As Iraqi forces started closing in on the Islamic State (IS) stronghold of Mosul this year, they first had to liberate surrounding towns and villages in Northern Iraq. When IS were forced out of the town of Qayyarah, 60 km south of Mosul, retreating militants set 20 nearby oil wells ablaze. Residents of Qayyarah, which lies within just a few kilometers of the burning wells, have lived for months in a town blackened by toxic smoke which has left many suffering from chronic health issues. But now poverty-stricken locals, in an area where electricity, fuel and food are overpriced and in short supply, are turning to increasingly desperate measures as they face hunger and the cold winter.

An old man and young boy staggered out of the billowing smoke that looms over the post-apocalyptic landscape of the burning oil wells. The pair walked awkwardly, lugging a large plastic container of hot crude oil they had just collected from one of the pooling masses beside a burning well.

“I will thin this with a little petrol and use it for our stove at home, to keep our family warm,” the old man explained, setting the container down for a few moments. “I have no money, so this is all I can do.” The boiling oil bubbled out of a small hole it had just burned through the plastic container and the little boy stooped to use his bare hands to throw toxic ash over it, to try and stop the hole from expanding. The pair then hurried on with their precious cargo of crude.

Although such practices are illegal, firefighters struggling to bring the oil well blaze under control, many of whom are locals themselves, admit to sometimes turning a blind eye. They are all too familiar with the desperate situation their hometown faces.

At a nearby garbage dump, women and children scavenged through trash searching for wood or other discarded items they could take home to make fires for warmth and cooking. Being so close to the oil well, the rubbish dump is coated in toxic ash and a strong smell of sulfur permeates the air.

“We have no electricity, no gas for a fire or for cooking and no hot water,” said Fatma, 35, doubled over under a bundle of sticks she carried on her back. “So I come here every day to gather wood and leaves to burn at home.” She pointed to 13 year-old Mustafa, lugging a gray sack on his small shoulders, his face and clothes covered in black smudges. “He helps me. His parents were killed in an airstrike so I took him in.”

A rough path winds through the garbage dump. Young children—their faces and hands blackened apart from streaks of mucus dribbling from their noses—play near small fires of burning plastic. They cling proudly to pieces of garbage they have claimed as toys—a warped shard of melted metal, a rusty knife, a chipped fragment of pink plastic. Most have hacking coughs.

Mariam, 26, is the only woman wearing plastic gloves, ill-suited to the task of sifting through the mix of household and industrial waste. “I know this is dangerous and unhealthy but what else can I do?” she asked. With inflated food prices and her husband out of work, she can now only afford to buy flour. The town’s infrastructure was left ravaged by fighting and generators are currently the only source of power but many cannot even afford fuel to run them, let alone buy the machines themselves. “The only way I can cook bread is to come here to find things to burn,” Mariam said. “And at least it gives us a little warmth and means I can heat water for us to wash.” Her two children have severe skin rashes which she says are the result of not being able to properly wash in warm water for months.

“This is my first day here and I’m terrified of explosions because people have found unexploded mines here,” said 40-year-old Farida. “No one has actually been killed or injured here yet but ISIS left mines everywhere and we know this area has not yet been cleared.” She said that at first only the poorest women had come to the garbage dump to forage for wood but, as people have become more desperate, increasing numbers of the town’s residents now make the 40-minute trek out to the dump, spending hours hunting for wood before lugging their findings home at sunset.

In the last few weeks, local women scavenging at the dump have been joined by displaced people who have fled to Qayyarah from towns still occupied by IS. “Daesh stopped anyone from leaving, but my husband told me to try and escape with our children before the fighting reached our town,” said Hamida, 37, from Hawija (103 km away), which Iraqi armed forces are advancing upon. “We snuck out at night and walked for 24 hours without rest until we reached an Iraqi Army position.” Hamida and her three children are now living with other internally displaced families in makeshift temporary accommodation in Qayyarah. “We have been here for two weeks and no one has given us any support or food or anything because local people have so little themselves,” she said.

The desperate winter battle for warmth and food has also overtaken residents’ concerns about the health effects of living under a toxic smog which, depending on the direction of the wind, often blots out the sun. “At first, we all got ill with terrible coughs but we have got used to it and now we’re fine,” said a young soldier, Ali, cheerfully.

But staff running the town’s medical facility, a sparsely-equipped health center which has few medicines and no beds, said many of the townspeople had been developing chronic health issues. “Between 10 and 30 people come here every day with breathing problems, especially children and the elderly,” said nurse Mehdi Salah, 32. “There is little we can do, apart from give them some oxygen and an injection which can help prevent an allergic reaction or infection.” He added that two of his own three young children were unwell.

The town’s hospital remains closed, extensively damaged by fighting between Iraqi forces and IS, and emergency medical cases from Qayyarah have to be transferred to the town of Tikrit, 124 km away which, Salah said, also has limited healthcare services. More comprehensive medical facilities are located in Erbil—78 km away—but, fueled by concerns regarding ties to IS, Iraqi Kurdistan authorities have tightened security measures for residents entering its territory from recently-liberated districts. Most patients have to provide a ‘guarantor’ to vouch for them, such as a relative already living in Iraqi Kurdistan. This, residents say, has made it almost impossible for patients from Qayyarah to access Erbil’s healthcare facilities.

“The most worrying thing is that you can’t necessarily see the effects of living under this pollution now,” said former Iraqi diplomat Haithem Ahmed, 47. “This smoke contains almost 90 different chemicals and there have been studies about people living near oil wells operating normally, which show that average life expectancy is only around 60. Local oil workers here have developed serious breathing and skin problems so we are extremely worried about our children and our future.” He said the only preventative measure most residents could take was to stay indoors and try to limit the amount of time their children played outside in the street. 

“If you see inside our homes, all our things are black because of the smoke from these wells,” said Ali, a former policeman who, currently under investigation because he lived under IS for two years, is waiting to see whether he can get clearance to return to work. “Everything here is wrong and there is no sign of things improving.” Gesturing towards the black horizon behind the town, where women and children were walking slowly home from the garbage dump carrying sacks loaded with the spoils of the day, he said: “You see how people are forced to live here? And they say petrol is like gold.”

Tom Westcott is a British journalist and writer based in Libya.