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​Returning Home: Life Beside the Burning Oil Fields

As ISIS has been pushed out of large areas of Iraq people have begun returning home to rebuild their lives and reclaim their communities.

A multi-part editorial series exploring the Untold Stories of Hope from Iraq, presented by Oxfam.

Paid Partner Content – this content was paid for by Oxfam and was created in collaboration with VICE creative services, independently from the VICE editorial staff

You might think you know what is happening in Iraq, but the picture on the ground tells a different story. We have teamed up with Oxfam to tell the untold stories of hope behind the headlines. As ISIS has been pushed out of large areas of Iraq people have begun returning home to rebuild their lives and reclaim their communities.

Wise and generous, Kareem Ibrahim was the elder of Owsijah village, the one who calmed rowdy children or offered tea when visitors came.

After Islamic State (IS) militants captured the area in 2014, Ibrahim's family were trapped in their small mud house. This became their only refuge from engaging with the militants and becoming directly involved in the conflict.

"We had no food, no water, we couldn't leave," he said in October, shortly after the area was retaken. "It's over two years that we lived like that."

(All photos by Joey L)

Tragedy had aged the 55-year-old prematurely. His daughter-in-law was killed in an air strike, leaving his grandchild an orphan. Ibrahim cared for her, watchfully, even as IS retreated, setting fire to the nearby oil fields as their final act.

Ibrahim worried that Daesh (IS) - with their extremist skewing of religion - were making westerners hate Islam. IS say they're Muslims "but they're not because they kill people," he said, appealing for understanding.

"We're taught that if you take one life it's like killing all of humanity."

In October Ibrahim began breathing through a ventilator - the pervasive fumes from the oil wells were corroding his lungs, causing him to cough and splutter.

By late November, he was dead.


Joey L, a New York-based Canadian photographer, who visited the Qayyarah oil wells with Oxfam in late October, met village elder Ibrahim. "I remember talking to him, and he began watching us work... He sat down to rest in a chair by the window with a little girl, and that's where I took his photograph."

Joey L. said news of the death had been sad, but not surprising. "The pollution is going to hit the elderly the hardest. If this is the impact on the old people in the village what impact is it going to have on young people five years from now? That's why the fires need to be extinguished immediately."

It's been nearly four months now but the oil fields of Qayyarah are still burning.

An Iraqi town on the west bank of the Tigris River, about 60 kilometres south of Mosul, Qayyarah's name comes from the Arabic word for "tar."

Now the scene in the town matches that. Clouds of noxious smoke have created apocalyptic scenes, a visually searing and stark reminder that the damage and destruction caused by the militants will blacken lives in the months and years ahead.

The fires were initially lit to limit the ability of advancing forces to coordinate the way forward and prevent war planes from targeting IS positions on the frontline, but months later the fires are still burning. Thousands are living amid the fumes.

Drone footage of the burning oil fields

Meanwhile, IS's slash and burn tactics continue as they lose ground, with bombs hidden in houses and under paths, buildings decimated, roads dug up and mass graves dotted around the region.

"It reminded me a lot of what Saddam's forces did in Kuwait," said Joey L. "As a kid growing up, one of my favourite movies was Baraka, which had a scene of the burning oil wells in Kuwaiti desert. The difference is that in Qayyarah, the oil fires are right next to communities and houses, so it had the same sort of awful environmental impact but somehow seemed way worse."

Driving from Iraqi Kurdistan's capital city Erbil to Qayyarah, Joey L. said he kept searching for some light in the sky. "We left really early in the darkness and basically the sun just didn't rise. I looked out the window, wondering when day would break, and instead I noticed the sun was just a tiny pinhole through the dark clouds."

The visibility was so low that Joey L.'s aerial camera drone disappeared and he had to steer it back with a navigation map. "You couldn't see a couple meters in front of the camera. We were thinking if that's what it looks like in front of the lens, what is this doing to people? The same particles caking up my lens are being breathed in by people's lungs all day and at night while they sleep."


It was a struggle to make any photograph look realistic - so surreal was the setting. "Even on cellphone photos it looks like CGI," he said. "The black smoke is basically blocking out the sun, so the light is dispersed like a video game... I just used purely natural light and there's really nothing I could do except try to focus on real people. As much as the aerials are dramatic, putting some human faces in there helps humanize the problem."

Doctors at local clinics have said they're treating more than 20 people each day for respiratory problems including dizziness and asthma, but many residents still refuse to leave Qayyarah, instead attempting to aid the firefighters in any way they can. A testament to their community spirit and willingness to defend the land they call home.

Meanwhile, children continue to play - kicking footballs or messing with toy guns, cantering around the edges of the smoke clouds, unconscious of the explosives that still haven't been cleared from some sections. "We are used to danger so we like running and playing in this area," one young boy said. Life here hasn't stopped, only adjusted to the harsh conditions.

"The saddest thing is I think they're used to it by now and they've made those ash fields a playground," Oxfam spokesperson Amy Christian told VICE.

Christian has visited the town multiple times over the past few months, and said it's impossible to quantify the damage being done. While several of the fires in the oil wells have now been extinguished, others continue to burn.

"We are asking for the government of Iraq to do more to put the fires out and if necessary request support from others," she said.

"We're also concerned that the smoke from the burning oil fields will contaminate the local water source, the River Tigris, and that's why we're working to rehabilitate the local water plant so people have access to clean water."

Oxfam is delivering clean water to Owsijah homes and other nearby areas by truck. Two rehabilitated water plants now serve over 20,000 people and there are plans to mend six more in the area. And as winter sets in Oxfam have also provided emergency winter kits including blankets and tarpaulins to 800 families.

Despite a terrible backdrop, the people of the Owsijah village and Qayyarah are in the process of reclaiming their homes and rebuilding their community. They continue to show kindness to outsiders and unwavering support to each other.

Click here to read more untold stories of hope from Oxfam.

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