes’ walk from Akrikez’s house, with its solar panels and neat row of butane cylinders, live some of her Gypsy friends.
Yolanda and her extended family live in a small compound and subsist by collecting and selling cardboard from a dilapidated transit van. Their budget runs to a puny generator that cannot possibly meet the needs of the 30 or so people who depend on it.
Even on a mild, late September day, 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 father-in-law lies asleep on a mattress on the floor. Close to him is the sleep apnoea machine and mask that cannot be plugged in because of the lack of power.
“I just don’t know how to explain it,” says Yolanda, 39. “The baby hasn’t been vaccinated because he’d caught a cold. The kids are ill because it’s either too hot or too cold. There’s no light and no hot water and all we have is a fireplace. They need 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 washing and to the put-upon, useless generator.
“This is hell,” she says. “And this is Spain.”