People living in ‘smoke-filled hell’ in areas around Mosul recaptured from ISIS

Thousands of families are living in a “smoke-filled hell” with hardly any access to clean water or medical services after ISIS militants retreated from towns and villages on the way to Mosul, Oxfam said today. ISIS militants set 19 oil wells ablaze in the Qayarrah area, south of Mosul, as they were pushed northwards by Iraqi forces. The fires have produced clouds of thick black smoke and fumes across an area larger than cities such as Bangkok, Sao Paulo, Greater London or Mexico City. With several oil fields still under ISIS control around Mosul, and the potential for thousands of people to flee to the Qayarrah area, there is a risk that many more people could be affected.

The smoke blocks out the sun and turns children’s faces grey with oily soot. People living close to the burning oil say that the smoke burns their throat and lungs and that their babies have difficulty breathing. One doctor in Haiji Ali, close to Qayarrah, said many of her patients were suffering from bronchitis and that there was a shortage of medicine. 

A 67-year-old man told Oxfam staff that the burning oil wells were making residents sick. “We need someone to put out the fires. They have been burning for several months now,” he said.

The fires are just one of the challenges facing families who have stayed in or returned to towns and villages recaptured from ISIS. People who have lived through the trauma of two years under ISIS control are now facing shortages of clean water, food, medicine and fuel.

Andres Gonzalez, Oxfam’s country director in Iraq, said: “Even after ISIS has left, many of the people living amid its trail of destruction have told us that life remains unbearable. Burning oil wells continue to spew out toxic fumes that burn people’s throats and turn their communities into a smoke-filled hell. 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.”

Oxfam is calling on the Iraqi government to prioritise extinguishing the fires and to seek external support if necessary. They must also explain to communities what is being done and when they can expect this to happen. With six oil fields surrounding Mosul still under ISIS control, the government must plan for a potentially bigger crisis involving more than a million civilians in Mosul.

The doctor in Haiji Ali said that apart from bronchitis, the biggest problems facing patients were a shortage of medicine and gastritis from drinking polluted water.

Notes to editors

1. Photos showing burning oil wells near Qayarrah can be downloaded for media use here http://wordsandpictures.oxfam.org.uk/pages/search.php?search=%21collection31314&k=8e67b91da1#

2. The UN reports that 1,000 people have sought health assistance as a result of the toxic fumes in the Qayarrah area as of 26 October. It is likely that many more people are affected but have not sought medical help because a lack of health facilities and restrictions on their movements. In many of the communities where Oxfam is working and visiting, people say the smoke is their top concern.

3. The area covered by smoke is estimated in this satellite image from UNOSAT (UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme) where the red area indicates thick smoke coverage over a number of days. We use the distance between Qayarrah and Makhmur (27km / 17 miles) to estimate the area shaded red as 2,290 square km / 884 square miles. The area of Greater London is 1,572 square km / 607 square miles.

4. 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.

Contact information

For interviews - Ian Bray ibray@oxfam.org.uk | +44 (0)1865 472289 | +44 (0)7721 461339 

Attila Kulcsar | attila.kulcsar@oxfaminternational.org | +44 7471 142 974

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Read more about Oxfam's work in Iraq