ISIS militants set wells on fire hoping to obscure the view of Iraqi and coalition warplanes
In one family's nearby house, everything is covered in soot: the walls, the floor and the furniture
“We cover the children at night when they sleep,” said Khalil. His hands were stained black, the air in the entrance to his house thick with smoke.
Khalil, his wife and five children live but a minute’s walk from a blazing oil well, one of more than a dozen ISIS has set alight in recent months.
His two-year-old son Obaida watched us warily. His bare feet were black, his face grimy with soot.
“We close all the windows and the doors to keep the smoke out,” Khalil said, shrugging, adding “that’s all we can do.”
Khalil insisted his children are fine, but their gray pallor suggested otherwise.
As we spoke, Khalil offered us water. “No thank you,” I said, my throat parched with thirst and rough from the smoke. “I drank in the car.” He offered tea, which I also declined. Everything in the house, the walls, the floor, the furniture, was stained by soot. The whole place felt toxic. As much as possible I tried to breathe through my nose.
Khalil, an oil field guard, moved back with his family to their home in Al-Qayyara a week before.
ISIS militants had set the wells on fire hoping to obscure the view of Iraqi and coalition warplanes, but it didn’t stop Iraqi forces from driving them out of town in late August. Technicians from the provincial oil company were able to put some of the fires out, but not the one near Khalil’s house. Every time they tried, ISIS fighters lobbed mortar rounds their way.
Thirty-year oil industry veteran engineer Hussain Salim has the formidable task of putting out the fires, and explained to me in great technical detail how it’s done. It only takes a quick glance at the black smoke on the horizon to understand the scale of the work at hand. “It took 30 days, a month, to put out one fire,” he said.
They’ve managed to put out six fires so far, but they have nine to go. The engineers estimate 5,000 barrels of oil are burning here every day. Earlier this week ISIS militants sabotaged another well.
Outside the mayor’s office, more than a dozen men wait for security clearances to allow them to travel outside Al-Qayyara. Many stayed in town during ISIS rule, and as a result require security clearance to leave. Their main complaint was not the bureaucracy, but rather the smoke from the oil fires.
“It’s like poison,” one man said. “You feel sick all the time, it gets in your nose, your lungs, on your skin, everywhere.”
Away from the men, a woman with two children was waiting for her husband. “The children are constantly coughing,” she said, “and we don’t have any soap to wash them.”
Inside, Mayor Salih Al-Jabouri was busy signing travel passes. He, too, worries about the long-term effects of the smoke, and the lack of medical facilities to treat people. The town’s four-storey hospital, now padlocked, stands next to the burning well near Khalil’s house. A makeshift clinic is open for a few hours in the morning.
“The fires are causing mental and breathing problems,” he told me, “especially to those who have asthma and allergies. Those who aren’t sick now,” he warned, “will become sick.”
Despite all this, life is returning to Al-Qayyara. Vegetable stalls are up and running, as well as stores for mobile phones, a gadget banned under ISIS rule. But also here, the topic of conversation quickly turns to the pall of black smoke hovering over town.
“It’s a second Daesh,” said vegetable vender Shaalan, using an Arabic term for ISIS. “It’s cancer.”