At the precise moment when ISIS fighters were prepping for their retreat from the Iraqi city of Ramadi in February 2016, Hassan Mohammed lay in bed struggling to breathe.
For nine months, through the jihadist occupation of his hometown, the young engineering student had huffed and wheezed from morning to night. And for nine months, Mohammed, an asthmatic, had just about sustained himself with inhalers and a self-imposed house arrest. “I couldn’t go outside,” he said. “Pollution had always been bad because of the factories, the farm sprays, the desert dust. The fighting made everything much worse.”
But now, as the occupiers set about concealing their withdrawal from circling jets, Mohammed was convinced he was going to die. First, ISIS fighters lined the streets with burning tires, and then they blew up strategic installations across the city, including a pesticides plant. As the acrid smoke and plumes of dust seeped through the window cracks into Mohammed’s room, no manner of medication or precautions could keep the billowing filth at bay. “It’s a terrifying feeling when your lungs don’t work,” he said. “I still feel it. It doesn’t go away.”