QAYARAH - At noon, the sky is so dark with smoke that cars drive down Qayarah’s main road with their headlights on. People walk with their heads down, masks or scraps of cloth clamped over their mouths to filter the sulfur fumes. The town is free from the Islamic State (IS) militant group, but it can barely breathe.
A choking fog of oil soot and sulfur is only one aspect of the damaging legacy IS has left after its two-year occupation of Qayarah, 60 kilometers south of Mosul. Residents also suffered daily brutality - witnessing public executions, fearing capricious arrest, worrying about friends and family, and grieving those who fell victim.
"IS was the most brutal regime imaginable," said Salih Hassan Jibouri, the mayor of Qayarah. "The abductions, the killing, the explosions, and war - it will take a long time for people to go back to normal.”
In late June, as the Iraqi Army closed in on the town, IS militants started setting oil wells on fire. They had once used Qayarah's nearby oil fields and refinery as a source of fuel and revenue, but facing imminent defeat, they resorted to scorched-earth tactics.
Months after the town was liberated, despite efforts to quell the infernos, around a dozen oil well fires still belch flaming crude and billow acrid black smoke into the sky, covering everything in soot, and choking civilians trying to piece their lives together.
"It’s a catastrophe," Jibouri said. "It's like the oil fires are doing what Daesh did to us - keeping us in our homes, covering us in blackness. It comes down, but it never comes off."
The liberation of Qayarah was a milestone in the campaign to drive IS out of Iraq. Qayarah and the sprawling Q-West airbase 10 kilometers to the west serve as a key staging point for thousands of Iraqi forces pushing north toward Mosul.
But Qayarah is also a vivid example of the damage IS can leave in their wake, and how hard it will be to repair what they have wrought on an already beleaguered country.
Oil and sulfur
The shroud of oil covering Qayarah is so large that it is visible from space.
Last Thursday, the pollution got even worse, as IS militants torched massive piles of sulfur at the Mishraq chemical plant 20 kilometers to the north.
The sulfur hangs low in the air and turns to acid as it meets with moisture, burning people’s lungs and eyes. Sheep in the town are stained black. The color of the sky depends on the direction of the wind: on a bad day, a dark pall blots out the sun.
Seasonal rain, expected in a week or two, will make the situation worse because the sulfur will infuse the precipitation, turning it into acid - unless emergency crews working at Qayarah and Mishraq can quell the fires first.
In Sabka, a hardscrabble neighborhood in the north of the town, a column of acrid smoke rises above a hissing oil fire from one of the wells. It's not just the crude that burns; as fumes leak from the wellhead and ignite, they create a blazing wall of flame.
Hundreds of children live within a hundred yards of the fires. On Wednesday, a gaggle of boys passed the time by hurling rocks into pools of goopy crude meters from the blaze. Their skin is coated in a black residue. The sulfurous smoke condenses into acid inside their lungs.
Many families are trapped in Qayarah, unable to pass security checkpoints into the Kurdistan region, and without the money to move elsewhere.
"I’ve been inhaling the horrendous sulfur in the air for months, its worse than smoking," said Raqal, a middle-aged woman leading her children through the town’s dilapidated market who declined to give her full name. "We want the oil wells extinguished. We all suffer because of it."
Farid al-Jadir, the director general of Iraq's state-run North Oil Company (NOC), said that two fire-fighting teams, each composed of about 150 people, have been deployed to Qayarah. But their work is going slowly, partly because of the complexity of the task, and partly because many fires are in areas outside of town that have not been secured.
"When we ask [security forces], 'Please, we want to go investigate the wells that are on fire, blasted by the ISIS terrorists,' they say, 'Okay, wait a couple of days,'" Jadir said, explaining that security forces are stretched too thin.
The two teams are currently working on two wells close to town, he said – wells 42 and 39.
"Oil well firefighting is first well control and then firefighting," Jadir said. "It needs a lot of engineers, technicians, workers, laborers, truck drivers, heavy equipment. We have all of this installed."
The early progress is difficult for a lay person to recognize. Jadir compared it to "a drilling rig without a mast": just as an oil site needs lots of preparation before erecting the iconic tower that does the actual drilling, fire-fighting crews have to lay the technical groundwork before extinguishing a wellhead fire.
Qayarah's small hospital is crowded with patients and short on supplies. Dozens of people are admitted every day, some having to be carried in, barely conscious.
“I feel like my chest is trying to escape my body,” a 60-year-old man said, laid out on a rudimentary gurney. “It burns my chest and my eyes, and it’s been getting worse and worse for a month.”
