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Oil wells set on fire by ISIS leave thousands of Iraqi families suffering beneath skies of black smoke

Some children have suffered burns playing near the burning oil set on fire by ISIS militants in Iraq. Photo by Benedetta Argentieri/Oxfam

This ‘smoke-filled hell’ is just one of the challenges people are enduring in the wake of two years of ISIS control. They also face shortages of clean water, food, medicine, and fuel.

In a possible attempt to hide their movements, members of ISIS have set fire to 19 oil wells in the Qayarrah area south of Mosul, where Iraqi-led security forces have begun an offensive to retake the country’s second most populous city from the militants.

For thousands of families nearby, the fires have brought new waves of misery: Billowing clouds of smoke, sometimes dense enough to block the sun completely, have left everything—people included—coated in black, oily soot.

People living near the fires report that the smoke burns their throats and lungs, making it difficult for them to breath. Babies and children are struggling particularly. People are also reporting headaches, skin rashes, and chest pains. Making matters worse is a lack of health facilities.

The fires started in August when ISIS, retreating from the town of Qayarrah, about 80 kilometers from Mosul, rigged 15 well heads with explosives and then set them ablaze by shooting at them from nearby buildings. Families watched as the wells exploded, spewing oil into the air and splashing it onto their homes. Locals estimate that the fires burned as many as 60 homes, while many more were left uninhabitable because of the oil bubbling in and around them.


With six oil fields surrounding Mosul still under ISIS control, there could be potentially an even bigger crisis involving more than a million civilians in the city, warns Oxfam.

“Burning oil wells continue to spew out toxic fumes that burn people’s throats and turn their communities into a smoke-filled hell,” said Andres Gonzalez, Oxfam’s country director in Iraq. “The Iraqi government needs to tell citizens what is being done to put out these fires and to avoid a potentially bigger crisis in Mosul.”

Extinguishing the fires is a complex and costly operation made more complicated by the likelihood of explosive devices placed around the oil wells. Efforts by local residents and fire crews to put the blazes out have been largely unsuccessful as well as dangerous to those making the attempts.

Oxfam is calling on the Iraqi government to prioritize extinguishing the fires and, if necessary, to seek support from other countries. The government also needs to explain to communities what is being done about the fires and when they can expect to see them put out.

“Even after ISIS has left, many of the people living amid its trail of destruction have told us that life remains unbearable,” said Gonzalez, as skies black with smoke underscore his point. But the fires are just one of the challenges facing families who have stayed in their communities or returned to towns and villages recaptured from ISIS. People who have lived through the trauma of two years of ISIS control are now facing shortages of clean water, food, medicine, and fuel.

Oxfam is providing clean water to families around Qayarrah and supporting water pumping stations to treat the dirty river water that some people have resorted to drinking. We are preparing to scale up our response in camps and communities south and east of Mosul as civilians start leaving the city in greater numbers. We are also providing blankets, food, and other vital aid.

Millions of refugeesmany of them childrenare seeking security in the Middle East and beyond. Oxfam is helping people get the essential supplies they need and working to provide clean water and sanitation to protect public health.

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