Under toxic black skies, children play around oil fields set alight by Isis as they fled

For months, residents of the town of Qayyarah have lived under toxic black skies after oil wells were set ablaze by fleeing Islamic State (Isis/Daesh) fighters.

Two boys play in a street in front of a burning oil well in QayyarahChris McGrath/Getty Images
Girls are reflected in oil as they walk past oil wells that were set ablaze by fleeing Islamic State militants in QayyarahAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
Flames dance over crude oil spilled on the ground in QayyarahGoran Tomasevic/Reuters

The town is about 60 kilometres from Mosul and was run by extremists until August when Iraqi forces succeeded in retaking the town. As they retreated, they set fire to all of the wells in the area in an attempt to carry out their scorched-earth policy.

Children play in and around puddles of thick black crude oil gushing from the breached wells. Livestock with blackened coats struggle to find grazing material. Tiny droplets of oil constantly fall from the toxic clouds, leaving a sooty residue on clothing, houses, crops and livestock. "Look at our hands and faces. It is useless to wash our hands and faces. Because they turn black in such a short time. Many of us are coughing all the time," Ali, a local child, told an Associated Press correspondent.

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Children play in front of oilfields set alight by Islamic State fighters in QayyarahGoran Tomasevic/Reuters
A boy in front of black smoke from burning oil wells in QayyarahAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
Backdropped by clouds of toxic black smoke, a boy sits on a rock in front of oilfields set alight by Islamic State fighters as they fled QayyarahGoran Tomasevic/Reuters
Thick black oil burns after an oilfield was set alight by Isis in QayyarahGoran Tomasevic/Reuters
A boy eats food left over by oil workers in front of oilfields burned by Islamic State fighters in QayyaraGoran Tomasevic/Reuters
A boy with blackened hands holds food as oilfields burn in QayyarahGoran Tomasevic/Reuters
Children show their hands covered in a layer of grime from an oil facility that Islamic State torched in QayyaraAri Jalal/Reuters
Mothers and their children make their way home from school as oil wells burn in the background, in the town of QayyarahOdd Andersen/AFP
Blackened sheep graze as oil wells burn in the background, near the town of QayyarahOdd Andersen/AFP
A child pushes a sheep, with wool blackened by smoke and oil from burning oil wells in QayyarahChris McGrath/Getty Images
A man walks on a street covered with smoke after an oil facility was set ablaze in the Qayyarah areaYasin Akgul/AFP
A man takes a selfie in front of a fire after an oil well was set ablaze in the Qayyarah areaYasin Akgul/AFP

The UN has warned that the toxic smoke will have medium and long-term effects on the health and livelihood of residents, as well as the environment. A UN Environment Programme statement says the burning crude oil produces a wide range of pollutants, including soot and gases that cause health problems such as skin irritation and shortness of breath.

Oil workers and firefighters are extinguishing the blazes closest to the populated centre, but each fire can take days to put out. Since October they have capped at least seven or eight wells, with more than a dozen to go. Blackened bulldozers push dirt over the burning ground at several sites to try to smother the flames. With each push of the shovel, however, black crude flows in a new stream, making the task seem futile.

Workers without masks wrap their faces in scarves as protection from the smoke. The work is dangerous. On top of the fires and the potential for inhaling toxic smoke, the area is still being cleared of Isis booby traps and landmines. On Wednesday (23 November) the men prepared to cap another well, spraying water onto the fire. As they did so, an explosion rang out close to the well – a controlled detonation of an Islamic State IED by Iraqi forces.

Firefighters work to extinguish oil wells set ablaze by Islamic State militants before they fled the oil-producing region of QayyarahAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
An oil worker smokes a cigarette in front of burning oilfieldsGoran Tomasevic/Reuters
An oil worker in front of oilfields burned by Islamic State fighters in QayyarahGoran Tomasevic/Reuters
Firefighters work under black skies after an oil well was set ablaze by retreating Islamic State jihadists in the town of QayyarahOdd Andersen/AFP
Workers tasked with putting out the fire in an oil well assemble a water pipeline in the town of QayyarahOdd Andersen/AFP

The area's 54 wells once pumped nearly 10,000 barrels a day before the militants took the fields in their June 2014 onslaught. Isis has made hundreds of millions of dollars on the black market through the sale of oil from the fields it captured in Iraq and Syria when it took over swathes of both countries in 2014. However, it has suffered a near collapse in oil smuggling revenue since losing control of a series of oil fields in 2015 and 2016.

An oil-blackened Iraqi flag flies in front of burning oilfields in QayyarahGoran Tomasevic/Reuters
A fighter is reflected in a puddle of oil in QayyaraAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
A member of the Iraqi security forces looks at flames rising from oil wells set ablaze by Islamic State militants before they fled the oil-producing region of QayyarahAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters

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