It’s mainly young and old people who die from the fumes, according to a nurse who works there. She estimated that 10 people have died from inhaling fumes since the Mishraq sulfur plant to the north was torched. With the clinic out of oxygen, all the staff can do is provide basic first aid and administer glucose drips.
Down the hall, a six year-old boy squirmed and cried in his father’s lap as a medic fiddled to insert a cannula into his hand.
"His lungs are on fire," his father said.
The hospital, like the rest of the town, gets no power from the electrical grid. In retreat last week, IS militants smashed several power pylons to the northwest, disconnecting Qayarah's power supply. A power station in the town sits idle because it needs diesel fuel, and the town’s refinery has been destroyed.
Generator power is weak and the lights flicker off and on.
Hospital staff do not even have access to running water to help clean patients. An airstrike destroyed the town’s main water plant, because IS had used it as a headquarters. And because the power is out, there has been no way for much of the town to pump up ground water for the previous five days.
Everyone is coated in a tarry film that doesn’t wash off easily even with water to hand.
Scarred by IS
In a cemetery north of the town on Thursday afternoon, a few families sat in mourning in a graveyard. The headstones had all been smashed by IS members, and were covered in a film of soot.
Residents are struggling to come to terms with the fact that so many of their neighbors worked with IS when they invaded in June 2014, even if few of them were full-fledged believers in the group's extreme ideology.
Sadullah, a 60-year-old Qayarah resident, said IS militants depended heavily on local residents to govern. He estimated that four out of five IS members in the town were local residents, with only a handful of foreign fighters supervising them.
Collaborators helped to plunder oil, run local security, and inform on other residents accused of spying. Some committed public executions of their neighbors and relatives. Sadullah said he saw around 40 men killed in the street for being suspected spies.
Others tried to fight back.
"There was a small group of resistance inside Qayarah when the town was under Daesh. They perpetrated some attacks but they lacked resources," said one woman, who did not want to be named for security reasons.
As the Iraqi Army closed in on the town, several dozen young men took up arms against IS holdouts, speeding its liberation and protecting homes from destruction, according to multiple residents.
“Many people of Qayarah joined Daesh when they overtook Qayarah. Those who collaborated fled north of the town when they were defeated,” and others were found and shot, Raqal said.
There’s evidence everywhere of the IS occupation and war, from the acne scarring of bullet holes on ransacked buildings, to the demolished local football stadium, now a heap of cinderblock and rebar.
“They said football is haram, so they blew it up,” a boy outside the ruin said.
Hope and anxiety
A woman named Obaiya, walking with her four children through the main market, said she had just met her brother for the first time in two years. Having managed to escape the town, and had just returned.
Jibouri, the mayor, says that 20,000 people are back, close to the pre-IS population. Residential neighborhoods are largely intact, with only a few collapsed by airstrikes, though many were burned out or ransacked by IS.
Every day, more families make the trip from displacement camps on the other side of the Tigris River, with all their worldly goods crammed into small pickup trucks that lurch home across dirt roads.
But amidst the apocalyptic smoke, fire, and remnants of war, it's an uneasy, surreal peace.
As they pass through checkpoints around town, the overwhelmingly Sunni residents of Qayarah see military vehicles flying flags with images of Hussein ibn Ali, a venerated figure in Shia Islam. Other military vehicles fly the flag of the Abbas Brigade, a Shia militia operating in the government's al-Hashid al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization) program.
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shia religious authority in Iraq, has advocated forcefully for the protection of Sunni civilians. Yet the religious iconography also causes anxiety among residents who worry about how they will be treated in post-IS Iraq, particularly by a sub-set of militias that look to Iranian authorities, rather than Sistani, for guidance.
Across from the main police station in Qayarah stands a billboard-sized portrait of Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the powerful Iran-linked Badr Organization militia.
For many residents of Qayarah, IS still represents a threat to their families. IS militants still control villages to the north, and some people said their relatives are being executed dozens at a time as IS retreats toward Mosul. Others are being made to trudge alongside retreating IS militants, acting as human shields.
Still, on Wednesday, stoic residents strode around the main market, where shops are reopening. Technicolor fruit stalls punctuated the smoke-darkened gloom. A sliced chicken sandwich, Iraq’s ubiquitous street food, tastes about as good in Qayarah as anywhere in Iraq.
The government quickly started to distribute subsidized fuels to residents, so those who can afford it can run diesel generators and their cars again. Pickup trucks deliver loads of new plate glass and stock for shops. From the town's main garage, taxi and minibus drivers headed to Baghdad, Tikrit, and Kirkuk holler for fares.
Patrick Osgood and Rawaz Tahir reported from Qayarah. Ben Lando reported from Baghdad.
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