December 2016

For more than two years, Islamic State militants occupied the oil-rich town of Qayyarah in northern Iraq. In August 2016, Iraqi forces liberated the town, forcing the terror group to retreat. Before they left, IS fighters torched several oil wells in the nearby oil field as well as a sulfur plant, leaving behind a legacy of prolonged health problems and environmental crises.

Oil has long been at the centre of global conflicts, fuelling violence and instability as foreign powers fight for control over the prized resource. For Islamic State, oil provided a substantial source of income. Qayyarah was therefore an important strategic town and its recapture by Iraqi forces was a significant gain in their advance towards Mosul, the last IS stronghold in Iraq.

Before they retreated in August, IS militants used explosives to ignite nineteen oil wells on the town’s outskirts, initially believed to be a defensive measure, hoping the smoke would conceal their positions and thwart coalition airstrikes. As the group began losing ground to US backed Iraqi forces, they adopted a scorched earth strategy in a last-ditch attempt to destroy as many oil wells as possible.

Located 60km south of Mosul, the Iraqi town of Qayyarah quickly became blanketed by a vast, pervasive darkness, giving the area an apocalyptic feel. Huge plumes of smoke and toxic gases spewed out of the flaming oil wells, blocking out the sun and poisoning the atmosphere. The billowing smoke was so thick that it was visible from the International Space Station.

Residents of Qayyarah lived for many months under a dark shadow cast by the destructive smoke. Some days the midday sky was the colour of dusk and the streets were filled with the polluting smoke that discoloured buildings, vegetation, animals and even children. Flocks of sheep could be seen grazing on the outskirts of the oil fields, their wool blackened by the soot. The suffocating smog forced over 200 families to flee their homes within hours of the wells being torched. By the beginning of November, over 1,500 people were seriously ill as a result of inhaling the gas. Months later, many of the town’s inhabitants suffered from severe breathing problems.

Several months after the wells were torched, fire crews were still battling the flames. The operation to extinguish such fires is a difficult, dangerous and time-consuming task. Teams of firefighters, machine operators, mechanics, engineers and oil experts came from across the country to join the effort. Despite the success of their efforts to extinguish the fires, the poisonous gases are a lasting and devastating weapon against the civilian population and the environment.

The town’s population of roughly 15,000 residents may have survived the brutal control of IS, but many now fear the toxic fumes might kill them.