Like any typical 15-year-old, Ahmed Jassim stays glued to his smartphone, watching music videos and playing games. In his family’s modest living room with dark concrete walls, the light from the phone’s screen illuminates his handsome but gaunt face.
But unlike his peers, Ahmed doesn’t go outside to play soccer or fly kites. Simple activities tire him out quickly because his heart is permanently damaged, the result of inhaling the smoke that blanketed this town of farmers and shepherds after Islamic State militants ignited nearby oil wells.
“He hates life. He just hates life,” his mother, Rehab Fayad, said wistfully. “It’s affected him not just physically, but psychologically.”
The militants detonated 25 oil wells in a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful effort to defend their terrain against Iraqi security forces in 2016 and wreck a prized national asset. For nine months, a thick, blinding cloud of smoke engulfed Qayyarah and the villages that surround it, turning people’s skin and sheep’s coats black from soot.
The Islamic State footprint on Iraq’s environment may be unprecedented and permanent, with a toxic legacy that includes wide-scale cattle deaths, fields that no longer yield edible crops and chronic breathing complications in children and the elderly, doctors and experts said.
Up to 2 million barrels of oil were lost — either burned or spilled — between June 2016 and March 2017, when firefighters put out the final blaze, according to a U.N. report citing Iraq’s Oil Ministry. Environmental experts worry that much of the oil has seeped into the groundwater and the nearby Tigris River — a lifeline for millions of Iraqis stretching more than 1,000 miles to Baghdad and beyond.
The militants also torched a sulfur plant north of Qayyarah, spewing 35,000 tons of the stinging substance into the air, the United Nations said. Reportedly containing one of the largest sulfur stockpiles in the world, the plant was set ablaze in part to help hold off Iraqi security forces, according to human rights and environmental experts.
Still unknown is the full extent of the impact. Studies into the long-term health effects have been halting, with Iraq’s government putting greater urgency on rebuilding, resettling displaced people and the clearing of explosives.
“The effect of what happened here will be felt for many years and decades, and the worst of it hasn’t even shown up yet,” said Abdelmeneim Tabbour, the head of Qayyarah’s health department. “The government has other priorities.”