IS re­treat leaves be­hind toxic pol­lu­tants

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPEAK UP - BY CATHY OT­TEN

UN­DER a cloud of black smoke, a dozen chil­dren wear­ing flimsy san­dals have gath­ered to play. Oil wells around the Iraqi town of Qay­yara are still burn­ing, weeks af­ter they were torched by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants to slow the Iraqi army’s ad­vance.

Un­der the shadow of an oil fire, the chil­dren are coated in black soot. “Yes, yes!” they said, cough­ing, when asked if they were suf­fer­ing from breath­ing dif­fi­cul­ties be­cause of the smoke.

“We are scared of it, the smoke makes it dif­fi­cult to breathe,” said a 10-year-old girl with green eyes and gold and red san­dals caked in dirt. Not far away, an Iraqi sol­dier fired a few rounds from his Kalash­nikov ri­fle into the air.

A month into their bat­tle with Iraqi forces for con­trol of the city of Mo­sul, the ji­hadists are leav­ing be­hind not just phys­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion but en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age from a cock­tail of toxic pol­lu­tants, hu­man rights groups say.

In Qar­raya, a town 60km south of Mo­sul, Is­lamic State fight­ers launched at least three chem­i­cal at­tacks in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber af­ter Iraqi forces re­cap­tured the town in Au­gust, Hu­man Rights Watch (HRW) said in a re­port last week.

A chem­i­cal weapons ex­pert told HRW the at­tacks caused painful burns to at least seven peo­ple, con­sis­tent with ex­po­sure to low lev­els of a chem­i­cal war­fare agent known as “vesi­cants”, or blis­ter agents.

“IS at­tacks us­ing toxic chem­i­cals show a bru­tal dis­re­gard for hu­man life and the laws of war,” said Lama Fakih, HRW’s deputy Mid­dle East di­rec­tor, re­fer­ring to Is­lamic State.

“As IS fight­ers flee, they have been re­peat­edly at­tack­ing and en­dan­ger­ing the civil­ians they left be­hind, in­creas­ing concerns for res­i­dents of Mo­sul and other con­tested ar­eas.”

The United Na­tions says Is­lamic State is stock­pil­ing am­mo­nia and sul­phur in civil­ian ar­eas and fears it in­tends to carry out more chem­i­cal at­tacks as Iraqi forces, backed by US air power, bat­tle the ji­hadists in an ef­fort to drive them out of Mo­sul, their last ma­jor strong­hold in Iraq.

In Qay­yara, chil­dren and adults still re­mem­ber pub­lic acts of vi­o­lence and ex­e­cu­tions for dis­obey­ing the strict laws of the ul­tra-hard­line Sunni Mus­lim group that seized the town in 2014.

“They closed our schools and taught (our peo­ple) how to kill, fight, and sac­ri­fice,” said Anas Mah­mood, 21, who re­fused to join the mil­i­tant group but missed two years of ed­u­ca­tion while liv­ing un­der Is­lamic State.

Now the smoke haze from oil fires is a con­stant re­minder of the de­struc­tion wrought by the mil­i­tants. Since the beginning of the sum­mer, Is­lamic State fight­ers have set fire to more than a dozen oil wells in the area, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

In late Oc­to­ber, the em­bat­tled mil­i­tants set fire to stocks of sul­phur at the Mishraq chem­i­cal plant south of Mo­sul as Iraqi forces ad­vanced, res­i­dents said.

The nox­ious sul­phur clouds caused a burn­ing sen­sa­tion in the throat and sore, red eyes for those liv­ing nearby in Qay­yara.

That fire has now been ex­tin­guished, but most of oil fires are still burn­ing, re­sult­ing in breath­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, skin prob­lems and mis­ery.

At the clinic in Qay­yara, the chief nurse, Miriam Ali, 50, said she had seen dozens of cases of civil­ians strug­gling to breathe.

The clinic is poorly sup­plied and with­out ad­e­quate power. Empty oxy­gen can­is­ters line the wall out­side the treat­ment rooms. A man was car­ried into the clinic with a white cloth over his mouth, gasp­ing for breath.

“Our big­gest prob­lem is the smoke,” Ali told Thomson Reuters Foun­da­tion. “Even our health work­ers here are suf­fer­ing from dif­fi­culty breath­ing.”

Chil­dren are es­pe­cially at risk be­cause they have smaller air­ways and are closer to the ground where sul­phur ox­ides and other fumes ac­cu­mu­late, Wael Hata­het, a tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer for the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion said in an email.

A 100,000-strong al­liance of Iraqi forces, backed by US-led coali­tion airstrikes, has al­most sur­rounded Mo­sul, a month into the cam­paign to drive out Is­lamic State.

The ji­hadists’ de­fences have been breached only in the east of the city but Iraqi forces have re­cap­tured dozens of towns and vil­lages in the sur­round­ing ar­eas.

More than 54,000 peo­ple have been dis­placed so far in the cam­paign and ul­ti­mately, 700,000 peo­ple are thought likely to need shel­ter, food, wa­ter or med­i­cal sup­port.

Ahmed Ali, 29, took part in the bat­tle to re­take Qay­yara and said the fight­ing was par­tic­u­larly fierce around the main hospi­tal. Now, he lives close to one of the burn­ing oil pits.

“This is not a nor­mal life,” he said. “At night the smoke comes down on the cities and the houses ... our health is bad and every­thing is de­stroyed.” – Thomson Reuters Foun­da­tion


Smoke haze from oil fires is a re­minder of the de­struc­tion left be­hind by the mil­i­tants.

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